Havelock's March ; and other Poems

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THE ATHENÆUM

No. 1764,
 SATURDAY, AUGUST 17
th, 1861

Havelock's March; and other Poems.*
By Gerald Massey (Trübner & Co.).


AMONG the bands of young poets who in our day have fed on the fiery wine of 'Festus,' or beaten time to the music of 'Pippa Passes,' few have been so healthful and robust in the midst of imitation as Mr. Massey.  We had hope of him at the first, and we have faith in him now.  Of course he has not wholly escaped from the vices of his age.  The voices of the syrens have been sweet and seductive in his ear.  He has not, indeed, lost himself in the light of gorgeous sunsets so often as Mr. Alexander Smith,—or floated into cloudland and poetical storm with Mr. Sydney Dobell,—or dropped into the voluptuous southern paradise of Mr. Owen Meredith.  He has been neither spasmodist nor sensualist in his verse.  Generally, his flights of imagination have been modest, and his tone and expression pure.  But like these poetical sinners, he has been very free with the stars.  The sun and the moon have both had cause to complain of him.  He has taken liberties with the sea.  He has talked of the thunder and lighting as if they were friends whose familiarity had ended in contempt.  Oftentimes he has been rather hard upon Mother Earth, Old England, and other elderly females whose names ought not to he lightly taken in vain.  Occasionally, too, though rarely, be has misused the Queen's English, and especially in the needful matter of sound and rhyme.  But these are trifling defects, which have to be set off against many masculine and artistic merits.

The volume now published by Mr. Massey is divided into three sections:—National Poems—Christie's Poems—and Love Poems.  The whole mass of song and celebration is inscribed to Lady Marian Alford, in a Proem of great beauty.  One of the Elizabethans might have written these lines:—

Lady! Giorgione should have painted you
With live warm flesh-tints golden thro' and thro';
The sun-soul making luminous its prison
With sunken splendours, rarer than have risen;
Bird-peeps of brightness—dawn-dew—smiling fire—
Full of all freshness as a spring-wood quire;

A glow and glory of impetuous blood;
Brave spirits that crowd all sail to take the flood
Of large, abounding life, that in the sun
Heaves flashing, with a frolic fringe of full;
A happy wit! creative getting proved
In pictures that Angelico would have loved;

A stately soul: yet with a laugh that brings
Echoes from Girlhood's heaven as it rings!
And that fine spirit of motion's airy charm,
Which hovers glancing round the flower of form:
A lofty lady of a proud old race,
Recklessly splendid in her gifts and grace.

    'Havelock's March' leads off the National poems.  It has some noble lines; but the general effect of the poem is such as to discourage the poet from attempting themes too near and too familiar.  Laureate verse—even at its best—is what neither gods nor men can bear: as witness Tennyson's 'Ode on the Death of Wellington,' a poem, like 'Havelock's March,' abounding in gracious phrase and vigorous thought—yet quite unable to hold its place in the affections or in the memory. Newspaper themes should be left to plain prose.

    'The Norseman' follows, which the poet, left free from the hard necessities of coupling Hodson of Hodson's Horse and noble Niel with the captain of the Shannon, Sir William Peel, flings off with a delightful sense of ease and strength:—

                 THE NORSEMAN.

A
SWARTHY strength with face of light,
As dark sword-iron is beaten bright;
A brave frank look, with health a-glow,
Bonny blue eyes and open brow;
His friend he welcomes heart-in-hand,
But foot to foot his foe must stand:
A Man who will face to his last breath,
The sternest facts of life and death:
        This is the daring Norseman.

The wild wave-motion, weird and strange,
Rocks in him: seaward he must range.
For life is just a mighty lust
To wear away with use, not rust.
Though bitter wintry-cold the storm,
The fire within him keeps him warm.
Kings quiver at his flag unfurled:
The sea-king's master of the world:
        Conquering comes the Norseman.

He hides at heart of his rough life,
A world of sweetness for the wife;
From his rude breast a babe may press
Soft milk of human tenderness,
Make his eyes water, his heart dance,
And sunrise in his countenance:
In merry mood his ale he quaffs
By firelight, and his jolly heart laughs;
        The blithe great-hearted Norseman.

But when the battle-trumpet rings,
His soul's a war-horse clad with wings!
He drinks delight in with the breath
Of battle and the dust of death!
The axes redden, spring the sparks,
Blood-radiant grow the grey mail-sarks:
Such blows might batter, as they fell,
Heaven's gate, or burst the booms of hell:
        So fights the fearless Norseman.

The Norseman's King must stand up tall;
A head that could be seen o'er all;
Mainmast of Battle! when the plain
Grew miry-red with bloody rain;
And grip his weapon for the fight,
Until his knuckles all grin white!
Their banner-staff he bears is best
If double handful for the rest,
        When "follow me" cries the Norseman.

Valiant and true, as Sagas tell,
The Norsemen hated lies like hell;
Hardy from cradle to the grave,
'Twas their religion to be brave;
Great silent fighting men, whose words
Were few, soon said, and out with swords!
One, saw his heart cut from his side,
Living—and smiled; and smiling, died!
        The unconquerable Norseman.

They swam the flood, they strode in flame,
Nor quailed when the Valkyrie came
To kiss the chosen for her charms,
With "Rest, my hero, in mine arms."
Their spirits through a grim wide wound,
The Norse door-way to Heaven found.
And borne upon the battle-blast,
Into the Hall of Heroes passed:
        And there was crowned the Norseman.

The Norseman wrestled with old Rome
For Freedom in our island home:
He taught us how to ride the sea,
With hempen bridle, horse of tree.
His spirit stood with Robin Hood,
By Freedom in the merry green wood,
When William ruled the English land,
With cruel heart and bloody hand;
        For freedom fights the Norseman.

Still in our race the Norse king reigns,
His best blood beats along our veins;
With his old glory we can glow,
And surely steam where he could row:
Is danger stirring? Up from sleep
Our war-dog wakes, his watch to keep;
Stands with our banner over him,
True as of old, and stern and grim;
        Come on, you'll find the Norseman.

When swords are gleaming you shall see
The Norseman's face flash gloriously,
With look that makes the foeman reel:
His mirror from of old was steel
And still he wields, in battle's hour,
The old Thor's hammer of Norse power;
Strikes with a desperate arm of might,
And at the last tug turns the fight:
        For never yields the Norseman.

    'Robert Blake' is no less good, and indeed all the sea pieces have the dash and saltiness of the ocean in them.  They will deserve to be read, and if read are sure to be admired.  The political poems are less to our liking.  The topics dealt with are ephemeral, and the satire, where this is not personally offensive, as it often is, wants the breadth and hugeness necessary in art.  Louis Napoleon and the Manchester School should be left to the daily and weekly papers.  On the other side, the poet's love lyrics will find many admirers.  In the lines addressed to a wife 'On a Wedding Day,' there is the true touch of nature:—

Nine years ago you came to me,
    And nestled on my breast,
A soft and wingèd mystery
    That settled here to rest;
And my heart rockt its Babe of bliss,
    And soothed its child of air,
With something 'twixt a song and kiss,
    To keep it nestling there.

At first I thought the fairy form
    Too spirit-soft and good
To fill my poor, low nest with warm
    And wifely womanhood.
But such a cozy peep of home
    Did your dear eyes unfold;
And in their deep and dewy gloom
    What tales of love were told!

In dreamy curves your beauty droopt,
    As tendrils lean to twine,
And very graciously they stoopt
    To bear their fruit, my Vine!
To bear such blessed fruit of love
    As tenderly increased
Among the ripe vine-branches of
    Your balmy-breathing breast.

We cannot boast to have bickered not
    Since you and I were wed;
We have not lived the smoothest lot,
    Nor made the downiest bed!
Time has not passed o'er-head in stars,
    And underfoot in flowers,
With wings that slept on fragrant airs
    Thro' all the happy hours.

It is our way, more fate than fault,
    Love's cloudy fire to clear;
To find some virtue in the salt
    That sparkles in a tear!
Pray God it all come right at last,
    Pray God it so befall,
That when our day of life is past
    The end may crown it all.

    Readers who find this vein of feeling in their own humour —and there must be many such—will get the volume for themselves.

    Mr. Massey's poetry shows growth.  His powers are evidently not yet at their prime.  Hence, an appearance of inequality—sometimes of crudeness—in the work achieved, which will puzzle and discourage Mr. Massey's defenders.   Some of the finest and weakest lines produced in our generation may be found in this volume.  What we have quoted answers for itself; but a critic who is bent on finding flaws will be at no loss to quote passages answering to his assertion that Mr. Massey's poetry is only very bad prose.  Of course, such quotations would be very unfair; but then Mr. Massey should take care that he be not condemned by quotation out of his own mouth.  He who can do so well has no right to do ill.  Poetry is nothing, unless perfect as to form.

_______________________


* Editorial note:  William Hepworth Dixon was the author of this review.

 



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