The Athenaeum: 'My Lyrical Life.'

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THE ATHENĆUM.

No. 3237, November 9, 1889.

My Lyrical Life: Poems Old and New. 

By Gerald Massey. 2 vols. (Kegan Paul, Trench & Co.)


THE name of Gerald Massey has long been enrolled among those of recognized Victorian poets; but of late years it has been less familiar than it deserves to be.  A description of him to which he refers in his preface, as "the most unpublished of living authors," may perhaps, like most absolute statements of the sort, be beyond the fact, but it expresses broadly the position of semi-retirement into which he, as a poet, has drifted in default of addressing the public by new verse or new editions of his former verse.  He has now come forward with two volumes containing, he says, "the better part" of the four volumes in which, at separate times, his poetry first appeared, and a hundred pages of additional matter; and to many both of his earlier readers and of those younger folk who will now begin acquaintance with him this reappearance will be welcome.  The strong eulogies of many approved poets and authoritative critics quoted as "a few opinions" may, at this day when we have the full poetic harvest of Mr. Massey's prime before us, seem over strong, and the reader may wonder a little at the exuberant rejoicings over a minor poet of much merit as if he had been one of the world's great Makers suddenly arisen with a giant's strength; but there can be no doubt that the author of 'Babe Christabel' and 'The Mother's Idol Broken' was truly a poet in his degree, and that such verse as his was a gift to take with that gratitude which has been defined as a lively sense of favours to come.  We can still take the pleasant gift thankfully, though it is too late now to count it a pledge of after things.

    Mr. Massey himself directs attention to the question of whether or no he is "a poet who has not fulfilled the promise of his early work."  He has seen himself thus referred to, and he explains.  It is true, he says, that twenty years ago his singing on the old lines ceased.  He found that he could not live by poetry—"No one lives by poetry in England except the Laureate" and independently of this difficulty he had then, he says, "almost ceased to look upon the writing of poetry as the special work of my literary life."  The result of his change of work he hopes to fully justify before his day's darg is done; his "lyrical life" (i.e., his poetry) may contain the flower, but the fruit of his whole life is to be looked for elsewhere.  The explanation is more than sufficient to account for Mr. Massey's not having fulfilled the large expectations based upon his early work.  If by the time he was forty he was putting aside poetry as the unfruiting blossom of his youth, there was no more fulfilment possible.  But the explanation goes further, and suggests the inquiry whether he would have improved his art of song if he had continued to practise it.  If he had not left off poetry, would he have become a poet any greater than he was?  would there have been fulfilment of the promise?    And there is another inevitable question, in the answer to which may lie the answer to all, and that is, Was there so great a promise?   We think there was not.  Mr. Massey, looking thoughtfully and critically on his poems, recognizes that their range is very limited; it is indeed so limited that we must needs infer that the dying out of the poetic desire in him came from the fact that it had no more to feed on, that he had used up his themes, had said all in poetic kind that he had to say.    His expressions of the same three or four emotions had been so reiterant that some of his best poems are, if taken conjointly, like that form of musical composition which is called "variations," and, without knowing their order of precedence by date, it is a puzzle which of them is the original motive and which are the variations.  Parental affection, parental bereavement, the gentle true love of right-minded wedded folk—these, especially the bereavement, classify pretty well the whole of the poems which established Mr. Massey's reputation and still maintain it worthily.  The subjects and sentiments are beautifully tender and pathetic, entirely free from taint of histrionism, or of morbidness, or of verbiage; both in themselves and by the manner in which they are treated they appeal effectually to the hearts of all readers; but it is impossible not to feel, on seeing the sundry poems about them collected together, that the writer had to rely on them almost exclusively for his poetic material—that his harping on the same key and the same measure betokened, not merely his self-imitativeness, but the poverty of his instrument.  It is easy to prophesy things that have happened, and that is the case of the critic who, judging from what may be called practically the complete edition of Mr. Massey's poems, says that in the works of his best and most brilliant poetic period the narrowness of his range was already evident, and that among the merits of his most successful poems that of promise was palpably absent—yet a critic now can say little else, and the only wonder is that it was not usually said at the time. Probably it was a true instinct that caused Mr. Massey to recognize that poetry was not to be the special work of his life.  He had had a little vein of silver, genuine ore, but the vein was minute and soon thoroughly worked out; it was wise to waste no strength in burrowing.  If it had been in Mr. Massey to sing, like poet and linnet, "because he must," he could not have left off.  His financial argument is proof positive that there was no more inspiration for him: to make a living by poetry must be satisfactory, but what poet ever wrote poetry for income's sake, or left off writing poetry because it did not pay?   And, although likelihood of money loss in publishing might be an all too coercive reason against a poet's publishing his poetry, he could find it no reason for his not writing it.  He would have no choice; he must write it, unless absolutely withheld by treadmill labours.  A poet cannot say, "I will not be a poet," any more than a fish can say, "I will not be a fish."

    But, having shown that we do not accept Mr. Massey as that writer of immortal verse his early critics acclaimed him, and that there is no ground for lament as if the world had lost a poet by his being, as he puts it, "called away from poetry to 'prospect' for other treasures in my search for truth," we gladly acknowledge the genuine merit of the work of his poetic days.   In the estimate of some readers, he says, "the 'Last Lyrics' in these volumes may suffice to damn all the rest."  Those would be foolish readers indeed.  The "Last Lyrics" are not poems, and have no marked merit as verse of their sort—a sort which may be described as shouts in verse; the nature of the shouts, too, may be vexatious to some who do not share Mr. Massey's political enthusiasms.  But if any are irritated by his advocacy of Home Rule, let them turn to the reprints from the first volumes and be soothed by their idyllic, almost holy, graciousness of domestic piety.  From a purely literary point of view we ourselves regret such productions as 'The Grand Old Man' and the 'Labourers' Election Song' to the tune of 'John Brown's Body':—

Ours are the Voices that for ages were unheard,
Ours are the Voices of a Future long deferred.
Cry all Together: we shall speak the final word,
        Let the Cause go marching on.
            Glory!  glory!  hallelujah!  &c.

We regret—but why should we go on quoting what is but the passionate doggerel of a political rhymester?   We regret all the "Last Lyrics" and a good many more of Mr. Massey's later metrical compositions.  We prefer to take refuge in the former lyrics, when he was "singing on the old lines," when his way was to write as thus:

Babe Christabel was royally born!
    For when the earth was flushed with flowers,
    And drenched With beauty in sun-showers,
She came through golden gates of Morn.

No chamber arras-pictured round,
    Where sunbeams make a gorgeous gloom,
    And touch its glories into bloom,
And footsteps fall withouten sound,

Was her Birth-place that merry May morn;
    No gifts were heaped, no bells were run,
    No healths were drunk, no songs were sung,
When dear Babe Christabel was born:

But Nature on the darling smiled,
    And with her beauty's blessing crowned:
    Love brooded o'er the hallowed g round,
And there were Angela with the Child.

And May her kisses of love aid bring;
    Her Birds made welcoming merriment,
    And all her flowers in greetings sent
The secret sweetnesses of Spring.

In glancing light and glimmering shade,
    With cheeks that touched and ripelier burned,
    May-Roses in at the lattice yearned,
A-tiptoe, and Good Morrow bade.

    One, though one only, of the later pieces is not devoid of poetic force: it is that called 'A Greeting,' and, for its spirited movement and underlying thought, it would merit praise, whoever might be its theme—whether Mrs. Besant or Mr. or Mrs. or Miss any other dissyllable that would take the rhythmical accent fitly.

 

 



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