Alexander Smith: Edwin of Deira

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Edwin of Deira.

By Alexander Smith.

Macmillan & Co.


Mr. Smith's poetry will never be an original so much as a parasitic growth. The Laureate is too strong for him.  No matter in what far-off ground he may try to strike root, his trailers are drawn right away to the Tennysonian tree, which they must climb to unfold their leaves.  But for 'The Princess' and the 'Idylls of the King,' there would have been no 'Edwin of Deira' in this shape and rhythm.  This granted, we have to chronicle an advance on Mr. Smith's previous poetry.  Had he been permitted to pass unchallenged in his borrowed plumes and "feather triumph," we doubt whether he would have returned with a poem approaching so nearly to oneness of conception, manliness of feeling and simplicity of speech, as does the present work.  Altogether, this is a piece of honester workmanship.  He has not allowed either memory or fancy to play him perpetually false.  He has not violated the facts of natural relationship, as of old.  We do not find all Nature "dancing like a Bacchanal" on a calm summer-day; nor does the moon come rushing into the sky on a serene summer-night "like a stag, with one star like a hound."  Nor is there so much of that reference to the weather, which characterizes the spasmodists, and makes their pages as meteorological as poor Lord Raglan's Crimean Reports.  We make an observation respecting the weather, when there is nothing to be said; but the spasmodists will do it in the midst of a solemn agony, and any supreme moment must be ticketed with its time of day and condition of climate.  There is still too much use of simile—that second-hand mode of representation—and the writer's mind still emits its light by flashes, rather than luminously informs his subject with a clear and steady shine.  And just as he reveals by flashes, so is his mind soonest arrested by those objects which do flash.  And this without regard to value; hence the bit of broken glass gleaming in the sunlit furrow is often ranked with the diamond on the queenly front.  Nor does Mr. Smith appear to have got back very successfully to the time of Edwin.  His poem has more of the glow and glitter of the day of Chaucer and Edward.  We suspect be has not lived enough with the Norsemen to get back by the right way to the spirit of that earlier dawn.

    The poem opens with Prince Edwin escaping from the rout, after losing a great battle which he has fought with Ethelbert.  He is a flying fugitive, hurrying from hiding-place to hiding-place, night by night trying to reach the court of King Redwald, his father's old friend.  Once there, and recognized, he receives a royal welcome to the friendly feast.  The characters of Redwald and his seven sons are well described.  The giant boys soon become knit to the prince in love, and espouse his cause in fiery earnest. The old man pauses and poises the matter of making Ethelbert his enemy with a Burleigh-like wisdom.  The entrance of Bertha, the old King's darling daughter, is piquant:—

In at the door a moment peeped a girl,
Fair as a rose-tree growing thwart a gap
Of ruin seen against the blue when one
Is dipped in dungeon-gloom; and Redwald called,
And at the call she thro' the chamber came,
And laid a golden head and blushing cheek
Against his breast.   He claspt his withered hands
Fondly upon her head, and bent it back,
As one might bend a downward-looking flower
To make its perfect beauty visible,
Then kissed her cheek and mouth.

    Of course this sweet and tender vision is enough to drive away something of the darkness of the Prince's great grief and melt some of the blackness of bitterness out of his blood.  Equally of course, the twain fell in love, or, loving, met each other half way.  In painting Bertha, Mr. Smith has for the first time shown a delicate sense of womanhood.  The music, too, is moved to greet her coming, as—

With the dawn, and like another dawn,
But fairer, Bertha came.

    This picture of maiden love clothed with loveliness, and hiding in a hush of tender thought, is admirably felt:

Homeward thro' prime of noon the hunters wound;
The Princess rode with dewy drooping eyes
And heightened colour.  Voice and clang of hoof,
And all the clatter as they sounded on,
Became a noisy nothing in her ear,
A world removed.  The woman's heart that woke
Within the girlish bosom—ah! too soon!—
Filled her with fear and strangeness; for the path,
Familiar to her childhood, and to still
And maiden thoughts, upon a sudden dipped
To an unknown sweet land of delicate light
Divinely aired, but where each rose and leaf
Was trembling, as if haunted by a dread
Of coming thunder.  Changed in one quick hour
From bud to rose, from child to woman, love
Silenced her spirit, as the swelling brine
From out the far Atlantic makes a hush
Within the channels of the careless stream,
That erst ran chattering with the pebble-stones.

    The Prince has won her heart, and the old King gives him her hand.  He also gives his sons and an army to Prince Edwin, that he may go to recover his lost kingdom from Ethelbert, his old enemy.  The Prince makes a brave dash for it:—

By mid-day we were on them ere they knew,
And Ethelbert, like some wild beast at bay,
Fought but to kill , while be was being killed.
For him Prince Edwin and Prince Regner sought;
And tho' so knit in love their noble hearts
That each would give the other all he had,
Yet each grudged each his death.   So when the sun
Broke thro' the cloud, at setting, on a mound,
Lifted in seeing of the swaying fight,
Stood Ethelbert, surrounded by his lords,
Known by his white steed and his diadem,
And by his golden armour blurred with blood.
'Gainst him with but a single score of knights
The Princes spurred.   Many were ridden down
In shock of onset.   Regner's s horse was speared,
And rearing with forefeet that pawed the sky,
Fell backward on his rider, in whose side
A thirsty arrow stuck.   Prince Edwin then,
With axe, and arm up to the elbow red,
Drove up his horse 'gainst Ethelbert's, and struck,
Crushing the diadem and head at once,
And rode him down.

On the whole, we like the concluding book of the poem best; it is furthest removed from Mr. Smith's earlier manner, and the greatest effect is attained with the least strain.  The speech of Paulinus is choicely good; the whole book is thoroughly well done.  But, for brevity sake, we prefer giving an example of a neat little bit of quiet work from an earlier part as a pattern for the author to follow oftener.  A spirit appear to Prince Edwin in his misery:—

What man art thou that sitt'st on this cold stone
When every bird sleeps on the forest bough?

It matters little where I sit o' nights.

I know thy name, and why thou sittest here.
I saw thee sleeping on the naked ground
With but a rainy sky for coverlet.
I know thy story and the things thou fear'st;
What would'st thou give if I turned Redwald's heart
And made him draw the sword in thy defence?

I have not much, but I would give thee all.

What if I clothe thy limbs with mightiness?
What if, in far days when thou tak'st the field,
I give thee spoil and captive?   If I give
Her soft voice to thine ear, her lips to thine,
Her white arms to thy neck?

                                                 Oh! mock not so
My sharp distress: for any good I'll be
Most answerably grateful.

That, we take it, has the real touch, and is more to the point than a large amount of loud-sounding exaggeration.

    Although Mr. Smith has not travelled out of his path in search of inappropriate and incoherent fine things, instances of happy bits of description abound in the book.  Here is one of a desolate, lone churchyard out in the western isles of Scotland:—

A broken wall surrounds the field of dead;
The gate stands open for no man to pass;
And carven crosses with their runes unread
Lie sunken in a sea of withered grass.


This image, too, is apposite and powerful:—

                              The army moved
Onward, like thunder's corrugated gloom
Rolling o'er desert hills, with fire reserved
For other lands.

    We need not point these beauties out; readers will not fail to find them.  The poem concludes with the conversion of King Edwin and his people to Christianity.  We have to credit the writer of it with a right effort made in a right direction.  By the aid of history, he has got out of a morbid consciousness of self, and, by looking outwardly on the realities of life, has seen more than he would have perceived by continually looking within.  This sort of change has saved poetry, before now, in the individual and the nation.

 



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