Prefatory (1)

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BURN'S SONGS.

Prefatory Notice,
Biographical and Critical
by
Joseph Skipsey.

The following prefatory notice preceded 'BURNS'S SONGS
in the Canterbury Poets series.

BURNS the Man and Burns the Poet are inseparable.  In his poetry are reflected the man's defects and his virtues, and to the characteristics found therein let us now for a few minutes direct our attention.  And, first of all, let it be observed that our bard always sees clearly the thing about which he writes, and that the power to do this is united with a corresponding power of expression, and a desire and an aptitude, to place the reader in the best possible position to see in turn the thing which forms the subject of his muse.  To effect this he will state the time, the place very often, and the circumstances under which the particular thought was or is to be spoken, or the deed was or is to be done—as a reference to the opening lines of "The Twa Dogs" "The Cottar's Saturday Night," "Tam o' Shanter," and many others, will fully show.  Sometimes these openings are mere matter-of-fact statements, truly-still they answer the poet's purpose; while others are in themselves word-pictures of much value.   Such are the opening lines of "The Vision" and "The Winter's Night" among his poems, in particular; and "My Nannie, O!" "The Corn Rigs," and "The Country Lassie" among his songs.  Had Burns penned nothing else than such opening verses he had stood high as a descriptive poet, and yet they are penned only as aids to a proper appreciation of what follows in the poem.  He seldom attempted description of inanimate nature on its own account, but as a setting to some sentiment or action; and beautiful as his descriptions of this kind are, they yet seldom possess the interest with which he is almost always able to invest the latter.  In the beauty or sublimity of the seasons, with their variety of landscape, he undoubtedly felt a delight; but the centre of his interest as a poet lies in his humanity, and in his inimitable description of the manners and customs of his people, of passion and sentiment, and of human action.  Many of these have the verisimilitude of photographs; but then they are vivified and illumined by a fire and a light which no more photograph ever possessed, or ever can.  They have the reality of nature, and are arrayed in all the various colours of human life; yet are not mere transcripts thereof, but creations, and such as could only proceed from a genuine poet, whose "seething brains" alone can impart a beauty and a magic to the lowest as well as to the highest things in the universe.  And this characteristic, be it noted, finds its correspondence in—springs from and reflects—the unbounded sympathy, as we have seen, of their author.  He does not express in song a love for the beautiful and the good, or a pity for the weak and the helpless, from any mere artistic consideration, or because such expressions are demanded by the conditions of his song, but because he in reality loves the former, and entertains the most powerful sympathy for the latter; and from similar reasons he produces things of an opposite nature as well—things in which the "hate of hate" and the "scorn of scorn" find vent just where and as they ought to do.  The sky overhead is not always blue, and the rose has its thorns; and if we are to have life-like poetry, we must be prepared to find it characterised by colours corresponding to those of life itself—by shadow as well as sunshine, and sometimes in subject by that which is unpleasant as well as by that which is the contrary also.  This ought ever to be remembered in our perusal of Burns and the other one or two very great poets of human nature, and of whom the Bard of Avon is chief; and it would not be difficult to show that the deepest human sympathy, the "love of love," lay at the root of this bard's genius as well as that of Burns, and is the prime element in the key to the mystery of his unparalleled success as a dramatic poet.  In the one case, as in the other, it formed an essential part of the gift which enabled them "to lift the veil from the hidden beauty of things"—to penetrate into the crannies of the human soul—to divine the feelings and sentiments of others—and to lay bare the mysterious mainsprings of human action.  The various actors in our great life-drama may seek to hide themselves behind such masks as fortune alone can put into their hands, but they try in vain to do so from the clairvoyant ken of such poets, and the masks are seen through if not always torn from their faces, and to them their souls are exposed in their utter nakedness; and in this state, and at their intrinsic worth, and no other, must they be estimated; for what is the external universe itself in comparison to the worth of one genuine human soul?  As for mere riches, they are baubles; and as for position, it is often a delusion; and as for the authority which comes from mere position, what is that?  The poet will tell us—"Thou hast seen a dog bark at a beggar?"  "Aye, sir."  "And the creature ran from the cur?"  "Thus hast thou seen the image of authority—a dog's obeyed in office."  So spake the mighty dramatist; and can there be the least doubt that the man's heart was in the words he thus spake?  And what says Burns?

"A prince can mak a belted knight,
     A marquis, duke, and a' that,
 But an honest man's aboon his might,"

Nay, more—

"The honest man, though e'er sae poor,
     Is king o' men for a' that,"

And why not?  Is it not clear to his keen ken—as clear as two and two equal four—that "the rank is but the guinea stamp," and that "the man's the gold," the metal, after all, which can give the "stamp" any real value in the esteem of those who can detect the ring fairly required in what is presumed to be worthy of being passed as among the most precious coin of the realm?

    There is no foolish desire here, let me say, to compare Burns with Shakespeare, but in his obvious love for what is noble and sweet in human nature, in his mercy on human frailty, in his sympathy with the oppressed, in his pity for the poor, the helpless, the needy, with a corresponding power of expression, he might be so compared; and when this is said, it is meant for the highest compliment that could possibly be paid to any poet, for I am not, as already intimated, one of those who appear to regard the great dramatist as a sort of mere intellectual machine, from which, when once set agoing, anything or everything might have been expected, but as a man whose heart was as brimful of love as his head was of wisdom; and that, moreover, without such love no such wisdom could have been had—that such wisdom, in short, was only the natural and perfect blossom of a tree the entire sap in whose veins had for its chief element the essence of love itself.  In this respect, then, the dramatist and the lyrist were identical.  Neither was Burns deficient in that dramatic power through the aid of which only can the rarest of poetic creations be produced.  He composed no dramas so-called, but "The Dying Words," "The Twa Dogs," "The Jolly Beggars," and many more of his poems, and songs, and ballads, display, the dramatic faculty in a supreme degree, and exhibit in turn the earnestness, playfulness, tenderness, sarcasm, pathos, or humour, or what else may be required under the given conditions and at the moment from the interlocutors in his miniature performances, and that whether they be lordly warriors, ragged mendicants, base hypocrites, hoary-headed sages, worldly-wise dames "wi wrinkled een," or thoughtless, love-smitten lasses; nay, and this dramatic truth holds as good when dogs and sheep are made to speak their minds no less than it is evinced in the words and acts of our bard's women and men.

    Then again, Burns had the gift, held almost alone up till his time by Shakespeare and Dunbar, of blending in the same picture the pathetic and the humorous, the sublime and the ludicrous, the beautiful and the grotesque, and other heterogeneous qualities, and so of exciting at the same moment the tears and the laughter, the awe and the spleen of the reader, with sensations over and above of too strange and weird a character to find their definition in words.  The best specimen of this kind of writing in Burns is to be found in "Tam o' Shanter," and of Shakespeare in "King Lear," though in several other of the poems of the one and of the dramas of the other many similar fine examples are also to be found; but in "The Dance of the Deadly Sins" of old Dunbar we have the most marvellous picture, at least, of the sublime blent with the ludicrous, shot through with a vein of the most fiery sarcasm, that was ever portrayed.  And the power to produce such pictures—from whence proceeds that?  From the practice of writing with an eye to the tastes of the coteries, need I ask? or from the gift to see into the nature of men and things, and the daring and hardihood to say what is thus seen?  It was Burns's glory to be able to do this; and it was his, above all others, to have expressed what he thus saw in language which was at once understood by all, and went direct to the heart of the people for whom he sung.

    Our bard's language in substance, be it observed, is the same as that in which our Bible is translated, and the greater part of what is best in English poetry is written; only this language in the North has acquired a colouring during a series of ages from the peculiar experience of northern life, which, while it renders it somewhat uncouth to southern ears, endears it the more to the Scotch themselves, and more especially to the humble, among whom it is yet a living tongue.  That our bard added a charm to this language by the novelty of his combinations, as his critics contend, and by the splendour of his conceptions, there can be no question; but on the other hand, his poems, it must be confessed, derive a charm from the language itself which the efforts of no single genius, however mighty, could have given.  Indeed, for the purposes of a people's poet, and for poems which above all things are meant to appeal to the heart, no language could have been better suited.  It was his and his auditors' or readers' vernacular, and came to his hands enriched with proverbs and snatches of old sayings—ay, phrases and single words—into which the turmoils, the triumphs, the sorrows, and delights whole lives had been thrown, and on which the history and the character of his people were stamped, and which, in consequence, once wisely uttered, acted like incantations on the imaginations of that people, and possessed them with memories and feelings which bound them to their homes, and ingles, and the rock-girt shores of their "ain dear land," as with bonds of steel.  Neither was this speech so "harsh and crabbed" as some "dull fools" supposed; but the contrary. Nay, it was not only flexible, but in its passage through the fiery souls of generations of forgotten or remembered bards it had been rendered "musical as Apollo's lute," and had itself become possessed with a melody almost as sweet as the sweetest of those tunes which had been sung, whistled, or piped by parent to child, and so had been floated down on the air the people breathed from their hoary forebears, out of whose souls, in common with the magical words to which so many of them were linked, those times had sprung.  So melodious, and so "laden with the spoils of time" was this speech, which came like an heirloom, in virtue of his lowly birth, to Burns; and his, in consequence, was not the disadvantageous position of a manufacturer of his instrument of expression—not that of the "morning star of English song" but of a perfecter of it—of that, in fact, of "the world's poet"—otherwise he could not have sung so beautifully, so effectively, and to such purpose as he did.  Of course, with all its rare qualities this language had its defects in other respects and its limitations.  It lacked the compass in itself to express some phases of man's highest and most precious experience, and through it many of the spiritual and complex conceptions of Shakespeare and Milton, and of Shelley, and of Tennyson could not by any power of genius have found vent; and then, as what from the nature of things might have been expected, it was in parts stained with a coarseness and a grossness from which even by Burns himself it could not always be purified.

    Neither, it must be confessed, did he always try to purify it. Nay, as Principal Shairp intimates, he was himself often wilfully coarse and gross, and added to the coarseness of his vernacular as from the very spirit of contradiction; and this was particularly the ease upon his being subjected to reproof for some harum-scarum stroke of his versatile pen, or for some slip in moral conduct.  And in this, his spiritedness and mule-like obstinacy, Burns was of the Scotch, Scotch; and as in all else he was natural, so do we, in the full-length portrait as discovered in his poetry, see imaged the varied character of his nation itself.  Alike in the man and the poet have we a reflection of all that is characteristic of his people, and the reader who turns away from his satires, and would content himself with an expurgated edition of his poems, would be in the position of one who would never look but on one side of a medal.  Nay, I am doubtful whether the reader who confined his study of Burns to such a book would not in some degree miss the key to much of the mystery and beauty that it would contain.  Certain it is he would not only miss something reflective of particular traits of the poet's character, which, from a Puritanic standpoint, might be desirable, but much essential to a full reflection of the nation's character; and the purpose of the people's poet's mission would be nullified, which, "both at the first and now, was, and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time, his form and pressure."  This Burns has done to perfection; but then to see how he has done it we must be able to read nearly all his poems, and a very large number of his songs—nearly all, in both cases, at least, that are stamped with his own marking-iron; and only by so doing, it may be added, can we be in a position to judge of the wealth, the height, the depth, the variety, and marvellous range of his genius.  Having read a few masterpieces of most other, even true, poets, we can dispense with the rest of their productions, not merely because of their lesser value as poems, but because in the more precious pieces we have all that is in reality of any value in the poet—all that distinguishes him from other poets and gives him an unique place in literature. This is not solely the case with such delightful warblers as Herrick and Marvel, but even with such mighty singers as Coleridge and Wordsworth.  Not so with Shakespeare.  All the products of our dramatist, nay, nearly every scene and every sonnet he penned, contains something novel in thought and expression, and yet peculiar to himself, and so possesses an interest both for the literary and the psychological student.  And as with Shakespeare, so with Burns.  Nearly all his poems, and very many of his songs, are notable for some peculiarity of sentiment, observation, or turn in the expression, and which in itself possesses a charm for the mere reader of poetry, while it throws a light into some hidden nook of his own or the popular mind, and serves to bring out some trait of the national character.

    And the facts herein noted are emphasised, inasmuch as they help to a right conception of human progress and the growth or decadence of the race, and as these are questions of the most supreme consideration, so whatever aids in their solution, such as nationality in theme, and that which is local in the colour of our poems, and characteristic of the age in which such poems are produced, must also possess a supreme value, and one which our poets surely ought never to lose sight of, and this they will not do if they really love the people for whom they sing.  True, beauty in form and thought are the prime essentials in a poem; but if such beauty can only be had at the cost of powerful feelings, and of local and national colour, as some of our poets and critics would seem to think, then the poem, whatever other merit it may have, will lack the one thing needful to constitute it a living factor in human culture, or to obtain for it a cherished niche in the hearts and souls of men.  Let us have then as much beauty in sentiment and expression as possible, and whenever they can be had, in our poems; but if such cannot be had without a sacrifice at all times of the said "colour," let us ask ourselves if we are sure we are right in our notions of beauty—if such notions are not merely hollow and conventional, and not as they ought to be, with their roots deep down in the nature of things?  When people assure me that their favourite poems are extremely beautiful, and a glance into them shows that they are only "serene" and "cold," and not burning with the underlying thought and flushed with the hues of life, I say such pieces may display a deal of mechanical ingenuity and refinement, but that nevertheless they do not merit the terms of approval applied to them.  To merit such praise they must, among other things, have vitality; and if this, to be in accord with a true theory of poetic art, cannot be had, and if the requirements of such a theory be such as to make it impossible for a poem to be a reflex of such feelings and thoughts as enable us to divine our capacities, our defects, our aspirations, our environments as a race or a nation—then the sooner we abandon verse-making the better; for what other purpose it can serve, beyond what maybe served by an ingenious toy, is to me at least a veritable puzzle.  But it is pleasant for one to be able to think that we are not reduced to this condition, for what is beauty of expression if not the perfect reflection in words of the idea? and what is a beautiful poem if not an adequate expression of the most charming ideas? and what are such ideas if those are not to be found among them which enable us to see, as in a mirror, the inner and outer life of the highest and noblest product of the creation, even of man himself?  And surely the theory that would step in to forbid the achievement of a work of this kind would be of too fastidious and hollow a nature to merit the notice of the poet.  So, obviously, would have deemed Shakespeare-and so would have felt Burns.  The unerring instincts of these bards were too powerful to admit of their being diverted from the right track by any false halloo, and the result is that they have been able to seize upon truths which would otherwise have eluded their grasp, and which impart to their pictures an interest that can never lose its hold on the human mind.

    Then again, those truths and the materials for those pictures in Burns's case, above that of all others, were ever chiefly to be found in his own personal observation, experience, and immediate surroundings.  He had not to go from home to find them; and just as the coat on his back—the "hodden grey"—was home-grown and home-spun, so in its essentials and entirety was the whole web of his verse a native product.  He was Scotch of the Scotch in nearly all things; and his Muse being "native and to the manner born," his poetry became the reflex of all that was most characteristic of his people—of their habitual sternness, their occasional laxity, their tenderness, their coarseness, their fire and earnestness, their national egotism, their clannishness, their secrecy, their proverbial prudence, their somewhat comical mistrust, their integrity, their love of freedom, their undying hatred of their enemies, their warm-heartedness, and their utterly unconquerable love of country and home.  All these, his own and his people's virtues and foibles, their moral and social grandeur and defects, were reflected in his song; and it is because of this variety, and the general perfection with which they are so painted, that he is emphatically the Nation's Poet, and not so much from any particular excellence that such a position can be conceded to him; and this never ought to be forgotten in the homage we yield to our idol, otherwise we shall be apt to sacrifice at his shrine the dearly-earned reputations of others—as has been too often done by the idolaters of a supreme poet.

    Burns, in fact, among Scottish poets is supreme in his comprehensiveness and in many of the rare qualities of his genius, but not in all of those qualities.  In his love lyrics, for example, he displayed a vigour and ardour unequalled by those of other poets; but in his war songs, although in loftiness of sentiment and patriotic fire he attains the sublime, he is yet equalled by Campbell—though, for obvious reasons, "Hohenlinden" or "The Battle of the Baltic" has never sent a thrill through the popular heart compared with that which has again and again been sent by "Scots wha hae."  In energy, no more than in versatility, variety, and finish, is Ramsay to be compared with Burns, but in pastoral simplicity and sweetness, in truth to nature, in right-down heartiness and occasional melody, he, with no loss of credit to himself, might be.  For delicacy, brevity, and airiness, many of his lyrics are almost unique in Scottish song; and yet in an occasional lilt he is matched even in these, while for heart-rending pathos he has little to compare with Miss Elliott's "Flowers of the Forest," Lady Grisell Baillie's "Werena my heart licht," Lady Anne Lindsay's "Auld Robin Gray," Thomas Smibert's "Scottish Widow's Lament," or William Thom's no less inimitable "Mitherless Bairn."  Again, in his descriptive powers as displayed in his pictures of external nature he is unrivalled; but in " manner-painting strains," and in the description of the oddities of human character, wild and reckless adventure, and in drollery, he is matched, if not outmatched, by " hrist's Kirk on the Green," and other poems of doubtful authorship that have come down to us from "the days of auld lang syne."  Humour, and that of the most precious kind, is always at the command of our poet; and yet in the slyest, as well as the broadest and the most farcical, he is equalled in "Wanton Willie," "Nancy's to the Greenwood," "Tibbie Fowler," "Muirland Willie," "My Jo Janet," "The Blithesome Bridal," "Maggie Lauder," and others, written by some rhymer that the consequential nobodies by whom he was surrounded would likely enough account a simpleton or a dunce—for I am persuaded with Dr. Chambers that these lyrics are the products of one mind, and not, according to tradition, of various minds, and of one, I would add, with the same authority, who had a genius for comic poetry of so rare an order as to have been only once or twice matched, but never surpassed, in the annals of lyric song.  To expound the merits of these songs would demand an essay, and this is out of the question here; yet I cannot allow the occasion thus afforded me to slip by without expressing my admiration for the great genius through whom we have had such wonderful lyrics, by stating it as my conviction that these products are not merely among the best of their kind, but confining my attention for the moment to one of them in particular—to the last-named on the list—to "Maggie Lauder"—I would say, as far as regards happiness of conception, charm of situation, bouyancy of spirit, swiftness of evolution, wildness of inner melody, combined with power of expression, that this old song is without its peer.  Maggie herself is an arch rogue, the very incarnation of blood-tingling merriment, with a tongue framed on purpose for cruel, yet pleasant banter, and one whose agility and the elasticity of whose limbs enable her to beat time to the music of the pipes with a lightness and airiness which might seem more characteristic of a veritable elf than of a flesh and blood woman.  And yet she is a real woman, and what is more, a married woman; and, lest we should doubt our senses of this fact—as well we might, for she comes and goes before us like an apparition—in the ecstacy of the moment her tongue is made to declare her "local habitation" and her "name"—

"I've lived in Fife, a maid and wife,
     This ten years and a quarter."

Thus wags the clacker of this fascinating giglot, and when the piper to whom the information is given is further told—

"An' gin ye come this gate again,
      Speir ye for Maggie Lauder,"

we may rest assured that there is yet another spring to be played on some not-distant day, and another jig to be footed on the green as merrily as the one just finished, and that without any "compunctious visitings" in the minds of the actors as to the propriety of the performance.  Indeed, I am afraid that Mag and Rab were not at all related to the Bard of Rydal's favourite rustic heroes and heroines, and that to them, as to Peter Bell, "a primrose by the river brim" would have been "a yellow primrose," and "nothing more."  But then, it might be fairly asked, Why should it have been?  Are all men and women born to be sages and poets?—and what sort of a world would this be if they were?  What, indeed!  With regard to the relative question as to the fitness of such themes as those above named for popular song, it is handed over to polemics in matters of taste, with the hope that it will receive full justice at their hands as soon as they have arrived at an unanimous opinion as to the propriety of the nude in statuary; and this, it is expected, will be fully as soon as a bridge has been made to span the Atlantic, or another poet has been born equal to the production of other Maggie Lauders—and that will not be just yet.

    A due reflection then serves to show that Burns is paralleled by other Scottish poets in several of the rare qualities of his genius; but in the combination of those qualities he yet stands alone among the poets of the North.  Indeed, among the poets of the South, though Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Tennyson, and others have each his special domain, in which he rules lord and king, a parallel to the varied character of the Scottish bard's genius can only be found in that of our Supreme Dramatist; and though it would be folly to compare Burns with Shakespeare, yet, if we would seek for even a remote likeness to his genius, to whom are we to look if not to one in whom nearly all the various qualities of that genius are in their greatest perfection united, though they be united with a great deal besides, and the sum total of whose endowments constitutes their possessor not merely the chief poet of Britain, but of the world!

    Again, Burns, like every true poet, has a style of his own, though in what that style consists it is more easy to fool than to say, and to those who are unfamiliar with his poetry it would be impossible to explain.  To say that it is notable for nervousness, brevity, terseness, and a happy naturalness, would be true enough; and yet, after being told this, we are still much in the dark as to what we want to know, unless we are familiar with his poems and songs themselves.  Style is to a poem what the perfume is to the violet—one of its chief glories; and just as it is essential for us to smell the one, so is it essential for us to read the other before we can know in what that glory consists.  To this let it be added, that the more easily definable and inimitable it is, the more mechanical and less precious it is, and the less mystery and charm is there in the poetic genius whose purpose it serves; and that Burns's style, in its kind, has never been equalled, is a fact in itself sufficient to show that his like has not again appeared.

    If what forms the characteristics of our bard's style, however, be almost elusive of the critic's grasp, and beyond his power of definition, one or two things may be named as lying at the very root, and forming a part of the violet itself, from whence the perfume springs: and the first of these is the peculiar nature of the poet's vernacular, in which the most of what is valuable in his verse is penned.  On the richness of this speech in suggestiveness and proverb I have already commented; and it is Burns's merit to so have used its "snatches of old sayings," and to so have inwoven its golden flowers of axiomatic wisdom into his magic web, as to make them appear at once as the most charming ornaments, and at the same time as among the most essential elements of his song.  Beautiful as in themselves such things assuredly are, they are not there, to all appearance, on account of their beauty only, but from necessity—as being the obvious outcome of what precedes in the verse, and the cause in turn of what fellows; and to have been able to utilise the materials that came to his hand in this way, so far from being a small merit, only argues a degree of power and wisdom on the part of the poet that alone can belong to the most original genius.  "My Tocher's the Jewel " will illustrate what is here said:—

"Oh, meikle thinks my luve o' my beauty,
     And meikle thinks my luve o' my kin;
 But little thinks my love I ken brawlie
     My tocher's the jewel has charms for him.
 It's a' for the apple he'll nourish the tree,
     It's a' for the hiney he'll cherish the bee ;
 My laddie's sae meikle in love wi' the siller,
     He canna hae luve to spare for me.

"Your proffer o' luve's an airl-penny,
     My tocher's the bargain ye wad buy;
 But an' ye be crafty, I am cunnin',
     Sae ye wi' anither your fortune maun try.
 Ye're like to the timmer o' yon rotten wood,
     Ye're like to the bark o' yon rotten tree,
 Ye'll slip frae me like a knotless thread,
     An' ye'll crack your credit wi' mae nor me."

There's a song for you!—and though nearly every expression in it is as common as the daisies on the meads, yet, viewing it as a whole, was there ever aught more original, more airy-bright, more melodious, or more delightful in its way?  Then, what is more still to our present purpose, does it not embody the essence of a thousand observations—nay, as it were, "the wisdom of the ages " of pastoral life in "a nut-shell?"

    "The Country Lassie" may be named as an equally fine example of this kind of writing.  It is fully as natural as the above lyric, and as perfect—it could not be more so; but as it is coloured with a deeper, if a sadder, human experience, and strikes deeper chords in the heart of the reader, it is on that account, to my taste, a more precious and a grander song.  The piece is too long for entire quotation, and we must be satisfied with an extract, before the perusal of which, however, I would have the reader reminded that the ballad consists of a dialogue between a milkmaid, who has resolved upon marriage, and a "wrinkled-een" dame, who naturally enough would rede her a rede upon the occasion, and to which the other would very likely have been ready to listen, could, with the rede given, the adviser have planted her old head upon the young one's shoulders.  But this, from various reasons, must have been clearly impracticable; and so, when the crone has proceeded so far as to call into question the legibility, on money grounds, for the bonds of wedlock of the lassie's idol, and has proceeded so far as to throw out a hint as to who would be, the lassie flares up, and the dame finds if "o' gude advisement comes nae ill," it for once at least has been productive of no good.  Half in anger and half in sorrow, then, for a few moments this worldly-wise one allows the click-clack of the other to proceed, when an extra lunt is brought from her cutty-pipe (for was the dame not smoking by the ingle-cheek at the time, though it is not so stated in the ballad?), and with this lunt she strikes in:—

"O, thoughtless lassie, life's a faught;
     The canniest gate, the strife is sair;
 But aye fu' han't is fechtin' best,
     An' hungry care's an unco care:
 But some will spend, and some will snare,
     And wilfu' folk maun hae their will;
 Syne as ye brew, my maiden fair,
     Keep mind that ye maun drink the yill."

The "sorrow" of the utterance reaches its deepest bass in the fourth line, "An' hungry care's an unco care," and draws an echo from the heart of the reader some three octaves or so below the Middle-C stave of mere pity, and with it a full pardon to the poor old crone for the utter worldliness of her counsel, since we are made to feel that she must have had a hard life of it, and one or two passably sound reasons, after all, for what she says; while her "anger" begins to exhibit itself with the very next note, which is fetched from a string an interval higher up on the poet's unseen harp—"But some will spend, etc.—and grows clearer and fiercer with each successive note, till, having reached "Syne as ye brew," a piccolo cadenza is forced out, by the fiery inspiration of the moment, in the shape of an ironical compliment in the fine English, "My maiden fair;" and which, once out, and the dame's heart relieved, we may suppose the rest of the tune to have terminated decrescendo, and with a hot tear on the withered cheek of this for once vanquished victress of a hundred domestic contests.

    I should like to have instituted a comparison between this very rare song—for in spirit it is a veritable antique -with the immortal "Take thy old cloak about thee," one of the grandest of our grand old ballads, and to have shown how they resembled each other in their closeness to truth in domestic portraiture, internal melody, and this suggestiveness of old world experiences, of which we have seen this poem of Burns affords such a perfect example, had space permitted; but from lack of this we must rest satisfied with this allusion to the pleasant subject, and pass on.

    To Burns's marvellous insight, then, into the properties of his vernacular, and the masterly way in which he was able to utilise those properties, are we much indebted for the peculiar fascination of his style and poetry, and to this must be added a charm derivable from his personal relation to his subjects.  That such a charm may or may not arise from such obviousness in this cord of unity will depend very much on the personal character of the poet himself.  If that character be notable for great breadth and height, though it be linked with strong proclivities, it will yet be attractive, as in the case of Milton.  If the idiosyncracies be powerful, and the character, though it possess height yet lacks breadth, the relationship, through the unavoidable perpetual obtrusiveness of such idiosyncracies, will very often prove so repulsive to the poet's readers as to incapacitate them from fully appreciating and enjoying the genuine beauties of his works, as in the case of Wordsworth.  To be able, then, to say, as we are, that this cord of unity between Burns and his works is nearly at all times not merely devoid of the defects of that between the noble Wordsworth and his themes, but that it is more forcibly attractive than that between the sublime Milton and his, implies that in the personality of the man Burns lay a charm of which his readers never tire—except, indeed, they be of that ilk who are too wise and too fond of letting people know how clever they are at solving ingenious puzzles in verso to take any delight in what merely appeals to the imagination and the heart; and this never-tiring attraction in our Scottish bard—what is that?

    It has been already enlarged upon, and we shall revert to it anon; but what I want just now to point out is, that the interest derivable from the personal relationship between the poet and his work in Burns's case gains in its special charm over that of other poets from the peculiarity of his social condition and special standpoint in relation to the subjects of his muse.  For an illustration of this let us go to the "Address to a Mountain Daisy," turned up by the plough, and we shall see that while the delicacy, sweetness, spontaneity, and melody of this poem might have proceeded from Shakespeare though from him only—that interest derivable from the relation of the subject to the poet, which we feel so much in its perusal, could only have been imparted by one who had actually been himself the ploughman whose plough was the cause of the evil bewailed.  Then the depth of that interest which circulates, like the blood in the veins, through the whole poem, and reaches its greatest intensity in the last verse, how exquisite, and with what sympathy it possesses us for the bard himself!—

"Ev'n thou who mourn'st the daisy's fate,
 That fate is thine—no distant date;
 Stern Ruin's ploughshare drives, elate,
                             Full on thy bloom;
 Till crushed beneath the furrow's weight
                            Shall be thy doom!"

The pathos here is such that it must have drawn a sigh on behalf of the bard from everyone of his contemporaries who had the good fortune to read, without being incapacitated by envy or jealousy from appreciating his poems, and if so, what ought its effect to be upon us who know that the awful prophecy herein uttered was fulfilled to the letter?

    Especially as a reflex of his own destiny, then, the Daisy thus finds an endeared niche in our memories for ever.  And so for the same reason does our bard's poem on the Mouse.  In this poem there is perhaps no single verse possessed of the ethereal and picturesque beauty of the second verse in its lovely sister, but it is pervaded throughout by a yet deeper human interest—is more of apiece, and, as a whole, more precious still.  The relationship between the bard and his subject is identical in both, but the charm derived from the cord of unity between him and the Mouse is most powerful, and this is owing to the fact that he was able to invest his little four-footed hero with a yet larger share of his own humanity, and so to make him more the symbol of the deeper and more heart-rending phases of his own dire experience.  The Daisy is possessed at one and the same time of a sweetly floral and a sweetly human interest. as if through the petals of the "wee, modest, crimson-tipped flower" there keeked, though half concealed, still only half concealed, the wee, sweet, innocent face of a new-born babe; while that possessed by the Mouse, though somewhat less pure because of its association with ideas in themselves somewhat less innocent, and yet because of its evidently more acute sufferings, combined with its almost equal helplessness and a keener sense of its "ill-starred" lot, the Mouse, though still but a Mouse, becomes more essentially than the other associated in the imagination with what is most tragical in human life, so as to wring from the heart an echo such as could only be wrung by the contemplation of the most cruel mishap that can befall "a fellow mortal."  If I am not mistaken, this is the difference between these two exquisite poems, and though not without flaws, they form a pair of jewels, the beauty of which in the one is that of the heaven-hued sapphire, while the blood-red ruby might as truly be said to image forth the more impressive beauty of the other.  The colours of the productions in each case are different, but the masterly way in which they are used in each is the same, and in each is equally displayed the suddenness with which the poet is enabled to carry the reader into the heart of his subject, and to entangle him in the magical toils thereof.  These toils are so powerful in the Mouse that the reader, though almost crushed down with the weight of woe in the subject, is held fast till the mourner has told all that he can tell, not all that he would, of the calamity that befell his "earth-born companion" when "crash, the cruel coulter passed out through his cell," and do as he would he cannot get away from it even after the lips of the singer have closed.  Still, still in memory is he forced to gaze on the little panic-stricken sufferer, to think how its prospects at one fell blow have been blighted—of its "housie" in ruin, and its "wa's" "strewn" with the winds, and

"That wee bit heap o' leaves and stibble
 Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
 Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble,
                 But house or hauld,
 To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
                 And cranreuch cauld!"

What sorrow, what sympathy have we here!  This is not art but nature in its utter nakedness, and yet that anguish which causes the mourner again and again to recur to his burden, as if its direness was such that it could not be told, was never better reflected in verse.  Shakespeare has numerous examples of this, as in Constance's lament for her son Arthur, and other passages; and if this at times becomes wearisome, as it is apt to do in actual life, we yet feel in such poems that this arises not from barrenness, but rather from a plethora of emotion in the bard, and though our esteem may be a trifle weakened for the artist—we will not at present argue this point—our love is infinitely increased for the man and the singer.  In this poem on the Mouse it is so to the utmost—nay, our sympathy for the man Burns at length swallows up every other consideration when, driven on by the force of feeling which has arisen out of the contemplation of his subject, he is tempted to contrast the woe-ridden little wretch's condition with his own—

"Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
 The present only toucheth thee;
 But, och! I backward cast my e'e
           On prospects drear!
 And forward, though I canna see,
           I guess and fear!"

    But we must tear ourselves from the subject, and in so doing let the reader remember that with all their beauty these lyrics—the Daisy and the Mouse—have been selected for comment, chiefly because they so forcibly serve to illustrate what has been said of the charm that accrues to so many of our bard's poems from the relation they hold to the author, and more especially to his social standpoint, and not so much on account of their supreme value as poems.  In these two this charm is most powerful—yet nearly all the poems of any worth, and many of the songs, gain in attraction from the same cause, such as—"The Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie," "The Address to a Louse," "Death and Doctor Hornbook," among the poems; the "Highland Mary," "To Mary in Heaven," "Tibbie, I hae seen the day," and "My Nannie, O," among the songs; while "The Cottar's Saturday Night," "The Twa Dogs," and "The Farmer's Address to his Auld Mare," among the former, and "Tam Glen," "The Lothian Lassie," and "Duncan Gray," among the latter, could hardly have been produced by a bard not in his sphere of life, simply because in lack of standpoint in question such a bard could not well have seen the subjects of his muse in the particular light in which Burns saw them, even supposing such an one to have been equal in other respects to the task of their production.  He might have written poems as worthy of our regard, or more worthy for that matter, but he would hardly have been able to write these; and these, too, are immortal—more indestructible than the diamond, and beyond price.

    But I must conclude, though a thousand things yet remain unsaid that might well have been said on the subject.  A consciousness of this forbids me from offering any apology for having taken up a theme that has in turn engrossed the attention of some of the best critics of the century; and this is said without any overweening fancy on the writer's part that his note is at all above—as he hopes it is not below—criticism.  Whatever faults, however, it may have, it may be of some weight on its behalf for him to be able to state that it is purely a work of love; and that, moreover, as every not entirely incompetent critic, when to his own instincts, must essentially carry with him into the subject of his inquiry a light somewhat peculiar to himself, which often enables him to say a few words of a special, if not always of the gravest, import; so may the views herein expressed, and which are not derived from the fleeting impressions of the hour, but are convictions time-tested, and based on a life-long familiarity with many of the topics discussed, be found, it is hoped, to possess some interest for the public to whom it is addressed.

    So much by way of epilogue; and now, with a courteous bow, the writer leaves the reader to the enjoyment of the poetry of Scotia's Darling Son—one of the mightiest poets that ever sprung from the people, and the most beloved.

JOSEPH SKIPSEY.

April 1885.

___________________

 
PERCEY BYSSHE SHELLEY.

Prefatory Notice,
Biographical and Critical
by
Joseph Skipsey.

The following prefatory notice preceded 'Shelley's Poetical Works'
in the Canterbury Poets series.

OF the mighty singer who produced the immortal poems contained in this volume—Shelley,—that "pardlike spirit, beautiful and swift," [1] a few words, and a few words only, by way of preface.  Percy Bysshe Shelley was the eldest son of Mr. (afterwards Sir) Timothy and Elizabeth Shelley, and was born at Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex, on the 4th of August 1792.  "He was a beautiful boy," says his excellent critic and biographer, Mr. W. M. Rossetti, "with ringlets, deep blue eyes, a snowy complexion and exquisitely formed hands and feet," and he was remarkable for his gentleness and sweetness of disposition.  From childhood he was in the highest degree sensitive, and too keenly alive to all discordant influences, physical and mental, to feel at all at ease in mixed and unruly companies.  Mere clownishness of manners he could put up with, but coarseness of language and sordidness of disposition excited his disgust; and of this he had more than enough at Sion House School, Brentford, to which he was sent when he was about ten years old.  "The pupils here were mostly boys," says Mr. Rossetti, "numbering about sixty, sons of local tradesmen; the system of the house was mean," and the reception accorded to Shelley by his school-fellows, and their subsequent treatment of him, "full of taunting and petty persecution."  Girlish in appearance and averse to rough sports, he was naturally enough deemed a proper butt for the jibes of the ruder boys; and notwithstanding the fact that, when thoroughly aroused, he would display a courage and determination, before which the boldest of his juvenile opponents for the moment would quail—such a butt he was so often made as to make his "situation one of acute misery."  The effect of this upon his after-career was clearly enormous, since he was forced at the very outset of his life to have a powerful dislike for human haunts—for the actual and the real; and had his soul not been formed of the very essence of love, he, in all likelihood, had sunk into a mere sneerer and a man-hater.  This, thank God, he could not become; and the more he suffered the more he only felt for others who suffered likewise, and the more he was impelled to seek out a remedy for the evils of which he and they were the victims.  In this search the painful fact burst upon his young mind, that the evils of which he complained were only a specimen of what dominated the world at large, and that only could be a panacea for the one which should embrace the whole.  And how was that to be effected?  By a moral warfare, in which he and no other should be the hero!  "And from that hour" he afterwards sang:—

"And from that hour did I with earnest thought
     Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore,
 Yet nothing that my tyrants knew or taught,
     I cared to learn—but from that secret store
 Wrought linked armour for my soul before
     It might go forth to war among mankind."

    Thus while yet a boy in years he foresaw, and began to prepare for the struggle—the intellectual war against social, political, and religious wrong—that in later years he was to enter into, and which was to last till the hour of his death.

    Shelley's career, with some brief intervals of quietude and joy, was indeed one of pain and strife from the cradle to the grave.  A moral hero he was if there ever was one, and when we consider the purity of his motives, and, in general, the nobleness of the objects—truth, justice, and freedom—for which he always strove, it would not be too much to say that he merits the respect of the good and the wise, apart from any honour due to him for the many immortal poems he has left behind for our wonder and delight.

    In his fourteenth year he went to Eton, where, besides studying the Greek and Roman classics, for which, we are told, he had an especial capacity, he was soon found to be also a student of "mines of forbidden lore."  "He studied the occult sciences, watched for spectres, conjured the devil, and speculated on a visit to Africa," says Mr. Rossetti, "for the purpose of searching out the magic arcana which her dusky populations are noted for."  Of course this could only be accounted for on the supposition that the youth had a hopelessly perverse disposition—if, indeed, he was not mad.  So deemed the graver Etonians, and many freaks are related that had half justified their suspicions, had the rich produce of his gifts not been left to show that, however unusual his conduct may have appeared, such eccentricity was only the natural result of a great inner force—a genius in this case of an almost incomprehensible magnitude—seeking, and, as yet, seeking in vain for an expression.  This the Etonians did not understand, and so felt themselves justified in treating the girlish-faced youth with even a greater degree of harshness and rudeness than it had been his misfortune to endure at Sion House—though this they were not always allowed to do with impunity.  If the youth was not mad, the cruelty to which he was so often subjected was enough to make him so; and we are not surprised on being told that, in a fit of rage caused by some impish persecution on a certain occasion, "he stuck a penknife through the offender's hand."  For this offence we are left to suppose that he was expelled from Eton; and are informed that he had been twice expelled before.  If this be true—for the truth of the statement is doubted—then the more shame to the Eton authorities for not having taken steps to put an end to the persecution which resulted in the scenes of which they complained.  The agony which drove the youth to so act must have been great indeed, and the effect of its relation becomes doubly painful when we learn that, amid all this, he was attacked by a brain fever, during which he was only saved from being sent to a madhouse by the interposition of a Dr. Lind, "who posted to Field Place," at the poet's request, "satisfied his father" as to the state of affairs, and "cured him" of his affliction.  A silver lining is afforded to the black cloud which hung over our poet at this period through the intelligent sympathy of this good doctor.  "He loved me," said Shelley, "and I shall never forget our long talks, where he breathed the spirit of kindest tolerance and the purest wisdom."  All honour then to the doctor, for what immense debt may we not all owe him for the beneficial results of these "long talks?"

    Another drop of honey was let fall into Shelley's cup of gall about this time through a certain tender feeling he had wakened in the heart of his cousin, Harriet Grove.  "He loved her," it is said, "and she returned his affections."  They corresponded and were to marry; yet I venture to say that the love on one side was rather pity for the sufferings of the other, and the love on the other was rather a deep sense of thankfulness at his having found one—and that one of the gentler sex—who could appreciate his troubles, than that passion which in the highest sense can only be called love, and which melts and fuses two souls into one.  Generosity or selfishness may cause two human beings to be put together as man and wife, but the passion here spoken of, and that only, can sanctify the marriage knot.  This the world does not understand, and won't try, and broken hearts are the consequence; the grey-headed too often laugh the sacredness of the passion to scorn, and even the young are far from being able at all times to set it at its proper value.  Even Shelley in his early youth failed to do so.  Chivalric feelings or brotherly and sisterly affection were mistaken for the celestial fire, and hence his errors in this way.  At a later period no one had ever a clearer conception of the matter, and instead of a promise of marriage, a feeling like that which existed between him and his cousin Harriet would have found ventilation in song, and so have ended, only at the time he left Eton his song gift was not in blossom.  Shelley's genius, by the way, could not be said to have had a premature development ; none of his literary efforts up to the time he left Eton are held to possess much merit.

    This was in the year 1809.  In 1810 he went to Oxford, from whence he was expelled in 1811 for what was deemed a much graver offence than any that had been laid to his charge at Eton—viz., that of printing and causing to be circulated a pamphlet entitled, The Necessity for Atheism.  In the same year he married—not the cousin Harriet just mentioned, but Harriet Westbrook, a schoolgirl of sixteen, and a retired hotel-keeper's daughter.

    Of all the misfortunes that ever be 'ell Shelley, that of his early death excepted, this marriage was by far the greatest.  Harriet Grove, out of sympathy for Shelley's sufferings, had at one time thought herself sufficiently in love to have been justified in becoming his wife; Shelley in a similar way, out of pity for certain troubles of Harriet Westbrook, had been induced to become her husband.  "Harriet was not only delightful to look at," says Mr. Rossetti, "but altogether most agreeable.  She dressed with exquisite neatness and propriety; her voice was pleasant and her speech cordial; her spirits were cheerful and her manners good." She was withal, "well-educated," a "pleasant reader," and well skilled in music.  Surely with such a woman the best of men—and Shelley was one of the best of men—might have lived, one would naturally have thought, on the best of terms?  And for a short time he did so; then—the world has long known what afterwards befell, and the reason of the dire calamity lay in the fact that Shelley had mistaken pity for something else, and that in reality he had never truly loved the woman he had taken to be his wife.  His error was a huge one, and the cooling down of his affection, then discord, then separation, then suicide on the wife's part, was the consequence.

    The weakest in this case, as in others, went to the wall; but let it not for a moment be supposed that the strongest passed on unscathed.  An avenging Nemesis followed the young poet's footsteps to the end, and the furies of Regret, Remorse, and Shame threw their raven shadow o'er his life, and his soul—at least so long as it remained tagged to his frail body—his "soul from out that shadow was lifted nevermore!"  Such at least is my conviction, and I would hail with delight any reliable account that would lead me to a happier conclusion.  I do not think that Shelley was guilty of any wilful wrong, but the gravity of the errors he committed in his marriage of, and then separation from, Harriet, leading as they did to the most tragic consequences, were such as to smite his sensitive being to the centre; and if any proofs were wanting for this more than are afforded by the facts of his outer life, we have only to refer to his songs, which in Shelley's case were, even far more than the songs of Byron were in his, a veritable reflection of the inner man.

    His "sweetest songs" at all times were those which told of "saddest thought;" but after the tragical death of Harriet, and his union with Mary Godwin, with whom he had eloped on parting from Harriet, the sorrow of his songs, and more especially of his greatest ones, grew deeper and deeper.  The surprising fecundity of his genius after his second marriage is ascribed in some measure to the harmony which prevailed between him and his second wife, and this too may have been without at all affecting the truth of my intimations.  Poetry is an art as well as an inspiration, and quietude and social harmony are among the essentials for its successful cultivation; but these may exist while the soul itself is carried away through the force of bitter memories to "look on the past and stare aghast at the spectres wailing pale and ghast, of hopes which thou and I beguiled to death on life's dark river!" [2]  What a sigh! and what a world of pain and mental torment are discovered by these few words in inverted commas, and yet these are from a lyric penned in 1817, and when he was the husband of his truly beloved Mary Godwin.

    Without casting any aspersions on poor Harriet—for in years she was only a girl (and he was little more than a boy)—during her connection with Shelley, it ought to be said, however, that it is some credit to Mary that our bard's genius found a free, high, and triumphant expression under her care.  During his connection with Harriet he had produced his first great effort in verse, the "Queen Mab," but after his second marriage every succeeding year had its immortal product.  First of that glorious progeny came "Alastor," 1816; then the "Revolt of Islam," 1817; then the "Rosalind and Helen," and "Julian and Maddalo" both 1818; then "The Cenci," 1819; the "Witch of Atlas" and the "Prometheus Unbound," 1820; the "Epipsychidion," the "Adonais," and the "Hellas," all in 1821; and he was engaged on other works when death by drowning put an end to his career on the 4th of July 1822.

    Such a career!  Besides the great poems named, he, during the same wonderful period, poured forth a flood of lyrics and lesser pieces which in themselves had won for him a rank only second to the highest in literature.  The great poems named raise him among those who occupy the highest rank.  In many of his pieces he displayed too strong a predilection for the merely fanciful, but his greatest efforts are noted beyond those of all other poets since Milton for the magnificent and the sublime.  In sublimity he was only surpassed by Milton and Shakespeare, and "no, nobody," says Leigh Hunt, "had a style so Orphic.  His poetry is so full of mountains, seas, and skies, of light and darkness, and the seasons, and all the elements of our being, as if Nature herself had written it with the creation and its hopes newly cast around her; but it must be confessed not without too indiscriminate a mixture of great and small, and a want of sufficient shade—a certain chaotic brilliancy, 'dark with excess of light.' "
 
    Besides this fault, which arises out of a plethora of fancy, there is another which is the offspring of an excessive fondness for knotty mental problems and subjects which rather belong to the sphere of the metaphysician than that of the poet, and in the treatment of which he necessarily discarded the example and precept of Milton, who held that poetry ought to he "simple, sensuous, and passionate"—or "impassioned," as Coleridge has it—and both of these defects infect even the very greatest of his productions—"The Cenci" excepted.  These charges maybe brought especially and most emphatically against the "Prometheus Unbound," and yet in despite of all, this must be conceded to be one of the most marvellous poems in the language!  The conception of this drama, and more especially of the characters of the hero, and of Asia, and Panthea, are worthy of Milton, though the execution in detail and throughout is not equal to what we would have expected in a similar work from the hand of that mighty master.  If not as a whole, however, yet in long passages, even in the dialogue, he equals the best poets when at their best; while in his choral strains he rises far above what any poet had ever in a similar way attempted before.

    A yet higher encomium by many of our ablest critics is pronounced upon "The Cenci."  Many declare it to be the best drama we have had since the Elizabethan era, and some even regard it quite as a Shakespearean one.  It is a great drama, but it is not Shakespearean.  Shelley found in the magic mirror of his imagination, indeed, the various characters reflected in his verse; yet if these were not merely reflections of himself they were all too much coloured by his own feelings to be Shakespearean.  The Prince of Dramatists undoubtedly, like all other poets, must have incorporated much of his own personality into his creations, since, as Blake has it, "It is impossible to thought a greater than itself to know;" but his genius was too supreme to allow this to be seen—or be traceable!

    With Shelley, as with Milton, the case was otherwise.  "In the 'Paradise Lost,'" says Coleridge, "indeed, in every one of his poems, it is Milton himself whom you see: his Satan, his Raphael, almost his Eve, are all John Milton."  And in a similar way, may be said, that nearly all Shelley's characters are in some measure a reproduction of himself.  Set aside the consideration of sex, even the charming Beatrice, in " The Cenci," is so.  That great poem may be none the worse on that account—only it is not Shakespearean.  Shakespeare is often spoken of as being "many-sided."  He would he better represented, however, by a circle than a polygon, everything touched by which is touched at a point equi-distant from the centre; but not so would be such a genius as Shelley or Milton, though both of these rare poets were also, though in a less degree, many-sided, and each in his way gives us a series of characters tender and beautiful, lofty and sublime.  Many of these are painted to the life.  Those of " The Cenci" are especially so, and the story of that drama is well told.

    "In all probability," as Mr. Devey observes in his magnificent essay upon Shelley, "in Shakespeare's hands the plot of 'The Cenci' would have assumed a wider basis.  The facetious element would have been introduced in which Shelley was woefully deficient;" but when he, nevertheless, adds that "he hardly thinks the story would have been better told," I fail to see the logic of his conclusions.  In Shakespeare's hands the story would have been differently told, though whether more effectively is another question; but surely had he felt the necessity of introducing the "facetious element" (and I presume he would not have introduced it without feeling that necessity), the story would most surely have been better for its introduction.  But the work as Shelley has given it is a master-piece, and few can read it without wishing that he had given us many such.  And had he lived longer it is just possible that he might have done so, and yet is it likely that he would?  One must admit that this is questionable.  Of this one thing we are certain, no sooner had he put the finishing touch to "The Cenci," than he set about writing another poem—"The Witch of Atlas"—in which he returns to the purely ideal with all the rapture with which an eagle that has escaped from a trap might be supposed to return to his aery in the regions of the sun.  The effect of this upon his noble-minded wife, who was one of his best critics, was such as to draw from her an animadversion, and to which in turn he playfully replied with the verses commencing:—

"How, my dear Mary, are you critic-bitten
     (For vipers kill, though dead) by some review,
 That you condemn these verses I have written,
     Because they tell no story, false or true?
 What though no mice are caught by a young kitten,
     May it not leap and play as grown cats do,
 Trill its claws come?    Prithee, for this one time
     Content thee with a visionary rhyme."

But Mary evidently thought that the kitten had already had sufficient play—that it was all blarney about its claws not being grown, since it had just, at least, caught one very large mouse; or, to be more serious, that she and the world had already had too many visionary rhymes, and that this was the more to be lamented, since the mighty genius who had penned these rhymes had already displayed a capacity for the tragic drama such as had not been witnessed for ages. Regrets like these, though natural enough on his noble-minded wife's part, are, however, futile.

    Shelley, who at this very period, through causes before alluded to, was passing through the fiery furnace of regret and remorse, knew best what to him, for the time being, was his natural and best element; and when we reflect on what he achieved while in that element, we are awe-struck, abashed, and ashamed at our having been guilty of anything like fault-finding.  We must take the great poet for what he was, not for what we in our blindness and weakness would wish him to have been, and in his own sphere he was a demi-god, and without a peer.  "Out of the most indefinite terms of a hard, cold, dark, metaphysical system," says Macaulay, "he made a gorgeous Pantheon full of beautiful, majestic, and life-like forms.  He turned Atheism itself into a mythology rich with visions as glorious as the gods that live in the marble of Phidias, or the virgin saints that smile on us from the canvas of Murillo."  This being so, what more can we desire?  What indeed?  Are we to find fault with the tree because, while it has yielded us a rich stock of grapes, it has not yielded us a rich stock of apples also?

    Grapes, however, are not, as we have seen, the truest symbols of Shelley's poems, although they all have a fair share of sweetness, and a few of the shorter pieces are laden with it.  Subtlety of thought, gorgeousness of imagery—the magnificent or the sublime, linked to the most charming music, are the characteristics of his best work, and that best means the full half of his multitudinous and multifarious poems.  Such are the dominant qualities of much of the "Revolt of Islam," "Alastor," "The Witch of Atlas," "The Adonais"—which poem is also steeped in deep spiritual pathos—and the other great poems before mentioned.

    "The Epipsychidion," the most impassioned of his narrative poems, is, indeed, a sort of celestial grape, and of such divine virtue, that once having touched our lips, we are set dreaming of visions of the most enchanting loveliness, and of love which satiates not for evermore!  I was about to call this the most precious of all Shelley's precious poems, when lo, into my imagination comes the vision of The Sensitive Plant, with its enchanted Garden and its Elf-like Lady Attendant, and anon is the question suggested, Can anything possibly be more precious than that?  Most certainly there is nothing more original; and in honied sweetness, ethereal beauty, and in delicacy of workmanship and fairy-like melody united, I know of nothing to be compared with it out of Coleridge.  That life-giving power of imagination which can only be possessed by the true poet, and which enabled him to create out of the most abstract terms the most life-like forms, as already spoken of, is exemplified in almost every verse in this glorious creation.  Take as a specimen the opening stanza:—

"A Sensitive Plant in a garden grew,
 And the young winds fed it with silver dew;
 And it opened its fan-like leaves to the light,
 And closed them beneath the kisses of night."

 And again in another way:—

"For Winter came; the wind was his whip;
 One choppy finger was on his lip;
 He had torn the cataracts from the hills,
 And they clanked at his girdle like manacles
."

    That, at least, is a personification of great power, and full of life, and yet it is perhaps excelled by his personification of Time in the "Mask of Anarchy."  This other picture is painted in the words of a "maniac maid," the last survivor of the champions of Liberty which had been born to Time, and "whose name was Hope, though she looked more like Despair." Flying before the hideous revellers in the "Mask," she cries

"My father Time is hear and grey
 With waiting for a better day;
 See how idiot-like he stands,
 Fumbling with his palsied hands!

 He has had child after child,
 And the dust of death is piled
 Over every one but me—
 Misery—O, Misery!"

    A fine subject for an artist that! but how is an artist to paint this?—

"Revenge and wrong bring forth their kind,
     The foul cubs as their parent are;
 Their den is in the guilty mind,
     And conscience feeds them with despair."

    This is from "Hellas," a lyrical drama, and a sublime song on behalf of Liberty.  Shelley was always inspired and sublime when he sang of Liberty, and in his great odes, those to Naples and to Liberty in particular.  His "Ode to the West Wind" is also among his greatest things, and yet he is, perhaps, nowhere so fascinating as in those brief lyrics which come now like wild wails from the forest on the wings of the blast, and now like sighs on the fitful breeze from the reeds on the river brim.  Not even "The Question," with its rich bouquet of "pied wind-flowers, and violets," of "faint oxlips," and "tender blue-bells, at whose birth the earth scarce heaved"—of "wild roses" and the rest of Flora's sweetest children,—not "Ariel to Miranda," in which some of the sweetest operations of the Soul of the Universe are conjured up in the imagination in a strain as purely spiritual, and to deep-souled sage, or to deep-hearted maiden and youth, as delicious as ever flowed from the lips of that "quaint spirit," the "delicate Ariel" of the "still-vexed Bermoothes" himself,—not in "The Cloud," that "gossamer-spun web" of the most brilliant, airy, fantastic, and most delightful fancies—nay, not in "The Skylark," that strain which wells up from the depths of the poet's heart like a pellucid fount whose waters bubble, and flash, and sparkle in the light of the noonday sun, is there a spell so subtle or powerful as that which lurks in the feeling, the sentiment, and the melody of some of his briefest and tiniest lyrics.  Read the pieces beginning with the lines, "That time is dead for ever, child," "When passion's trance is overpast," "The keen stars were twinkling," "I arise from dreams of thee," "He came like a dream in the dawn of life," "The warm sun is failing," "My faint spirit was sitting in the light," "From the rivers and highlands," "Away! the moor is dark beneath the moon":—read any of the songs beginning with these lines—and many others nearly as fine could be added to the list—and you read what goes direct to the heart and remains there.

    I have repeatedly alluded to the rarity of Shelley's music.  Each of the above-named pieces has a melody of its own, and that melody in each case is a perfect reflex in sound of the feeling and sentiment which lies at the root of the lyric.  Not so much as a metrical harmonist, however, as a metrical melodist, as Mr. Devey finely suggests, doth Shelley's rare excellence as a singer rest.  In metrical harmonies he has been equalled and surpassed, but in pure melody—when we consider the number, the originality, the vast variety and utter perfection of his word-tunes, we are forced to place him at the head of all the verse-melodists who have left any specimens of their gift on record.  Shelley is, in verity, the king of verse melodists.  That title at least must be conceded to him, though in sheer quality of melody and other essentials of lyric song he has been at least equalled, if not excelled, by Shakespeare.

    Shelley, to whom the lyric was a channel through which he would pour out his own richest and most precious personal feelings, has indeed left a number of pieces characterised by a beauty of sentiment which is only equalled by two or three of the tiny songlets of Shakespeare, to whom, on the other hand, the lyric was merely the medium through which he would utter the supposed feeling or fancy of the moment of others, but against this must be set an airiness and spontaneity of utterance in all cases unmatched even by Shelley, while the wonderful dramatic propriety of expression displayed in those utterances is in itself a quality of the highest and most supreme value in song—and one too, by the way, to which Shelley can lay little or no claim.  Indeed, in this latter quality I know of no poet who has made the least approach to Shakespeare, except Burns, and that poet too is also notable for his spontaneity, airiness, and melody; though in the second and last respect he is far below Shelley, as in spontaneity and all other song essentials he is below Shakespeare; and so on the score of sheer quality alone must be put aside in a consideration as to whom shall be assigned the highest honour in lyric song.

    But if, on the other hand, fertility of faculty and quantity of lyric product, that product comprising as it does a series of pictures typical of a vaster number of the various phases of human passion and character than is to be found in any other songsters be considered—and many eminent critics appear to think that these ought on such an occasion to be considered,—then it would be a question if Burns had not as just a claim as either Shelley or Shakespeare themselves to the contested laurel.  This is a question on which critics, in all likelihood, will at all times differ, and on which the mass of readers will exercise their own judgment, whatever critics may think; but of this we may rest assured, whatever the prevailing opinion as to the relative position as lyrists these bards ought to occupy, that just as the intrinsic value of their songs will remain untouched by such opinion, so just will that intrinsic value cause these songs through all time to be cherished as among the brightest, the purest, the richest, the rarest, and if in size the smallest, in quality the most precious of all the precious jewels that sparkle in the crown of British song.  Then to think of some of the larger jewels that were placed in that crown by the same three bards!  Of the addresses to "The Mouse," to "The Deil," "The Mare Maggie," and the "Tam O'Shanter" of the one; the "Epipsychidion," the "Prometheus," the "Julian and Maddalo," and the "Cenci" of the other; the "Tempest," the "Macbeth," the "Romeo and Juliet," and of "Hamlet" and many more of the highest value of the third! and then, as a compliment to our national vanity to think that all these three, among others, were of British blood!

    But I must conclude, and shall only add that the lyrics, the lesser poems, and the more perfect of the narrative poems of Shelley are contained in our present volume; and that it is in view on some fitting future occasion to also issue the dramas in the same series.

JOSEPH SKIPSEY.

August 1884.

__________________

Endnotes.

[1.] Adonais XXXII....

A pardlike Spirit beautiful and swift —
A Love in desolation mask'd — a Power
Girt round with weakness — it can scarce uplift
The weight of the superincumbent hour;
It is a dying lamp, a falling shower,
A breaking billow; even whilst we speak
Is it not broken? On the withering flower
The killing sun smiles brightly: on a cheek
The life can burn in blood, even while the heart may break.


[2.] Published by Mrs. Shelley with the date 'November 5th, 1817,' in "Posthumous Poems", 1824......

That time is dead for ever, child!
Drowned, frozen, dead for ever!
We look on the past
And stare aghast
At the spectres wailing, pale and ghast,
Of hopes which thou and I beguiled
To death on life's dark river.

 

 


 

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