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Chapter 7. Mr. Gosse's Poems 


On Viol and Flute. By Edmund Gosse.

[107] PERHAPS no age of literature, certainly no age of literature in England, has been so rich as ours in excellent secondary poetry; and it is with our poetry (in a measure) as with our architecture, constrained by the nature of the case to be imitative. Our generation, quite reasonably, is not very proud of its architectural creations; confesses that it knows too much--knows, but cannot do. And yet we could name certain modern churches in London, for instance, to which posterity may well look back puzzled.--Could these exquisitely pondered buildings have been indeed works of the nineteenth century? Were they not the subtlest creations of the age in which Gothic art was spontaneous? In truth, we have had instances of workmen, who, through long, large, [108] devoted study of the handiwork of the past, have done the thing better, with a more fully enlightened consciousness, with full intelligence of what those early workmen only guessed at. And something like this is true of some of our best secondary poetry. It is the least that is true--the least that can fairly be said in praise of the poetic work of Mr. Edmund Gosse.

Of course there can be no exact parallel between arts so different as architecture and poetic composition: But certainly in the poetry of our day also, though it has been in some instances powerfully initiative and original, there is great scholarship, a large comparative acquaintance with the poetic methods of earlier workmen, and a very subtle intelligence of their charm. Of that fine scholarship in this matter there is no truer example than Mr. Gosse. It is manifested especially in the even finish of his varied work, in the equality of his level--a high level--in species of composition so varied as the three specimens which follow.

Far away, in late spring, "by the sea in the south," the swallows are still lingering around "white Algiers." In Mr. Gosse's "Return of

[109] the Swallows," the northern birds--lark and thrush--have long been calling to them:--

And something awoke in the slumbering heart Of the alien birds in their African air, And they paused, and alighted, and twittered apart, And met in the broad white dreamy square, And the sad slave woman, who lifted up From the fountain her broad-lipped earthen cup, Said to herself, with a weary sigh, "To-morrow the swallows will northward fly."

Compare the following stanzas, from a kind of palinode, "1870-1871," years of the Franco-German war and the Parisian Commune:--

The men who sang that pain was sweet Shuddered to see the mask of death Storm by with myriad thundering feet; The sudden truth caught up our breath Our throats like pulses beat.

The songs of pale emaciate hours, The fungus-growth of years of peace, Withered before us like mown flowers; We found no pleasure more in these When bullets fell in showers.

For men whose robes are dashed with blood, What joy to dream of gorgeous stairs, Stained with the torturing interlude That soothed a Sultan's midday prayers, In old days harsh and rude?

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For men whose lips are blanched and white, With aching wounds and torturing thirst, What charm in canvas shot with light, And pale with faces cleft and curst, Past life and life's delight?

And then Mr. Gosse's purely descriptive power, his aptitude for still-life and landscape, is unmistakably vivid and sound. Take, for an instance, this description of high-northern summer:--

The ice-white mountains clustered all around us, But arctic summer blossomed at our feet; The perfume of the creeping sallows found us, The cranberry-flowers were sweet.

Below us through the valley crept a river, Cleft round an island where the Lap-men lay; Its sluggish water dragged with slow endeavour The mountain snows away.

There is no night-time in the northern summer, But golden shimmer fills the hours of sleep, And sunset fades not, till the bright new-comer, Red sunrise, smites the deep.

But when the blue snow-shadows grew intenser Across the peaks against the golden sky, And on the hills the knots of deer grew denser, And raised their tender cry,

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And wandered downward to the Lap-men's dwelling, We knew our long sweet day was nearly spent, And slowly, with our hearts within us swelling, Our homeward steps we bent.

"Sunshine before Sunrise!" There's a novelty in that, for poetic use at least, so far as we know, though we remember one fine paragraph about it in Sartor Resartus. The grim poetic sage of Chelsea, however, had never seen what he describes: not so Mr. Gosse, whose acquaintance with northern lands and northern literature is special. We have indeed picked out those stanzas from a quiet personal record of certain amorous hours of early youth in that quaint arctic land, Mr. Gosse's description of which, like his pretty poem on Lubeck, made one think that what the accomplished group of poets to which he belongs requires is, above all, novelty of motive, of subject.

He takes, indeed, the old themes, and manages them better than their old masters, with more delicate cadences, more delicate transitions of thought, through long dwelling on earlier practice. He seems to possess complete command of the technique of poetry--every form of what may be called skill of hand in it; and what marks in [112] him the final achievement of poetic scholarship is the perfect balance his work presents of so many and varied effects, as regards both matter and form. The memories of a large range of poetic reading are blent into one methodical music so perfectly that at times the notes seem almost simple. Sounding almost all the harmonies of the modern lyre, he has, perhaps as a matter of course, some of the faults also, the "spasmodic" and other lapses, which from age to age, in successive changes of taste, have been the "defects" of excellent good "qualities." He is certainly not the--

Pathetic singer, with no strength to sing,

as he says of the white-throat on the tulip-tree,

Whose leaves unfinished ape her faulty song.

In effect, a large compass of beautiful thought and expression, from poetry old and new, have become to him matter malleable anew for a further and finer reach of literary art. And with the perfect grace of an intaglio, he shows, as in truth the minute intaglio may do, the faculty of structure, the logic of poetry. "The New Endymion" is a good instance of such sustained [113] power. Poetic scholar!--If we must reserve the sacred name of "poet" to a very small number, that humbler but perhaps still rarer title is due indisputably to Mr. Gosse. His work is like exquisite modern Latin verse, into the academic shape of which, discreet and coy, comes a sincere, deeply felt consciousness of modern life, of the modern world as it is. His poetry, according with the best intellectual instincts of our critical age, is as pointed out recently by a clever writer in the Nineteenth Century, itself a kind of exquisite, finally revised criticism.

Not that he fails in originality; only, the graces, inborn certainly, but so carefully educated, strike one more. The sense of his originality comes to one as but an after-thought; and certainly one sign of his vocation is that he has made no conscious effort to be original. In his beautiful opening poem of the "White-throat," giving his book its key-note, he seems, indeed, to accept that position, reasons on and justifies it. Yet there is a clear note of originality (so it seems to us) in the peculiar charm of his strictly personal compositions; and, generally, in such touches as he gives us of the soul, the life, of the [114] nineteenth century. Far greater, we think, than the charm of poems strictly classic in interest, such as the "Praise of Dionysus," exquisite as that is, is the charm of those pieces in which, so to speak, he transforms, by a kind of colour-change, classic forms and associations into those--say! of Thames-side--pieces which, though in manner or subject promising a classic entertainment, almost unaware bring you home.--No! after all, it is not imagined Greece, dreamy, antique Sicily, but the present world about us, though mistakable for a moment, delightfully, for the land, the age, of Sappho, of Theocritus:--

There is no amaranth, no pomegranate here, But can your heart forget the Christmas rose, The crocuses and snowdrops once so dear?

Quite congruously with the placid, erudite, quality of his culture, although, like other poets, he sings much of youth, he is often most successful in the forecast, the expression, of the humours, the considerations, that in truth are more proper to old age:--

When age comes by and lays his frosty hands So lightly on mine eyes, that, scarce aware

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Of what an endless weight of gloom they bear, I pause, unstirred, and wait for his commands. When time has bound these limbs of mine with bands, And hushed mine ears, and silvered all my hair, May sorrow come not, nor a vain despair Trouble my soul that meekly girdled stands.

As silent rivers into silent lakes, Through hush of reeds that not a murmur breaks, Wind, mindful of the poppies whence they came, So may my life, and calmly burn away, As ceases in a lamp at break of day The flagrant remnant of memorial flame.

Euthanasia!--Yet Mr. Gosse, with all his accomplishment, is still a young man. His youthful confidence in the perpetuity of poetry, of the poetical interests in life, creed-less as he may otherwise seem to be, is, we think, a token, though certainly an unconscious token, of the spontaneous originality of his muse. For a writer of his peculiar philosophic tenets, at all events, the world itself, in truth, must seem irretrievably old or even decadent.

Old, decadent, indeed, it would seem with Mr. Gosse to be also returning to the thoughts, the fears, the consolations, of its youth in Greece, in Italy:--

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Nor seems it strange indeed To hold the happy creed That all fair things that bloom and die Have conscious life as well as I.

Then let me joy to be Alive with bird and tree, And have no haughtier aim than this, To be a partner in their bliss.

Convinced, eloquent,--again and again the notes of Epicurean philosophy fall almost unconsciously from his lips. With poetry at hand, he appears to feel no misgivings. A large faith he might seem to have in what is called "natural optimism," the beauty and benignity of nature, if let alone, in her mechanical round of changes with man and beast and flower. Her method, however, certainly involves forgetfulness for the individual; and to this, to the prospect of oblivion, poetry, too, may help to brace us, if, unlike so genial and cheerful a poet as Mr. Gosse, we need bracing thereto:- -

Now, giant-like, the tall young ploughmen go Between me and the sunset, footing slow; My spirit, as an uninvited guest, Goes with them, wondering what desire, what aim, May stir their hearts and mine with common flame, Or, thoughtless, do their hands suffice their soul?

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I know not, care not, for I deem no shame To hold men, flowers, and trees and stars the same, Myself, as these, one atom in the whole.

That is from one of those half-Greek, half-English idylls, reminding one of Frederick Walker's "Ploughman," of Mason's "Evening Hymn," in which Mr. Gosse is at his best. A favourite motive, he has treated it even more melodiously in "Lying in the Grass":--

I do not hunger for a well-stored mind, I only wish to live my life, and find My heart in unison with all mankind.

My life is like the single dewy star That trembles on the horizon's primrose-bar,-- A microcosm where all things living are.

And if, among the noiseless grasses, Death Should come behind and take away my breath, I should not rise as one who sorroweth;

For I should pass, but all the world would be Full of desire and young delight and glee, And why should men be sad through loss of me?

The light is flying; in the silver-blue The young moon shines from her bright window through: The mowers are all gone, and I go too.

A vein of thought as modern as it is old! More not less depressing, certainly, to our over-meditative [118], susceptible, nervous, modern age, than to that antiquity which was indeed the genial youth of the world, but, sweetly attuned by his skill of touch, it is the sum of what Mr. Gosse has to tell us of the experience of life. Or is it, after all, to quote him once more, that beyond those ever- recurring pagan misgivings, those pale pagan consolations, our generation feels yet cannot adequately express--

The passion and the stress Of thoughts too tender and too sad to be Enshrined in any melody she knows?

29th October 1890

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