CHAPTER II. PHILLIPS, WATSON, NOYES, HOUSMAN
Stephen Phillips—his immediate success—influence of
Stratford-on-Avon—his plays—a traditional poet—his
realism—William Watson—his unpromising start—his lament on
the coldness of the age toward poetry—his
Epigrams—Wordsworth's Grave—his eminence as a critic
in verse—his anti-imperialism—his Song of Hate—his Byronic
wit—his contempt for the “new” poetry—Alfred Noyes—both
literary and rhetorical—an orthodox poet—a singer—his
democracy—his childlike imagination—his
sea-poems—Drake—his optimism—his religious faith—A.
E. Housman—his paganism and pessimism—his modernity—his
originality—his lyrical power—war poems—Ludlow.
The genius of Stephen Phillips was immediately recognized by London critics. When the thin volume, Poems, containing Marpessa, Christ in Hades, and some lyrical pieces, appeared in 1897, it was greeted by a loud chorus of approval, ceremoniously ratified by the bestowal of the First Prize from the British Academy. Some of the more distinguished among his admirers asserted that the nobility, splendour, and beauty of his verse merited the adjective Miltonic. I remember that we Americans thought that the English critics had lost their heads, and we queried what they would say if we praised a new poet in the United States in any such fashion. But that was before we had seen the book; when we had once read it for ourselves, we felt no alarm for the safety of Milton, but we knew that English Literature had been enriched. Stephen Phillips is among the English poets.
His career extended over the space of twenty-five years, from the first publication of Marpessa in 1890 to his death on the ninth of December, 1915. He was born near the city of Oxford, on the twenty-eighth of July, 1868. His father, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Phillips, still living, is Precentor of Peterborough Cathedral; his mother was related to Wordsworth. He was exposed to poetry germs at the age of eight, for in 1876 his father became Chaplain and Sub-Vicar at Stratford-on-Avon, and the boy attended the Grammar School. Later he spent a year at Queens' College, Cambridge, enough to give him the right to be enrolled in the long list of Cambridge poets. He went on the stage as a member of Frank Benson's company, and in his time played many parts, receiving on one occasion a curtain call as the Ghost in Hamlet. This experience—with the early Stratford inspiration—probably fired his ambition to become a dramatist. The late Sir George Alexander produced Paolo and Francesca; Herod was acted in London by Beerbohm Tree, and in America by William Faversham. Neither of these plays was a failure, but it is regrettable that he wrote for the stage at all. His genius was not adapted for drama, and the quality of his verse was not improved by the experiment, although all of his half-dozen pieces have occasional passages of rare loveliness. His best play, Paolo and Francesca, suffers when compared either with Boker's or D'Annunzio's treatment of the old story. It lacks the stage-craft of the former, and the virility of the latter.
Phillips was no pioneer: he followed the great tradition of English poetry, and must be counted among the legitimate heirs. At his best, he resembles Keats most of all; and none but a real poet could ever make us think of Keats. If he be condemned for not breaking new paths, we may remember the words of a wise man—“It is easier to differ from the great poets than it is to resemble them.” He loved to employ the standard five-foot measure that has done so much of the best work of English poetry. In The Woman with the Dead Soul, he showed once more the musical possibilities latent in the heroic couplet, which Pope had used with such monotonous brilliance. In Marpessa, he gave us blank verse of noble artistry. But he was far more than a mere technician. He fairly meets the test set by John Davidson. “In the poet the whole assembly of his being is harmonious; no organ is master; a diapason extends throughout the entire scale; his whole body, his whole soul is rapt into the making of his poetry.... Poetry is the product of originality, of a first-hand experience and observation of life, of a direct communion with men and women, with the seasons of the year, with day and night. The critic will therefore be well-advised, if he have the good fortune to find something that seems to him poetry, to lay it out in the daylight and the moonlight, to take it into the street and the fields, to set against it his own experience and observation of life.”
One of the most severe tests of poetry that I know of is to read it aloud on the shore of an angry sea. Homer, Shakespeare, Milton gain in splendour with this accompaniment.
With the words of John Davidson in mind, let us take two passages from Marpessa, and measure one against the atmosphere of day and night, and the other against homely human experience. Although Mr. Davidson was not thinking of Phillips, I believe he would have admitted the validity of this verse.
From the dark
The floating smell of flowers invisible,
The mystic yearning of the garden wet,
The moonless-passing night—into his brain
Wandered, until he rose and outward leaned
In the dim summer; 'twas the moment deep
When we are conscious of the secret dawn,
Amid the darkness that we feel is green....
When the long day that glideth without cloud,
The summer day, was at her deep blue hour
Of lilies musical with busy bliss,
Whose very light trembled as with excess,
And heat was frail, and every bush and flower
Was drooping in the glory overcome;
Any poet knows how to speak in authentic tones of the wild passion of insurgent hearts; but not every poet possesses the rarer gift of setting the mellower years to harmonious music, as in the following gracious words:
But if I live with Idas, then we two
On the low earth shall prosper hand in hand
In odours of the open field, and live
In peaceful noises of the farm, and watch
The pastoral fields burned by the setting sun....
And though the first sweet sting of love be past,
The sweet that almost venom is; though youth,
With tender and extravagant delight,
The first and secret kiss by twilight hedge,
The insane farewell repeated o'er and o'er,
Pass off; there shall succeed a faithful peace;
Beautiful friendship tried by sun and wind,
Durable from the daily dust of life.
And though with sadder, still with kinder eyes,
We shall behold all frailties, we shall haste
To pardon, and with mellowing minds to bless.
Then though we must grow old, we shall grow old
Together, and he shall not greatly miss
My bloom faded, and waning light of eyes,
Too deeply gazed in ever to seem dim;
Nor shall we murmur at, nor much regret
The years that gently bend us to the ground,
And gradually incline our face; that we
Leisurely stooping, and with each slow step,
May curiously inspect our lasting home.
But we shall sit with luminous holy smiles,
Endeared by many griefs, by many a jest,
And custom sweet of living side by side;
And full of memories not unkindly glance
Upon each other. Last, we shall descend
Into the natural ground—not without tears—
One must go first, ah God! one must go first;
After so long one blow for both were good;
Still like old friends, glad to have met, and leave
Behind a wholesome memory on the earth.
Although Marpessa and Christ in Hades are subjects naturally adapted for poetic treatment, Phillips did not hesitate to try his art on material less malleable. In some of his poems we find a realism as honest and clear-sighted as that of Crabbe or Masefield. In The Woman with the Dead Soul and The Wife we have naturalism elevated into poetry. He could make a London night as mystical as a moonlit meadow. And in a brief couplet he has given to one of the most familiar of metropolitan spectacles a pretty touch of imagination. The traffic policeman becomes a musician.
The constable with lifted hand
Conducting the orchestral Strand.
Stephen Phillips's second volume of collected verse, New Poems (1907), came ten years after the first, and was to me an agreeable surprise. His devotion to the drama made me fear that he had burned himself out in the Poems of 1897; but the later book is as unmistakably the work of a poet as was the earlier. The mystical communion with nature is expressed with authority in such poems as After Rain,Thoughts at Sunrise, Thoughts at Noon. Indeed the first-named distinctly harks back to that transcendental mystic of the seventeenth century, Henry Vaughan. The greatest triumph in the whole volume comes where we should least expect it, in the eulogy on Gladstone. Even the most sure-footed bards often miss their path in the Dark Valley. Yet in these seven stanzas on the Old Parliamentary Hand there is not a single weak line, not a single false note; word placed on word grows steadily into a column of majestic beauty.
This poem is all the more refreshing because admiration for Gladstone had become unfashionable; his work was belittled, his motives befouled, his clear mentality discounted by thousands of pygmy politicians and journalistic gnats. The poet, with a poet's love for mountains, turns the powerful light of his genius on the old giant; the mists disappear; and we see again a form venerable and august.
The saint and poet dwell apart; but thou
Wast holy in the furious press of men,
And choral in the central rush of life.
Yet didst thou love old branches and a book,
And Roman verses on an English lawn....
Yet not for all thy breathing charm remote,
Nor breach tremendous in the forts of Hell,
Not for these things we praise thee, though these things
Are much; but more, because thou didst discern
In temporal policy the eternal will;
Thou gav'st to party strife the epic note,
And to debate the thunder of the Lord;
To meanest issues fire of the Most High.
William Watson, a Yorkshireman by birth and ancestry, was born on the second of August, 1858. His first volume, The Prince's Quest, appeared in 1880. Seldom has a true poet made a more unpromising start, or given so little indication, not only of the flame of genius, but of the power of thought. No twentieth century English poet has a stronger personality than William Watson. There is not the slightest tang of it in The Prince's Quest. This long, rambling romance, in ten sections, is as devoid of flavour as a five-finger exercise. It is more than objective; it is somnambulistic. It contains hardly any notable lines, and hardly any bad lines. Although quite dull, it never deviates into prose—it is always somehow poetical without ever becoming poetry. It is written in the heroic couplet, written with a fatal fluency; not good enough and not bad enough to be interesting. It is like the student's theme, which was returned to him without corrections, yet with a low mark; and in reply to the student's resentful question, “Why did you not correct my faults, if you thought meanly of my work?” the teacher replied wearily, “Your theme has no faults; it is distinguished by a lack of merit.”
In The Prince's Quest Mr. Watson exhibited a rather remarkable command of a barren technique. He had neither thoughts that breathe, nor words that burn. He had one or two unusual words—his only indication of immaturity in style—like “wox” and “himseemed.” (Why is it that when “herseemed” as used by Rossetti, is so beautiful, “himseemed” should be so irritating!) But aside from a few specimens, the poem is as free from affectations as it is from passion. When we remember the faults and the splendours of Pauline, it seems incredible that a young poet could write so many pages without stumbling and without soaring; that he could produce a finished work of mediocrity. I suppose that those who read the poem in 1880 felt quite sure that its author would never scale the heights; and they were wrong; because William Watson really has the divine gift, and is one of the most deservedly eminent among living poets.
It is only fair to add, that in the edition of his works in 1898, The Prince's Quest did not appear; he was persuaded, however, to include it in the two-volume edition of 1905, where it enjoys considerable revision, “wox” becoming normal, and “himseemed” becoming dissyllabic. For my part, I am glad that it has now been definitely retained. It is important in the study of a poet's development. It would seem that the William Watson of the last twenty-five years, a fiery, eager, sensitive man, with a burning passion to express himself on moral and political ideas, learned the mastery of his art before he had anything to say.
Perhaps, being a thoroughly honest craftsman, he felt that he ought to keep his thoughts to himself, until he knew how to express them. After proving it on an impersonal romance, he was then ready to speak his mind. No poet has spoken his mind more plainly.
In an interesting address, delivered in various cities in the United States, and published in 1913, called The Poet's Place in the Scheme of Life, Mr. Watson said, “Since my arrival on these shores I have been told that here also the public interest in poetry is visibly on the wane.” Now whoever told him that was mistaken. The public interest in poetry and in poets has visibly wox, to use Mr. Watson's word. It is always true that an original genius, like Browning, like Ibsen, like Wagner, must wait some time for public recognition, although these three all lived long enough to receive not only appreciation, but idolatry; but the “reading public” has no difficulty in recognizing immediately first-rate work, when it is produced in the familiar forms of art. In the Preface that preceded his printed lecture, Mr. Watson complained with some natural resentment, though with no petulance, that his poem, King Alfred, starred as it was from the old armories of literature, received scarcely any critical comment, and attracted no attention. But the reason is plain enough— King Alfred, as a whole, is a dull poem, and is therefore not provocative of eager discussion. The critics and the public rose in reverence before Wordsworth's Grave, because it is a noble work of art. Its author did not have to tell us of its beauty—it was as clear as a cathedral.
I do not agree with Mr. Watson or with Mr. Mackaye, that real poets are speaking to deaf ears, or that they should be stimulated by forced attention. I once heard Percy Mackaye make an eloquent and high-minded address, where, if my memory serves me rightly, he advocated something like a stipend for young poets. A distinguished old man in the audience, now with God, whispered audibly, “What most of them need is hanging!” I do not think they should be rewarded either by cash or the gallows. Let them make their way, and if they have genius, the public will find it out. If all they have is talent, and no means to support it, poetry had better become their avocation.
Mr. Watson has expressly disclaimed that in his lecture he was lamenting merely “the insufficient praise bestowed upon living poets.” It is certainly true that most poets cannot live by the sale of their works. Is this especially the fault of our age? is it the fault of our poets? is it a fault in human nature? Mr. Watson said, “Yet I am bound to admit that this need for the poet is felt by but few persons in our day. With one exception there is not a single living English poet, the sales of whose poems would not have been thought contemptible by Scott and Byron. The exception is, of course, that apostle of British imperialism—that vehement and voluble glorifier of Britannic ideals, whom I dare say you will readily identify from my brief, and, I hope, not disparaging description of him. With that one brilliant and salient exception, England's living singers succeed in reaching only a pitifully small audience.” In commenting on this passage, we ought to remember that Scott and Byron were colossal figures, so big that no eye could miss them; and that the reason why Kipling has enjoyed substantial rewards is not because of his political views, nor because of his glorification of the British Empire, but simply because of his literary genius. He is a brilliant and salient exception to the common run of poets, not merely in royalties, but in creative power. Furthermore, shortly after this lecture was delivered, Alfred Noyes and then John Masefield passed from city to city in America in a march of triumph. Mr. Gibson and Mr. De La Mare received homage everywhere; “Riley day” is now a legal holiday in Indiana; Rupert Brooke has been canonized.
Mr. Watson is surely mistaken when he offers “his poetical contemporaries in England” his “most sincere condolences on the hard fate which condemned them to be born there at all in the latter part of the nineteenth century.” But he is not mistaken in wishing that more people everywhere were appreciative of true poetry. I wish this with all my heart, not so much for the poet's sake, as for that of the people. But the chosen spirits are not rarer in our time than formerly. The fault is in human nature. Material blessings are instantly appreciated by every man, woman, and child, and by all the animals. For one person who knows the joys of listening to music, or looking at pictures, or reading poetry, there are a hundred thousand who know only the joys of food, clothing, shelter. Spiritual delights are not so immediately apparent as the gratification of physical desires. Perhaps if they were, man's growth would stop. As Browning says,
While were it so with the soul,—this gift of truth
Once grasped, were this our soul's gain safe, and sure
To prosper as the body's gain is wont,—
Why, man's probation would conclude, his earth
Crumble; for he both reasons and decides,
Weighs first, then chooses: will he give up fire
For gold or purple once he knows its worth?
Could he give Christ up were his worth as plain?
Therefore, I say, to test man, the proofs shift,
Nor may he grasp that fact like other fact,
And straightway in his life acknowledge it,
As, say, the indubitable bliss of fire.
One of the functions of the poet is to awaken men and women to the knowledge of the delights of the mind, to give them life instead of existence. As Mr. Watson nobly expresses it, the aim of the poet “is to keep fresh within us our often flagging sense of life's greatness and grandeur.” We can exist on food; but we cannot live without our poets, who lift us to higher planes of thought and feeling. The poetry of William Watson has done this service for us again and again.
In 1884 appeared Epigrams of Art, Life, and Nature. I do not think these have been sufficiently admired. As an epigrammatist Mr. Watson has no rival in Victorian or in contemporary verse. The epigram is a quite definite form of art, especially cultivated by the poets in the first half of the seventeenth century. Their formula the terse expression of obscene thoughts. Mr. Watson excels the best of them in wit, concision, and grace; it is needless to say he makes no attempt to rival them as a garbage-collector. Of the large number of epigrams that he has contributed to English literature, I find the majority not only interesting, but richly stimulating. This one ought to please Mr. H. G. Wells:
When whelmed are altar, priest, and creed;
When all the faiths have passed;
Perhaps, from darkening incense freed,
God may emerge at last.
This one, despite its subject, is far above doggerel:
His friends he loved. His direst earthly foes—
Cats—believe he did but feign to hate.
My hand will miss the insinuated nose,
Mine eyes the tail that wagg'd contempt at fate.
But his best epigrams are on purely literary themes:
Your Marlowe's page I close, my Shakespeare's ope.
How welcome—after gong and cymbal's din—
The continuity, the long slow slope
And vast curves of the gradual violin!
With the publication in 1890 of his masterpiece, Wordsworth's Grave, William Watson came into his own. This is worthy of the man it honours, and what higher praise could be given? It is superior, both in penetration and in beauty, to Matthew Arnold's famous Memorial Verses. Indeed, in the art of writing subtle literary criticism in rhythmical language that is itself high and pure poetry, Mr. Watson is unapproachable by any of his contemporaries, and I do not know of any poet in English literature who has surpassed him. This is his specialty, this is his clearest title to permanent fame. And although his criticism is so valuable, when employed on a sympathetic theme, that he must be ranked among our modern interpreters of literature, his style in expressing it could not possibly be translated into prose, sure test of its poetical greatness. In his Apologia, he says
I have full oft
In singers' selves found me a theme of song,
Holding these also to be very part
Of Nature's greatness, and accounting not
Their descants least heroical of deeds.
The poem Wordsworth's Grave not only expresses, as no one else has expressed, the quality of Wordsworth's genius, but in single lines assigned to each, the same service is done for Milton, Shakespeare, Shelley, Coleridge, and Byron. This is a matchless illustration of the kind of criticism that is in itself genius; for we may quarrel with Mr. Spingarn as much as we please on his general dogmatic principle of the identity of genius and taste; here we have so admirable an example of what he means by creative criticism, that it is a pity he did not think of it himself. “For it still remains true,” says Mr. Spingarn, “that the aesthetic critic, in his moments of highest power, rises to heights where he is at one with, the creator whom he is interpreting. At that moment criticism and 'creation' are one.”
All great poets have the power of noble indignation, a divine wrath against wickedness in high places. The poets, like the prophets of old, pour out their irrepressible fury against what they believe to be cruelty and oppression. Milton's magnificent Piedmont sonnet is a glorious roar of righteous rage; and since his time the poets have ever been the spokesmen for the insulted and injured. Robert Burns, more than most statesmen, helped to make the world safe for democracy. I do not know what humanity would do without its poets—they are the champions of the individual against the tyranny of power, the cruel selfishness of kings, and the artificial conventions of society. We may or may not agree with Mr. Watson's anti-imperialistic sentiments as expressed in the early days of our century, he himself, like most of us, has changed his mind on many subjects since the outbreak of the world-war, and unless he ceases to develop, will probably change it many times in the future. But whatever our opinions, we cannot help admiring lines like these, published in 1897:
HOW WEARY IS OUR HEART
Of kings and courts; of kingly, courtly ways
In which the life of man is bought and sold;
How weary is our heart these many days!
Of ceremonious embassies that hold
Parley with Hell in fine and silken phrase,
How weary is our heart these many days!
Of wavering counsellors neither hot nor cold,
Whom from His mouth God speweth, be it told
How weary is our heart these many days!
Yea, for the ravelled night is round the lands,
And sick are we of all the imperial story.
The tramp of Power, and its long trail of pain;
The mighty brows in meanest arts grown hoary;
The mighty hands,
That in the dear, affronted name of Peace
Bind down a people to be racked and slain;
The emulous armies waxing without cease,
All-puissant all in vain;
The pacts and leagues to murder by delays,
And the dumb throngs that on the deaf thrones gaze;
The common loveless lust of territory;
The lips that only babble of their mart,
While to the night the shrieking hamlets blaze;
The bought allegiance, and the purchased praise,
False honour, and shameful glory;—
Of all the evil whereof this is part,
How weary is our heart,
How weary is our heart these many days!
Another poem I cite in full, not for its power and beauty, but as a curiosity. I do not think it has been remembered that in the New Poems of 1909 Mr. Watson published a poem of Hate some years before the Teutonic hymn became famous. It is worth reading again, because it so exactly expresses the cold reserve of the Anglo-Saxon, in contrast with the sentimentality of the German. There is, of course, no indication that its author had Germany in mind.
(To certain foreign detractors)
Sirs, if the truth must needs be told,
We love not you that rail and scold;
And, yet, my masters, you may wait
Till the Greek Calends for our hate.
No spendthrifts of our hate are we;
Our hate is used with husbandry.
We hold our hate too choice a thing
For light and careless lavishing.
We cannot, dare not, make it cheap!
For holy uses will we keep.
A thing so pure, a thing so great
As Heaven's benignant gift of hate.
Is there no ancient, sceptred Wrong?
No torturing Power, endured too long?
Yea; and for these our hatred shall
Be cloistered and kept virginal.
He found occasion to draw from his cold storage of hate much sooner than he had anticipated. Being a convinced anti-imperialist, and having not a spark of antagonism to Germany, the early days of August, 1914, shocked no one in the world more than him. But after the first maze of bewilderment and horror, he drew his pen against the Kaiser in holy wrath. Most of his war poems have been collected in the little volume The Man Who Saw, published in the summer of 1917. He has now at all events one satisfaction, that of being in absolute harmony with the national sentiment. In his Preface, after commenting on the pain he had suffered in times past at finding himself in opposition to the majority of his countrymen, he manfully says, “During the present war, with all its agonies and horrors, he has had at any rate the one private satisfaction of feeling not even the most momentary doubt or misgiving as to the perfect righteousness of his country's cause. There is nothing on earth of which he is more certain than that this Empire, throughout this supreme ordeal, has shaped her course by the light of purest duty.” The volume opens with a fine tribute to Mr. Lloyd George, “the man who saw,” and The Kaiser's Dirge is a savage malediction. The poems in this book—of decidedly unequal merit—have the fire of indignation if not always the flame of inspiration. Taken as a whole, they are more interesting psychologically than as a contribution to English verse. I sympathize with the author's feelings, and admire his sincerity; but his reputation as a poet is not heightened overmuch. Perhaps the best poem in the collection is The Yellow Pansy, accompanied with Shakespeare's line, “There's pansies—that's for thoughts.”
Winter had swooped, a lean and hungry hawk;
It seemed an age since summer was entombed;
Yet in our garden, on its frozen stalk,
A yellow pansy bloomed.
'Twas Nature saying by trope and metaphor:
“Behold, when empire against empire strives,
Though all else perish, ground 'neath iron war,
The golden thought survives.”
Although, with the exception of his marriage and travels in America, Mr. Watson's verse tells us little of the facts of his life, few poets have ever revealed more of the history of their mind. What manner of man he is we know without waiting for the publication of his intimate correspondence. It is fortunate for his temperament that, combined with an almost morbid sensitiveness, he has something of Byron's power of hitting back. His numerous volumes contain many verses scoring off adverse critics, upon whom he exercises a sword of satire not always to be found among a poet's weapons; which exercise seems to give him both relief and delight. Apart from these thrusts edged with personal bitterness, William Watson possesses a rarely used vein of ironical wit that immediately recalls Byron, who might himself have written some of the stanzas in The Eloping Angels. Faust requests Mephisto to procure for them both admission into heaven for half-an-hour:
To whom Mephisto: “Ah, you underrate
The hazards and the dangers, my good Sir.
Peter is stony as his name; the gate,
Excepting to invited guests, won't stir.
'Tis long since he and I were intimate;
We differed;—but to bygones why refer?
Still, there are windows; if a peep through these
Would serve your turn, we'll start whene'er you please....”
So Faust and his companion entered, by
The window, the abodes where seraphs dwell.
“Already morning quickens in the sky,
And soon will sound the heavenly matin bell;
Our time is short,” Mephisto said, “for I
Have an appointment about noon in hell.
Dear, dear! why, heaven has hardly changed one bit
Since the old days before the historic split.”
The excellent conventional technique displayed in The Prince's Quest has characterized nearly every page of Mr. Watson's works. He is not only content to walk in the ways of traditional poesy, he glories in it. He has a contempt for heretics and experimenters, which he has expressed frequently not only in prose, but in verse. It is natural that he should worship Tennyson; natural (and unfortunate for him) that he can see little in Browning. And if he is blind to Browning, what he thinks of contemporary “new” poets may easily be imagined. With or without inspiration, he believes that hard work is necessary, and that good workmanship ought to be rated more highly. This idea has become an obsession; Mr. Watson writes too much about the sweat of his brow, and vents his spleen on “modern” poets too often. In his latest volume, Retrogression, published in 1917, thirty-two of the fifty-two poems are devoted to the defence of standards of poetic art and of purity of speech. They are all interesting and contain some truth; but if the “new” poetry and the “new” criticism are really balderdash, they should not require so much attention from one of the most eminent of contemporary writers. I think Mr. Watson is rather stiff-necked and obstinate, like an honest, hearty country squire, in his sturdy following of tradition. Smooth technique is a fine thing in art; but I do not care whether a poem is written in conventional metre or in free verse, so long as it is unmistakably poetry. And no garments yet invented or the lack of them can conceal true poetry. Perhaps the Traditionalist might reply that uninspired verse gracefully written is better than uninspired verse abominably written. So it is; but why bother about either? He might once more insist that inspired poetry gracefully written is better than inspired poetry ungracefully written. And I should reply that it depended altogether on the subject. I should not like to see Whitman's Spirit that formed this Scene turned into a Spenserian stanza. I cannot forget that David Mallet tried to smoothen Hamlet's soliloquy by jamming it into the heroic couplet. Mr. Watson thinks that the great John Donne is dead. On the contrary, he is audibly alive; and the only time he really approached dissolution was when Pope “versified” him.
Stephen Phillips, William Watson, Alfred Noyes—each published his first volume of poems at the age of twenty-two, additional evidence of the old truth that poets are born, not made. Alfred Noyes is a Staffordshire man, though his report of the county differs from that of Arnold Bennett as poetry differs from prose. They did not see the same things in Staffordshire, and if they had, they would not have been the same things, anyhow. Mr. Noyes was born on the sixteenth of September, 1880, and made his first departure from the traditions of English poetry in going to Oxford. There he was an excellent illustration of mens sana in corpore sano, writing verses and rowing on his college crew. He is married to an American wife, is a professor at Princeton, and understands the spirit of America better than most visitors who write clever books about us. He has the wholesome, modest, cheerful temperament of the American college undergraduate, and the Princeton students are fortunate, not only in hearing his lectures, but in the opportunity of fellowship with such a man.
Mr. Noyes is one of the few poets who can read his own verses effectively, the reason being that his mind is by nature both literary and rhetorical—a rare union. The purely literary temperament is usually marked by a certain shyness which unfits its owner for the public platform. I have heard poets read passionate poetry in a muffled sing-song, something like a child learning to “recite.” The works of Alfred Noyes gain distinctly by his oral interpretation of them.
He is prolific. Although still a young man, he has a long list of books to his credit; and it is rather surprising that in such a profusion of literary experiments, the general level should be so high. He writes blank verse, octosyllabics, terza-rima, sonnets, and is particularly fond of long rolling lines that have in them the music of the sea. His ideas require no enlargement of the orchestra, and he generally avoids by-paths, or unbeaten tracks, content to go lustily singing along the highway. Perhaps it shows more courage to compete with standard poets in standard measures, than to elude dangerous comparisons by making or adopting a new fashion. Mr. Noyes openly challenges the masters on their own field and with their own weapons. Yet he shows nothing of the schoolmasterish contempt for the “new" poetry so characteristic of Mr. Watson. He actually admires Blake, who was in spirit a twentieth century poet, and he has written a fine poem On the Death of Francis Thompson, though he has nothing of Thompson in him except religious faith.
In the time-worn but useful classification of versemakers under the labels Vates and Poeta, Alfred Noyes belongs clearly to the latter group. He is not without ideas, but he is primarily an artist, a singer. He is one of the most melodious of modern writers, with a witchery in words that at its best is irresistible. He has an extraordinary command of the resources of language and rhythm. Were this all he possessed, he would be nothing but a graceful musician. But he has the imagination of the inspired poet, giving him creative power to reveal anew the majesty of the untamed sea, and the mystery of the stars. With this clairvoyance—essential in poetry—he has a hearty, charming, incondescending sympathy with “common” people, common flowers, common music. One of his most original and most captivating poems is The Tramp Transfigured, an Episode in the Life of a Corn-flower Millionaire. This contains a character worthy of Dickens, a faery touch of fantasy, a rippling, singing melody, with delightful audacities of rime.
Tick, tack, tick, tack, I couldn't wait no longer!
Up I gets and bows polite and pleasant as a toff—
“Arternoon,” I says, “I'm glad your boots are going stronger;
Only thing I'm dreading is your feet 'ull both come off.”
Tick, tack, tick, tack, she didn't stop to answer,
“Arternoon,” she says, and sort o' chokes a little cough,
“I must get to Piddinghoe tomorrow if I can, sir!”
“Demme, my good woman! Haw! Don't think I mean to loff,”
Says I, like a toff,
“Where d'you mean to sleep tonight? God made this grass for go'ff.”
His masterpiece, The Barrel-Organ, has something of Kipling's rollicking music, with less noise and more refinement. Out of the mechanical grinding of the hand organ, with the accompaniment of city omnibuses, we get the very breath of spring in almost intolerable sweetness. This poem affects the head, the heart, and the feet. I defy any man or woman to read it without surrendering to the magic of the lilacs, the magic of old memories, the magic of the poet. Nor has one ever read this poem without going immediately back to the first line, and reading it all over again, so susceptible are we to the romantic pleasure of melancholy.
Mon coeur est un luth suspendu:
Sitôt qu'on le touche, il résonne.
Alfred Noyes understands the heart of the child; as is proved by his Flower of Old Japan, and Forest of Wild Thyme, a kind of singing Alice-in-Wonderland. These are the veritable stuff of dreams—wholly apart from the law of causation—one vision fading into another. It is our fault, and not that of the poet, that Mr. Noyes had to explain them: “It is no new wisdom to regard these things through the eyes of little children; and I know—however insignificant they may be to others—these two tales contain as deep and true things as I, personally, have the power to express. I hope, therefore, that I may be pardoned, in these hurried days, for pointing out that the two poems are not to be taken merely as fairy-tales, but as an attempt to follow the careless and happy feet of children back into the kingdom of those dreams which, as we said above, are the sole reality worth living and dying for; those beautiful dreams, or those fantastic jests—if any care to call them so—for which mankind has endured so many triumphant martyrdoms that even amidst the rush and roar of modern materialism they cannot be quite forgotten.” Mr. William J. Locke says he would rather give up clean linen and tobacco than give up his dreams.
Nearly all English poetry smells of the sea; the waves rule Britannia. Alfred Noyes loves the ocean, and loves the old sea-dogs of Devonshire. He is not a literary poet, like William Watson, and has seldom given indication of possessing the insight or the interpretative power of his contemporary in dealing with pure literature. He has the blessed gift of admiration, and his poems on Swinburne, Meredith, and other masters show a high reverence; but they are without subtlety, and lack the discriminating phrase. He is, however, deeply read in Elizabethan verse and prose, as his Tales of the Mermaid Tavern, one of his longest, most painstaking, and least successful works, proves; and of all the Elizabethan men of action, Drake is his hero. The English lovers of the sea, and the German lovers of efficiency, have both done honour to Drake. I remember years ago, being in the town of Offenburg in Germany, and seeing at a distance a colossal statue, feeling some surprise when I discovered that the monument was erected to Sir Francis Drake, “in recognition of his having introduced the potato into Europe.” Here was where eulogy became almost too specific, and I felt that their Drake was not my Drake.
Mr. Noyes called Drake, published in 1908, an English Epic. It is not really an epic—it is a historical romance in verse, as Aurora Leigh is a novel. It is interesting from beginning to end, more interesting as narrative than as poetry. It is big rather than great, rhetorical rather than literary, declamatory rather than passionate. And while many descriptive passages are fine, the pictures of the terrible storm near Cape Horn are surely less vivid than those in Dauber. Had Mr. Noyes written Drake without the songs, and written nothing else, I should not feel certain that he was a poet; I should regard him as an extremely fluent versifier, with remarkable skill in telling a rattling good story. But the Songs, especially the one beginning, “Now the purple night is past,” could have been written only by a poet. In Forty Singing Seamen there is displayed an imagination quite superior to anything in Drake; and I would not trade The Admiral's Ghost for the whole “epic.”
As a specific illustration of his lyrical power, the following poem may be cited.
The May-tree on the hill
Stands in the night
So fragrant and so still,
So dusky white.
That, stealing from the wood,
In that sweet air,
You'd think Diana stood
Before you there.
If it be so, her bloom
Trembles with bliss.
She waits across the gloom
Her shepherd's kiss.
Touch her. A bird will start
From those pure snows,—
The dark and fluttering heart
Alfred Noyes is “among the English poets.” His position is secure. But because he has never identified himself with the “new" poetry—either in choice of material or in free verse and polyphonic prose—it would he a mistake to suppose that he is afraid to make metrical experiments. The fact of the matter is, that after he had mastered the technique of conventional rime and rhythm, as shown in many of his lyrical pieces, he began playing new tunes on the old instrument. In The Tramp Transfigured, to which I find myself always returning in a consideration of his work, because it displays some of the highest qualities of pure poetry, there are new metrical effects. The same is true of the Prelude to the Forest of Wild Thyme, and of The Burial of a Queen; there are new metres used in Rank and File and in Mount Ida. The poem Astrid, included in the volume The Lord of Misrule (1915), is an experiment in initial rhymes. Try reading it aloud.
White-armed Astrid,—ah, but she was beautiful!—
Nightly wandered weeping thro' the ferns in the moon,
Slowly, weaving her strange garland in the forest,
Crowned with white violets,
Gowned in green.
Holy was that glen where she glided,
Making her wild garland as Merlin had bidden her,
Breaking off the milk-white horns of the honeysuckle,
Sweetly dripped the new upon her small white
The English national poetry of Mr. Noyes worthily expresses the spirit of the British people, and indeed of the Anglo-Saxon race. We are no lovers of war; military ambition or the glory of conquest is not sufficient motive to call either Great Britain or America to arms; but if the gun-drunken Germans really believed that the English and Americans would not fight to save the world from an unspeakable despotism, they made the mistake of their lives. There must be a Cause, there must be an Idea, to draw out the full fighting strength of the Anglo-Saxons. Alfred Noyes made a correct diagnosis and a correct prophecy in 1911, when he published The Sword of England.
She sheds no blood to that vain god of strife
Whom tyrants call “renown”;
She knows that only they who reverence life
Can nobly lay it down;
And these will ride from child and home and love,
Through death and hell that day;
But O, her faith, her flag, must burn above,
Her soul must lead the way!
I think none the worse of the mental force exhibited in the poetry of Alfred Noyes because he is an optimist. It is a common error to suppose that cheerfulness is a sign of a superficial mind, and melancholy the mark of deep thinking. Pessimism in itself is no proof of intellectual greatness. Every honest man must report the world as he sees it, both in its external manifestations and in the equally salient fact of human emotion. Mr. Noyes has always loved life, and rejoiced in it; he loves the beauty of the world and believes that history proves progress. In an unashamed testimony to the happiness of living he is simply telling truths of his own experience. Happiness is not necessarily thoughtlessness; many men and women have gone through pessimism and come out on serener heights.
Alfred Noyes proves, as Browning proved, that it is possible to be an inspired poet and in every other respect to remain normal. He is healthy-minded, without a trace of affectation or decadence. He follows the Tennysonian tradition in seeing that “Beauty, Good, and Knowledge are three sisters.” He is religious. A clear-headed, pure-hearted Englishman is Alfred Noyes.
Although A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896, there is nothing of the nineteenth century in it except the date, and nothing Victorian except the allusions to the Queen. A double puzzle confronts the reader: how could a University Professor of Latin write this kind of poetry, and how, after having published it, could he refrain from writing more? Since the date of its appearance, he has published an edition of Manilius, Book I, followed nine years later by Book II; also an edition of Juvenal, and many papers representing the result of original research. Possibly
Chill Pedantry repressed his noble rage,
And froze the genial current of his soul.
Alfred Edward Housman was born on the twenty-sixth of March, 1859, was graduated from Oxford, was Professor of Latin at University College, London, from 1892 to 1911, and since then has been Professor of Latin at Cambridge. Few poets have made a deeper impression on the literature of the time than he; and the sixty-three short lyrics in one small volume form a slender wedge for so powerful an impact. This poetry, except in finished workmanship, follows no English tradition; it is as unorthodox as Samuel Butler; it is thoroughly “modern” in tone, in temper, and in emphasis. Although entirely original, it reminds one in many ways of the verse of Thomas Hardy. It has his paganism, his pessimism, his human sympathy, his austere pride in the tragedy of frustration, his curt refusal to pipe a merry tune, to make one of a holiday crowd.
Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
'Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul's stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.
Those lines might have been written by Thomas Hardy. They express not merely his view of life, but his faith in the healing power of the bitter herb of pessimism. But we should remember that A Shropshire Lad was published before the first volume of Mr. Hardy's verse appeared, and that the lyrical element displayed is natural rather than acquired.
Though at the time of its publication the author was thirty-six years old, many of the poems must have been written in the twenties. The style is mature, but the constant dwelling on death and the grave is a mark of youth. Young poets love to write about death, because its contrast to their present condition forms a romantic tragedy, sharply dramatic and yet instinctively felt to be remote. Tennyson's first volume is full of the details of dissolution, the falling jaw, the eye-balls fixing, the sharp-headed worm. Aged poets do not usually write in this manner, because death seems more realistic than romantic. It is a fact rather than an idea. When a young poet is obsessed with the idea of death, it is a sign, not of morbidity, but of normality.
The originality in this book consists not in the contrast between love and the grave, but in the acute self-consciousness of youth, in the pagan determination to enjoy nature without waiting till life's summer is past.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
The death of the body is not the greatest tragedy in this volume, for suicide, a thought that youth loves to play with, is twice glorified. The death of love is often treated with an ironical bitterness that makes one think of Time's Laughingstocks.
Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?
Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man's sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.
The point of view expressed in The Carpenter's Son is singularly detached not only from conventional religious belief, but from conventional reverence. But the originality in A Shropshire Lad, while more strikingly displayed in some poems than in others, leaves its mark on them all. It is the originality of a man who thinks his own thoughts with shy obstinacy, makes up his mind in secret meditation, quite unaffected by current opinion. It is not the poetry of a rebel; it is the poetry of an independent man, too indifferent to the crowd even to fight them. And now and then we find a lyric of flawless beauty, that lingers in the mind like the glow of a sunset.
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went,
And cannot come again.
Mr. Housman's poems are nearer to the twentieth century in spirit than the work of the late Victorians, and many of them are curiously prophetic of the dark days of the present war. What strange vision made him write such poems as The Recruit, The Street Sounds to the Soldiers' Tread, The Day of Battle, and On the Idle Hill of Summer? Change the colour of the uniforms, and these four poems would fit today's tragedy accurately. They are indeed superior to most of the war poems written by the professional poets since 1914.
Ludlow, for ever associated with. Milton's Comus, is now and will be for many years to come also significant in the minds of men as the home of a Shropshire lad.