CHAPTER IV. GIBSON AND HODGSON
Two Northumberland poets—Wilfrid Wilson Gibson—his early
failures—his studies of low life—his collected poems—his
short dramas of pastoral experiences—Daily Bread—lack
of melody—uncanny imagination—whimsies—poems of the Great
War—their contrast to conventional sentimental ditties—the
accusation—his contribution to the advance of poetry.—Ralph
Hodgson—his shyness—his slender output—his fastidious
self-criticism—his quiet facing of the known facts in nature
and in humanity—his love of books—his humour—his respect
for wild and tame animals—the high percentage of artistic
excellence in his work.—Lascelles Abercrombie.
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson—a horrible mouthful—was born in Hexham, Northumberland, in 1878. Like Walt Whitman's, his early poetry was orthodox, well groomed, and uninteresting. It produced no effect on the public, but it produced upon its author a mental condition of acute discontent—the necessary conviction of sin preceding regeneration. Whether he could ever succeed in bringing his verse down to earth, he did not then know; but so far as he was concerned, he not only got down to earth, but got under it. He made subterranean expeditions with the miners, he followed his nose into slums, he talked long hours with the unclassed, and listened sympathetically to the lamentations of sea-made widows. His nature—extraordinarily delicate and sensitive—received deep wounds, the scars of which appeared in his subsequent poetry. Now he lives where John Masefield was born, and like him, speaks for the inarticulate poor.
In 1917 Mr. Gibson collected his poems in one thick volume of some five hundred and fifty pages. This is convenient for reference, but desperately hard to read, on account of the soggy weight of the book. Here we have, however, everything that he has thus far written which he thinks worth preserving. The first piece, Akra the Slave (1904), is a romantic monologue in free verse. Although rather short, it is much too long, and few persons will have the courage to read it through. It is incoherent, spineless, consistent only in dulness. Possibly it is worth keeping as a curiosity. Then comes Stonefolds (1906), a series of bitter bucolics. This is pastoral poetry of a new and refreshing kind—as unlike to the conventional shepherd-shepherdess mincing, intolerable dialogue as could well be imagined. For, among all the groups of verse, in which, for sacred order's sake, we arrange English literature, pastoral poetry easily takes first place in empty, tinkling artificiality. In Stonefolds, we have six tiny plays, never containing more than four characters, and usually less, which represent, in a rasping style, the unending daily struggle of generation after generation with the relentless forces of nature. It is surprising to see how, in four or five pages, the author gives a clear view of the monotonous life of seventy years; in this particular art, Strindberg himself has done no better. The experience of age is contrasted with the hope of youth. Perhaps the most impressive of them all is The Bridal where, in the presence of the newly wedded pair, the man's old, bed-ridden mother speaks of the chronic misery of her married life, intimates that the son is just like his dead father, and that therefore the bride has nothing ahead of her but tragedy. Then comes the conclusion, which reminds one somewhat of the close of Ibsen's Lady from the Sea. The young husband throws wide the door, and addresses his wife as follows:
The door is open; you are free to go.
Why do you tarry? Are you not afraid?
Go, ere I hate you. I'll not hinder you.
I would not have you bound to me by fear.
Don't fear to leave me; rather fear to bide
With me who am my father's very son.
Go, lass, while yet I love you!
ESTHER (closing the door). I shall bide.
I have heard all; and yet, I would not go.
Nor would I have a single word unsaid.
I loved you, husband; yet, I did not know you
Until your mother spoke. I know you now;
And I am not afraid.
The first piece in Stonefolds represents the tragic helplessness of those newly born and those very old, a favourite theme with Maeterlinck. A lamb and a child are born on the same night, and both die before dawn. The lamb is a poetic symbol of babyhood. Nicholas, the aged shepherd, who longs to go out into the night and do his share of the work that must be done, but who is unable even to move, thus addresses the dying lamb:
Poor, bleating beast! We two are much alike,
At either end of life, though scarce an hour
You've been in this rough world, and I so long
That death already has me by the heels;
For neither of us can stir to help himself,
But both must bleat for others' aid. This world
Is rough and bitter to the newly born,
But far more bitter to the nearly dead.
In Daily Bread (1908-09), there are eighteen brief plays, written not in orthodox blank verse, like Stonefolds, but in irregular, brittle, breathless metres. Here is where art takes the short cut to life, sacrificing every grace to gain reality; the typical goal and method of twentieth-century poetry. So long as a vivid impression of character and circumstance is produced, the writer apparently cares nothing about style. I say “apparently,” because the styleless style is perhaps the one best adapted to produce the sought-for effect. There is ever one difference between life and “art”—between drama and theatre—that Mr. Gibson has, I suppose, tried to cancel in these poems of daily bread. In art, the bigger the drama, the bigger the stage; one could not mount Götterdämmerung in a village schoolhouse. But Life does not fit the splendour of the setting to the grandeur of the struggle. In bleak farm cottages, in dull dwellings in city blocks, in slum tenements, the greatest of life's tragedies and comedies are enacted—love, hate, avarice, jealousy, revenge, birth, death—the most terrific passions known to human nature are fully presented, without the slightest care for appropriate scenery from the Master of the show. Thus our poet leads us by the hand into sea-girt huts, into hovels at the mouths of mines, into garrets of noisy cities, and makes us silent witnesses of elemental woe. Here Labour, man's greatest blessing, takes on the aspect of the primal curse, since so many tragedies spring from the simple root of poverty. The love of money may be the root of all evil, but the lack of it is the cause of much pain.
It was a happy inspiration that made Mr. Gibson call these scenes Daily Bread; for it is the struggle, not for comfort, but for existence, that drives these men from mother, wife, and child into the thick of the fight. Many novels and plays are written nowadays against “big business,” where, among other real and imagined evils, the Business itself is represented as the villain in the home, alienating the husband's affections from wife and children. Whatever may be the case with the private soldiers, the Captain of Industry does not, and by the nature of things cannot, confine his labours to an eight-hour day—when he finally comes home, he brings the business with him, forming a more well-founded cause of jealousy than the one usually selected for conventional drama. Mr. Gibson, however, is not interested in the tragic few, but in the tragic many, and in his poems the man of the house leaves early and returns late. The industrial war caused by social conditions takes him from home as surely and as perilously as though he were drafted into an expeditionary force. The daily parting is poignant, for every member of the family knows he may not come back. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of this corroding worry is seen inThe Night-Shift, where four women with a newly-born baby spend a night of agonized waiting, only to have their fears confirmed in the dawn.
The wife, weak from childbirth, sits up in bed, and speaks:
Will no one stop that tapping?
I cannot sleep for it.
I think that someone is shut in somewhere,
And trying to get out.
Will no one let them out,
And stop the tapping?
It keeps on tapping, tapping....
Tap ... tap ... tap ... tap....
And I can scarcely breathe,
The darkness is so thick.
It stifles me,
And weighs so heavily upon me,
And drips, and drips....
My hair is wet already;
There's water all about my knees....
As though great rocks were hanging overhead!
And dripping, dripping....
I cannot lift my feet,
The water holds them,
It's creeping ... creeping ... creeping....
My wet hair drags me down.
Will no one stop that tapping....
I cannot sleep....
And I would sleep
Till he comes home....
Tap ... tap ... tap ... tap....
These poems were, of course, composed before the war. In the greater tragedy, some of the lesser ones disappear. For example, Mr. Gibson represents young, able-bodied, healthy and temperate men as unable to find work of any kind; their wives and children starve because of the absence of employment. Surely, since August, 1914, this particular cause of suffering has been removed.
In Womenkind (1909), dedicated to Rabbi and Mrs. Wise, we have a real play, not only dramatic in character and situation, but fitted for stage representation without the change of a word. The theme is just the opposite of Middleton's old drama, Women Beware Women. Here the two young women, one the mistress-mother, and one the bride, join forces against the man, and walk out of his house on the wedding-day. They feel that the tie between them is stronger than the tie which had united them severally to the man, and depart to live together. The play closes on a note of irony, for Jim, his blind father, and his weary mother repeat in turn—but with quite different emphasis—the accusation that women are a faithless lot.
The long series of poems called Fires (1910-11) differ in matter and manner from the earlier works. The form of drama is abandoned, and in its place we have vivid rimed narrative, mingled with glowing pictures of natural scenery, taken at all hours of the day and night. Each of his poems must be taken as a whole, for each poem strives for a single effect. This effect is often gained by taking some object, animate or inanimate, as a symbol. Thus, in The Hare, the hunted animal is the symbol of woman. The Flute, The Lighthouse, and The Money mean more than their definition. Mr. Gibson is somewhat kinder to his readers in this collection, for the monotony of woe, that hangs over his work like a cloud, is rifted here and there by a ray of happiness. In The Shop, the little boy actually recovers from pneumonia, and our share in the father's delight is heightened by surprise, for whenever any of our poet's characters falls into a sickness, we have learned to expect the worst. Still, the darker side of life remains the author's chosen field of exploration. Two pieces are so uncanny that one might almost think they proceeded from a disordered imagination. The blind boy, who every day has rowed his father back and forth from the fishing-grounds, while the man steered, one day rows cheerfully toward home, unaware that his father is dead. The boy wonders at his father's silence, and laughingly asserts that he has heard him snoring. Then his mirth changes to fear, and fear to horror.
Though none has ever known
How he rowed in, alone,
And never touched a reef.
Some say they saw the dead man steer—
The dead man steer the blind man home—
Though, when they found him dead,
His hand was cold as lead.
Another strange poem describes how a cripple sits in his room, with a mother eternally stitching for bread, and watches out of the window the giant crane swinging vast weights through the sky. One night, while he is half-dead with fear, the great crane swoops down upon him, clutches his bed, and swings him, bed and all, above the sleeping city, among the blazing stars.
Following Mr. Gibson's development as a poet, year by year, we come to Thoroughfares (1908-14). These are short poems more conventional in form than their predecessors, but just as stark and grim as chronicles of life. Every one remembers the torture inflicted on women in the good-old-times, when they were strapped to posts on the flats at low tide, and allowed to watch the cruel slowness of approaching death. The same theme, with an even more terrible termination, is selected by Mr. Gibson in Solway Ford, where the carter is pinned by the heavy, overturned wagon on the sands; while the tide gradually brings the water toward his helpless body. He dies a thousand deaths in imagination, but is rescued just as the waves are lapping the wheels. Now he lies in bed, an incurable idiot, smiling as he sees gold and sapphire fishes swimming in the water over his head.... That rarest of all English metres—which Browning chose for One Word More—is employed by Mr. Gibson in a compound of tragedy-irony called The Vindictive Staircase. Unfortunately the rhythm is so closely associated with Browning's love-poem, that these lines sound like a parody:
Mrs. Murphy, timidest of spectres,
You who were the cheeriest of charers,
With the heart of innocence and only
Torn between a zest for priest and porter,
Mrs. Murphy of the ample bosom,—
Suckler of a score or so of children.
It seems best to leave this measure in the undisturbed possession of the poet who used it supremely well. Yet some of the verses in Thoroughfares are an advance on Mr. Gibson's previous work. No reader will ever forget Wheels.
Passing over Borderlands (1912-14) which, with the exception of Akra, is the least successful of Mr. Gibson's works, we come to his most original contribution to modern poetry, the short poems included under the heading Battle (1914-15). These verses afford one more bit of evidence that in order to write unconventional thoughts, it is not necessary to use unconventional forms. The ideas expressed here can be found in no other war-poet; they are idiosyncratic to the highest degree; yet the verse-forms in which they are written are stanzaic, as traditional as the most conservative critic could desire. There is, of course, no reason why any poet should not compose in new and strange rhythms if he prefers to do so; but I have never believed that originality in thought necessarily demands metrical measures other than those found in the history of English literature.
These lyrical poems are dramatic monologues. Each one is the testimony of some soldier in the thick of the fight as to what he has seen or heard, or as to what memories are strongest in his mind as he lies in the filth of the trenches. Conventional emotions of enthusiasm, glory, sacrifice, courage, are omitted, not because they do not exist, but simply because they are taken for granted; these boys are aflame with such feelings at the proper time. But Mr. Gibson is more interested in the strange, fantastic thoughts, waifs of memory, that wander across the surface of the mind in the midst of scenes of horror. And we feel that the more fantastic these thoughts are, the more do they reflect the deep truths of experience. Home naturally looms large, and some of the recollections of home take on a grim humour, strangely in contrast with the present environment of the soldier.
I quite forgot to put the spigot in.
It's just come over me.... And it is queer
To think he'll not care if we lose or win.
And yet be jumping-mad about that beer.
I left it running full. He must have said
A thing or two. I'd give my stripes to hear
What he will say if I'm reported dead
Before he gets me told about that beer!
It would appear that the world has grown up, or at all events, grown much older, during the last forty years. It has grown older at a high rate of speed. The love of country is the same as ever, because that is a primal human passion, that will never change, any more than the love of the sexes; but the expression of battle-poems seems more mature, more sophisticated, if you like, in this war than in any preceding conflict. Most of the verses written in England and in America are as different as may be from “Just before the battle, mother,” which was so popular during our Civil War. Never before has the psychology of the soldier been so acutely studied by national poets. And instead of representing the soldier as a man swayed by a few elemental passions and lush sentiment, he is presented as an extraordinarily complex individual, with every part of his brain abnormally alert. Modern poetry, in this respect, has, I think, followed the lead of the realistic prose novel. Such books as Tolstoi's Sevastopol, and Zola's La Débâcle, have had a powerful effect in making war poetry more analytical; while that original story, The Red Badge of Courage, written by an inspired young American, Stephen Crane, has left its mark on many a volume of verse that has been produced since August, 1914. The unabashed realism of the trenches, together with the psychology of the soldier, is clearly and significantly reflected in From the Front (1918), a book of poems written by men in service, edited by Lieut. C. E. Andrews.
What is going to become of us all if the obsession of self-consciousness grows ever stronger?
There is not a trace of cheap sentiment in Battle. Even the poems that come nearest to the emotional surface are saved by some specific touch, like the sense of smell, which, as every one knows, is a sharper spur to the memory than any other sensation.
Tonight they're sitting by the peat
Talking of me, I know—
Grandfather in the ingle-seat,
Mother and Meg and Joe.
I feel a sudden puff of heat
That sets my ears aglow,
And smell the reek of burning peat
Across the Belgian snow.
Browning wrote of Shelley, who had been dead eleven years,
The air seems bright with thy past presence yet.
A similar effect of brightness in life and afterglow in death, seems to have been made on every one who knew him by Rupert Brooke. No young poet of the twentieth century has left such a flaming glory as he. The prefatory poem to Mr. Gibson's Friends (1915-16), beautifully expresses the common feeling:
I do not understand.
I only know
That as he turned to go
And waved his hand
In his young eyes a sudden glory shone:
And I was dazzled by a sunset glow,
And he was gone.
The fine sonnets that follow strengthen the strong colour, and are among the most authentic claims to poetry that their author has set forth. The second one, contrasting the pale glimmer of the London garret with the brilliant apparition of Brooke at the open door, “like sudden April,” is poignant in its beauty. The verses in this volume are richer in melody than is customary with Mr. Gibson, yet The Pessimist andThe Ice-Cart show that he is as whimsical as ever. He has no end of fun with his fancy.
Livelihood (1914-16) takes us back to the bitter pessimism of Stonefolds and Daily Bread; only instead of being dialogues, these stories are given in descriptive form, and for the most part in regular pentameter rime. The best of them is In the Orchestra, where the poor fiddler in the band at the cheap music-hall plays mechanically every night for his daily bread, while his heart is torn by the vulture of memory. This poem shows a firm grasp of the material; every word adds something to the total impression.
Mr. Gibson's constantly repeated pictures of the grinding, soul-crushing labour of the poor seem to say J'accuse! Yet he nowhere says it explicitly. He never interrupts his narrative with “My Lords and Gentlemen,” nor does he comment, like Hood in The Song of the Shirt.
Yet the effect of his work is an indictment. Only, whom does he accuse? Is it the government; is it society; is it God?
Mr. Gibson's latest book of poems, Hill-Tracks (1918), differs from his previous works in two respects. It is full of pictures of the open fields of Northumberland, the county where he was born; and nearly every piece is an attempt at a singing lyric, something seldom found in his Collected Poems. I say an “attempt” with deliberation, for song is not the most natural expression of this realistic writer, and not more than half of the fifty lyrics in this handsome volume are successfully melodious. Some are trivial, and hardly deserve such beauty of type and paper; others, however, will be gladly welcomed by all students of Mr. Gibson's work, because they exhibit the powers of the author in an unusual and charming manner. I should think that those familiar with the topography and with the colloquialisms constantly appearing in this book, would read it with a veritable delight of reminiscence.
Heatherland and bent-land—
Black land and white,
God bring me to Northumberland,
The land of my delight.
Land of singing waters,
And winds from off the sea,
God bring me to Northumberland,
The land where I would be.
Heatherland and bent-land,
And valleys rich with corn,
God bring me to Northumberland,
The land where I was born.
The shadow of the war darkens nearly every page of this volume, and the last poem expresses not the local but the universal sentiment of us who remain in our homes.
We who are left, how shall we look again
Happily on the sun, or feel the rain,
Without remembering how they who went
Ungrudgingly, and spent
Their all for us, loved, too, the sun and rain?
A bird among the rain-wet lilac sings—
But we, how shall we turn to little things
And listen to the birds and winds and streams
Made holy by their dreams,
Nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things?
An interesting feature of the Collected Poems is a striking unfinished portrait of the author by Mrs. Wise; but I think it was an error to publish all these verses in one volume. They produce an impression of grey monotony which is hardly fair to the poet. The individuals change their names, but they pass through the same typical woe of childbirth, desertion, loveless old age, incipient insanity, with eternal joyless toil. One will form a higher opinion if one reads the separate volumes as they appeared, and not too much at a time.
His contribution to the advance of English poetry is seen mainly in his grim realism, in his direct, unadorned presentation of what he believes to be the truth, whether it be the facts of environment, or the facts of thought. Conventional war-poetry, excellently represented by Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, which itself harks back to Drayton's stirring Ballad of Agincourt, has not the slightest echo in these volumes; and ordinary songs of labour are equally remote. Face to face with Life—that is where the poet leads us, and where he leaves us. He is far indeed from possessing the splendid lyrical gift of John Masefield; he has nothing of the literary quality of William Watson. He writes neither of romantic buccaneers nor of golden old books. But he is close to the grimy millions. He writes the short and simple annals of the poor. He is a poet of the people, and seems to have taken a vow that we shall not forget them.
Ralph Hodgson was born somewhere in Northumberland about forty years ago, and successfully eluded the notice of the world until the year 1907. He is by nature such a recluse that I feel certain he would prefer to attract no attention whatever were it not for the fact that it is as necessary for a poet to print his songs as it is for a bird to sing them. His favourite companions are Shelley, Wordsworth, and a bull terrier, and he is said to play billiards with “grim earnestness.” In 1907 he published a tiny volume called The Last Blackbird, and in 1917 another and tinier one called Poems. During this decade he printed in a few paper booklets, which some day will be valuable curiosities, separate pieces such as Eve, The Bull, The Mystery. These are now permanently preserved in the 1917 book. This thin volume, weighing only two or three ounces, is a real addition to the English poetry of the twentieth century.
It is impossible to read the verse of Ralph Hodgson without admiration for the clarity of his art and respect for the vigour of his mind. Although many of his works are as aloof from his own opinions as a well-executed statue, the strength of his personality is an immanent force. He writes much and publishes little; he is an intellectual aristocrat. He has the fastidiousness which was the main characteristic of the temperament of Thomas Gray; and he has as well Gray's hatred of publicity and much of Gray's lambent humour, more salty than satiric. His work is decidedly caviare to the general, not because it is obscure, which it is not, but because it presupposes much background. Lovers of nature and lovers of books will love these verses, and reread them many times; but they are not for all markets. No contemporary poet is more truly original than he; but his originality is seen in his mental attitude rather than in newness of form or strangeness of language. The standard metres are good enough for him, and so are the words in common use. His subjects are the world-old subjects of poetry—birds, flowers, men and women. Religion is as conspicuously absent as it is in the works of Keats; its place is taken by sympathy for humanity and an extraordinary sympathy for animals. He is as far from the religious passion of Francis Thompson as he is from the sociological inquisitiveness of Mr. Gibson. To him each bird, each flower appears as a form of worship. Men and women appeal to him not because they are poor or downtrodden, but simply because they are men and women. He is neither an optimist nor a pessimist; the world is full of objects both interesting and beautiful, which will pay a rich return to those who observe them accurately. This is as near as he has thus far come to any philosophy or any theology:
He came and took me by the hand
Up to a red rose tree,
He kept His meaning to Himself
But gave a rose to me.
I did not pray Him to lay bare
The mystery to me,
Enough the rose was Heaven to smell,
And His own face to see.
It is the absolute object that interests this poet, rather than vague or futile speculation about it. The flower in the crannied wall he would leave there. He would never pluck it out, root and all, wondering about the mystery of the life principle. No poet is more clean-eyed. His eyes are achromatic. He has lost his illusions gladly; every time he has lost an illusion he has gained a new idea. The world as it is seems to him more beautiful, more interesting than any false-coloured picture of it or any longing to remould it nearer to the heart's desire. He faces life with steady composure. But it is not the composure either of stoicism or of despair. He finds it so wonderful just as it is that he is thankful that he has eyes to see its beauty, ears to hear its melodies—enough for his present mortal state.
“How fared you when you mortal were?
What did you see on my peopled star?”
“Oh, well enough,” I answered her,
“It went for me where mortals are!
“I saw blue flowers and the merlin's flight
And the rime on the wintry tree,
Blue doves I saw and summer light
On the wings of the cinnamon bee.”
There is in all this a kind of reverent worship without any trace of mysticism. And still less of that modern attitude more popular and surely more fruitless than mysticism—defiance.
There is a quite different side to the poetry of Mr. Hodgson, which one would hardly suspect after reading his outdoor verse. The lamplit silence of the library is as charming to him as the fragrant silence of the woods. He is as much of a recluse among books as he is among flowers. No poet of today seems more self-sufficient. Although a lover of humanity, he seems to require no companionship. He is no more lonely than a cat, and has as many resources as Tabby herself. Now when he talks about books, his poetry becomes intimate, and forsakes all objectivity. His humour, a purely intellectual quality with him, rises unrestrainedly.
When the folks have gone to bed,
And the lamp is burning low,
And the fire burns not so red
As it burned an hour ago,
Then I turn about my chair
So that I can dimly see
Into the dark corners where
Lies my modest library.
Volumes gay and volumes grave,
Many volumes have I got;
Many volumes though I have,
Many volumes have I not.
I have not the rare Lucasta,
I'm a lean-pursed poetaster,
Or the book had long been mine....
Near the “Wit's Interpreter"
(Like an antique Whitaker,
Full of strange etcetera),
And the muse of Lycidas,
Lost in meditation deep,
Give the cut to Hudibras,
Unaware the knave's asleep....
There lies Coleridge, bound in green,
Sleepily still wond'ring what
He meant Kubla Khan to mean,
In that early Wordsworth, Mat.
Arnold knows a faithful prop,—
Still to subject-matter leans,
Murmurs of the loved hill-top,
Fyfield tree and Cumnor scenes.
The poem closes with a high tribute to Shelley, “more than all the others mine.”
The following trifle is excellent fooling:
THE GREAT AUK'S GHOST
The Great Auk's ghost rose on one leg,
Sighed thrice and three times winkt,
And turned and poached a phantom egg,
And muttered, “I'm extinct.”
But it is in the love of unextinct animals that Mr. Hodgson's poetic powers find their most effective display. His masterpiece on the old unhappy Bull is surprisingly impressive; surprisingly, because we almost resent being made to feel such ardent sympathy for the poor old Bull, when there are so many other and more important objects to be sorry for. Yet the poet draws us away for the moment from all the other tragedies in God's universe, and absolutely compels our pity for the Bull. The stanzas in this poem swarm with life.
From a certain point of view, poets are justified in calling attention to the sufferings of our animal brothers. For it is the sufferings of animals, even more than the sorrows of man, that check our faith either in the providence or in the love of God. Human suffering may possibly be balanced against the spiritual gain it (sometimes) brings; and at all events, we know that there is no road to greatness of character except through pain. But what can compensate the dumb animals for their physical anguish? It is certainly difficult to see their reward, unless they have immortal souls. That this is no slight obstacle in the way of those who earnestly desire to believe in an ethical universe, may be seen from the fact that it was the sight of a snake swallowing a toad that destroyed once for all the religious beliefs of Turgenev; and I know a man of science in America who became an agnostic simply from observation of a particular Texas fly that bites the cattle. The Founder of Christianity recognized this problem, as He did every other painful fact in life, when He made the remark about the sparrow.
Yet even the pessimists ought not to be quite so sure that God is morally inferior to man. Even their God may be no more amused by human anguish then men are amused by the grotesque floppings of a dying fish.
The villains in the world are those who have no respect for the personality of birds and beasts. And their cruelty to animals is not deliberate or vindictive—it arises from crass stupidity.
I saw with open eyes
Singing birds sweet
Sold in the shops
For the people to eat,
Sold in the shops of
I saw in vision
The worm in the wheat,
And in the shops nothing
For people to eat;
Nothing for sale in
The poet's attitude toward the lion in the jungle, the bull in the field, the cat in the yard, the bird on the tree is not one of affectionate petting, for love and sympathy are often mingled—consciously or unconsciously—with condescension. There is no trace of condescension in the way Mr. Hodgson writes of animals. He treats them with respect, and not only hates to see them hurt, he hates to see their dignity outraged.
THE BELLS OF HEAVEN
'Twould ring the bells of Heaven
The wildest peal for years,
If Parson lost his senses
And people came to theirs,
And he and they together
Knelt down with angry prayers
For tamed and shabby tigers
And dancing dogs and bears,
And wretched, blind pit ponies,
And little hunted hares.
I confess that I have often felt a sense of shame for humanity when I have observed men and women staring through the bars at the splendid African cats in cages, and have also observed that their foolish stare is returned by the lion or tiger with a dull look of infinite boredom. Nor is it pleasant to see small boys pushing sticks through the safe bars, in an endeavour to irritate the royal captives. One remembers Browning's superb lion in The Glove, whom the knight was able to approach in safety, because the regal beast was completely lost in thought—he was homesick for the desert, oblivious of the little man-king and his duodecimo court.
Although the total production of Ralph Hodgson is slight in quantity, the percentage of excellence is remarkably high. The reason for this is clear. Instead of printing everything he writes, and leaving the employment of the cream-separator to his readers, he gives to the public only what has passed his own severe scrutiny. He is a true poet, with an original mind.
As for the work of Lascelles Abercrombie, which has been much praised in certain circles, I should prefer to leave the criticism of that to those who enjoy reading it. If I should attempt to “do justice" to his poetry, I should seem to his friends to be doing just the opposite—the opposite of just.