THE POET OF ELEGY.
GRAY will always, we suppose, hold, by virtue rather of earlier claim than of prior right, the first nominal place amongst our elegiac poets. The "Elegy in a Country Church- yard" is so beautiful and so simple, so entirely devoid of anything that is "caviare to the general," and reflects so
perfectly that mood of gentle regret which is neither too gloomy for fascination nor too intense for a quietly imaginative heart, that it has almost stamped him on the national mind as the elegiac poet of our country. But the present writer at least is convinced that neither the "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," nor the "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," beautiful as each is, touches so high a point in the elegiac poetry of our country as some half-dozen of Matthew Arnold's poems. Just glance over the edition of his poems in three volumes which Messrs.
Macmillan have just issued ; you will be struck by the fact that all the finest poems in all three, even though professing to be lyric, or dramatic, or narrative, are, in their finest passages and happiest thoughts essentially poems of elegy,—by which we mean poems of exquisite regret,—and not, in fact, poems of longing, or of passion, or of character, or of heroic venture. Even the beautiful early poem on the Church of Brou is essen- tially elegiac. "Youth and Calm," again, contains the very heart of elegy :—
" But ah ! though peace indeed is here, And ease from shame and rest from fear, Though nothing can dismarble now The smoothness of that limpid brow, Yet is a calm like this in truth The crowning end of life and youth ? And when this boon rewards the dead Are all debts paid, has all been said ? And is the heart of youth so light, Its step so firm, its eye so bright, Because on its hot brow there blows A wind of promise and repose From the far grave to which it goes ? Because it has the hope to come One day to harbour in the tomb ? Ah no ! the bliss youth dreams is one For daylight and the cheerful sun, For feeling nerves and living breath, Youth dreams a bliss on this side death. It dreams a rest, if not more deep, More grateful than this marble sleep. It hears a voice within it tell,— ' Calm's not life's crown, hut calm is well.' 'Tie all, perhaps, which man acquires, Bat 'tis not what our youth desires."
That is an early poem (and we take leave to print it as it was first published, and not as it has been re-edited by its author), and one in which the elegiac tone is not perhaps hit with the perfect felicity of later years ; but still it has the very life of the poet in it, and marks as distinctly as Goethe's early songs marked, the region in which the verse of the poet who produced it was destined to excel. It is the same with the rather enigmatic but still most powerful early lines addressed "To a Gipsy Child by the Seashore." It is the same again with the touching lines entitled "Resignation,"—also an early poem,—which in its close gives us another and most pathetic variation on the note of exquisite regret :—
"Enough we live, and if s life
With large results so little rife Though bearable, seem hardly worth This pomp of worlds, this pain of birth ; Yet Fansta, the mute turf we tread, The solemn hills around us spread, This stream which falls incessantly. The strange.scrawl'd rooks, the lonely sky, If I might lend their life a voice, Seem to bear, rather than rejoice.
And even, could the intemperate prayer Man iterates, while these forbear, For movement, for an ampler sphere, Pierce fate's impenetrable ear; Not milder is the general lot Because our spirits have forgot, In action's dizzying eddy whirled, The something that infects the world."
Even of the narrative poems, far the most effective parts are written in the elegiac mood. There is nothing so fine in" Sohrab and Rustum " as the beautiful elegiac close describing the course of the Oxus to the Aral Sea. The "Sick King in Bokhara" is one of the most beautiful of these poems ; but the beauty in it is chiefly the beauty of the regret with which the King pities and commemorates the sorrow he could not cure. The whole tone of "Tristram and Iseult" is elegiac, a chastened review of passion spent and past, not of passion strong and present. .And it is the same with "The Forsaken Merman."
Or take the poems which Mr. Arnold himself calls lyric and you will find that all the more effective of them are really elegiac in tone. Is not the poem on isolation, in which the deep regret is poured forth that "we mortal millions live alone,"— that it is a God who
"—bade betwixt their shores to be The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea,"
much more truly elegiac than lyric P Shelley, the great poet of desire, is the true type of a lyric poet. Tennyson is great alike in reflection, in regret, and in description, and sometimes in lyrical feeling. But Matthew Arnold is hardly a lyric poet. His face is never turned to the future. His noblest feeling is always for
the past. If he ever tries to delineate the new age, he only succeeds in breaking into praise of the age which is passed
" Poet, what ails thee, then ?
Say why so mute ?
Forth with thy praising voice !
Forth with thy flute!
Loiterer, why sittest thou Sunk in thy dream ?
Tempts not the bright new age ?
Shines not its stream ?
Look, ah, what genius, Art, science, wit !
Soldiers like Ctosar, Statesmen like Pitt !
Sculptors like Phidias, Raphaels in shoals, Poets like Shakespeare, Beautiful souls !
See on their glowing cheeks Heavenly the flush!
—Ah, so the silence was So was the hush."
When we come to the professedly elegiac poems of Matthew Arnold, we see how entirely the genius of the poet is expressed in the spirit of elegy. The present writer would not hesitate, much as he admires Gray's two exquisite elegiac poems, to place at least seven of Matthew Arnold's above them in almost every quality of genius,—namely, "The Scholar- Gipsy," " Thyrsis," "A Southern Night," "Memorial Verses" (on Byron, Goethe, and Wordsworth), "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse," and the two sets of stanzas in memory of the author of " Obermann." But these poems are all deservedly famous, and it needs no criticism of ours to make those who love them observe that they are not merely confessedly elegiac, but that they express the mood in which sad thoughts bring sweet thoughts to the mind as perfectly as ever poet expressed it yet.
We would rather at present call attention to the poems here just republished, called "Later Poems," in proof of our assertion that Matthew Arnold is one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest—of our elegiac poets. Of these the first is confessedly elegiac, as it is a poem on the death of the late Dean of Westminster ; and though not comparable in beauty to the one on the death of Clough (" Thyrais "), it is still stamped with the wistful tenderness of Mr. Arnold's genius. Who can fail to see the beauty of the regret in the following stanza?-
And truly he who here Math run his bright career, And served men nobly and acceptance found, And borne to light and right his witness high, What could he better wish than then to die, And wait the issue sleeping underground ?
Why should he pray to range Down the long age of truth that ripens slow, • And break his heart with all the baffling change, And all the tedious tossing to and fro ?"
But the chief new evidence of Matthew Arnold's genius for elegy is that afforded by the two beautiful elegies, for we can call them nothing less, on the death of the dachshund "Geist," and of the little canary "Matthias." In the last century, Cowper, who was then the most natural and happy of the poets who celebrated creatures of a less reasoning race than our own, wrote of his dog " Beau " with sincere enough affection, but in a mood of comparatively jejune morality :—
"I saw him with that lily cropped Impatient swim to meet
My quick approach, and soon he dropped The treasure at my feet.
Charmed with the sight, the world, I cried, Shall hear of this thy deed, My dog shall mortify the pride Of man's superior breed.
But chief, myself I will enjoin, Awake at duty's call To show a love as prompt as thine To him who gives me all."
But compare with that Matthew Arnold's far more truly pathetic commemoration of" Geist" :— "That loving heart, that patient soul, Had they indeed no longer span
To ran their course and reach their goal, And read their homily to man ?
That liquid melancholy eye, From whose pathetic, soul-fed springs Seem'd surging the Virgilian cry, The sense of tears in mortal things.
That steadfast mournful strain consoled By spirits gloriously gay And temper of heroic mould,— . What, was four years their whole short day ? ....... . .
We stroke thy broad, brown paws again, We bid thee to thy vacant chair ; We greet thee by the window-pane, We hear thy souffle on the stair.
We see the flaps of thy large ears Quick raised to ask which way we go ; Crossing the frozen lake appears Thy small black figure on the snow."
If that be not true elegy, we know not what true elegy is. Again, take the exquisite lines on "The Canary," lines all the more striking, that the chief note of them is the poet's admission of
his incompetence to grieve for "poor Matthias" as he had grieved for "Geist." Here, again, we think of Cowper, and recall with what humour, with what fanciful originality, he made a new poem of Vincent Bourne's Latin lines on the jackdaw perched on the vane of the church.steeple,—how he transformed and trans- figured them into true humour :—
"You think, no doubt, he sits and muses On future broken bones and bruises If he should chance to fall.
No, not a single thought like that Employs his philosophic pate, Or troubles it at all.
He sees that this great roundabout— The world—with all its motley rout, Church, army, physic, law, Its customs and its businesses, Is no concern at all of hie, And says, what says he ?—Caw!
Thrice happy bird ! I too have seen Much of the vanities of men, And sick of having seen 'em, Would cheerfully these limbs resign For such a pair of wings as thine And such a head between 'ern."
That is much more than a translation of such lines as these :—
" Concuraus spectat, platelque negotia in omni Oronia pro nngis at eapienter habet, Clamores qnos infra audit, si forsitan audit, Pro rebus nibili negligit, et crochet. Ele tibi invideat, felix cornicala, pennas Qui sic humanis rebus abesse
Now listen to Matthew Arnold also musing on a bird, and observe the still deeper,—the much deeper,—note which he strikes :—
"Birds, companions, more unknown Live beside us, -but alone ; Finding not, do all they can, Passage from their souls to man. Kindness we bestow, and praise Laud their plumage, greet their lays. Still beneath their feather'd breast Stirs a history unexpress'd.
Wishes there and feelings strong Incommunicably throng ;
What they want we cannot guess, Fail to traok their deep distress. Dall look on when death is nigh, Note no change, and let them die. Poor Matthias, could'st then speak, What a tale of thy last week ! Every morning did we pay
Stupid salutations gay, Suited well to health, but how Mocking, how incongruous now ! Cake we offered, sugar, seed, Never doubtful of thy need ; Praised perhaps thy lustrous eye, Praised thy golden livery.
Gravely thou, the while, poor dear, &Vat upon thy perch to hear, Fixing with a mute regard Us, thy human keepers, hard, Troubling with our chatter vain, Ebb of life and mortal pain,— Us, unable to divine Our companion's dying sign, Or o'erpass the severing sea
Set betwixt ourselves and thee, Till the sand thy feathers smirch, Fallen dying off thy perch !
. . . . . . . Birds, we but repeat in you What amongst ourselves we do. Somewhat more or somewhat less, 'Tis the same unskilfulness. What you feel escapes our ken, Know we more our fellow-men ? Human suffering at our side, Ah, like your's, is undescried ! Human longings, human fears, Miss our eyes and miss our ears. Little helping, wounding much, Dull of heart and hard of touch, Brother man's despairing sign Who may trust us to divine ? Who assure us, sundering powers Stand not Iwixt his soul and our's."
Was there ever a lighter, happier touch for true elegy than this ? "The sense of tears in mortal things" was never more gently, more tenderly expressed.