THE FIRST OF MAY : A FAIRY MASQUE.*
THERE is one drawback to the use of blank verse by minor- poets and amateurs,—the fact, namely, that in unskilful hands it so readily ceases to be verse at all, and yet it is scarcely read- able as prose. Rhyme, after all, however common-place it may be, if it be only fairly easy, if it goes, as Kingsley would say, "with a fiddle and a big drum," has at least something pleasant in the "cold, sweet recurrence of accepted rhyme," and wraps any possible lack of sense in an envelope of, sound. But given a person whose ideas differ little from those which we find in the most widely accepted treatises of morality, whose mind is un- accustomed to present those ideas in any but the most conven- tional form, and whose poetical gifts are of the very slightest character, and let this person attempt to write a long poem of a thousand lines or so in blank verse, about maidens and lovers,. fairies and fiends, children and cherubs, and the result could hardly be otherwise than we find it here in this " Fairy Masque," entitled "The First of May." We will not say that the poem wearies its readers, for we doubt whether it has any readers to weary. The twenty lines or so which appear upon each sheet (there are fifty odd sheets in the publication) only serve as an excuse for the elaborate border and design with which Mr. Walter Crane has illustrated them. The illustrations are, in fact, the raison d'etre of the poem, and we imagine it is far from unlikely that the poem was actually written to accompany them. But that our readers may judge for themselves of the quality of the blank verse, we append a sample, taken from the- first sheet that comes to hand :— " ADDER'S TONGUE, (Loq.)
Poor sport, to take out vengeance on mere flowers,— A plant can't feel or suffer half enough. I love to sow distrust 'twixt man and man, To blight the minds of friends with jealousy, Graft canker on fair cheeks, and broad-cast fling The thorns and briars of passion on each heart, Make vows of love turn into oaths of bate, The kiss breed poison on the lover's lips, With mask of virtue ruin innocence, And stretch the just man on misfortune's rack."
That is only prose, and very abominable prose, too—a prose that no man or woman could stand for more than two or three pages, without a singing in the ears and a mad desire to inflict
corporal punishment upon somebody—and we may, perhaps, be excused for feeling a little bitterly towards the unknown author of this twaddle, since, in our critical capacity, we have been obliged to wade through hundreds of such lines.
But if the literary part of this work is unsatisfactory, it is to to a great degree atoned for by the delicate fancy and rich in- ventiveness of the artistic portion. It is true that the colour- less characters of the poem have taxed all the artist's ingenuity in vain, and fail to stir us to any personal interest ; and it is true, also, that the representation of the nude figure, necessitated by the supernatural machinery of the story, is not one of Mr. Crane's strong. points ; but, with these exceptions, we have nothing but praise to bestow upon these illustrations. They
are in the shape of oblong borders to the verses, the left-hand side of the page bearing an upright design, which occupies about a third of the entire space round which the border runs ; the remaining two-thirds are occupied by the verses. The
• Published by the Pine-Art Society.
originals of these designs have been executed in pencil, and the reproductions are fac-similes executed by Messrs. Gonpil, by one of the photogravure processes, of which there are so many now-a-days. The only objection to the printing which we notice is a lack of strength. The whole design seems to be executed with too great an uniformity of tint, or as if the pencil had been slightly rubbed. This is the great objection to the photogravure processes, that the sharpness of the original is almost invariably lost. In the present instance, no doubt, considerable allowance must be made for the fact that Mr. Crane's drawings are little dependent upon strong light and shade. Indeed, for his usual work these would be out of place, as his style of decoration is essentially one in which the effect is gained by arrangement of line.
It is curious, on looking through this long series of designs, to notice how sternly limited is this clever artist's power, and how it utterly deserts him when he has to express natural emotion. Though his figures are always graceful and fanciful, they are so essentially creatures of another world, that to see them frowning, smiling, or weeping only gives us a sense of discordance. So long as we are not expected to feel with the actors in the drama, but are only called upon to admire the grace of their attitade or the elegance of their movements and the dexterity with which their various actions and surroundings are combined into one pleasant whole, we are thoroughly satis- fied with them and the artist who produced them ; but more than that we cannot gain from them or him, and more we must not expect.
When all are so pretty, it is difficult to single out special designs for approbation, but we may draw attention to the following, as being especially rich in fancy. Border 46, showing Angelica (the heroine) and the fairies disguised as actresses ; Border 27, showing a glade in the forest, with the fairies lying about under the trees at the feet of their queen ; and the illustration to Robinet's song (56). These three we think the most successful of the borders which deal with many figures, but they are, in our opinion, not so thoroughly satisfactory as the less ambitious ones, where the design is of .a more strictly decorative character. Many of these latter show Mr. Crane quite at his best, and several of them would make most beautiful wall-papers, without scarcely any altera- tion being needed. Of these we may especially mention No. 18, a design of little boy-fairies playing with flowers ; No. 37, an involved design of frogs and toadstools, monkeys and adders ; and last, but not least, the very ingeni.ous medallion which accompanies the dedication of the work to Professor Darwin.
On the whole, these designs of Mr. Crane's show many marked artistic gifts : they are strong in composition, very rich in fancy, and very painstaking in execution. The thought is in- variably graceful and refined, and the drawing of all the minor objects in the design both good and easy. Their, faults too, are almost equally upon the surface. They have no hold upon the spectator, either from great intrinsic beauty, or strong feeling ; they halt, as it were, between the art which designed the acanthus ornament, and that which grins at us from every gargoyle on a Gothic cathedral. Like a violinist who performs on a single string, or a poet who writes a long poem of which all the rhymes end in similar sounds, they amuse for the moment and excite great admiration, but we hardly re- quire a repetition of the performance. Their defects, in fact, are proved by their very excellences, for their quality of merit increases in direct ratio with the unimportance of the subjects with which they deal. Thus, the human figure is the worst part of the design, and the best parts are little flowers, drawn and arranged in a semi-natural, semi-geometrical manner.
When all is said, these illustrations show a vein of decided artistic ability which is original and pleasing, and which in certain directions it is difficult to rival.