MR. SWINBURNE'S CENTURY OF ROUNDELS.* A camc who has anything
of the modesty which characterises his order feels somewhat reluctant to arraign a poet of Mr.
Swinburne's rank on a matter which concerns the exercise of • his art. We are thankful for whatever new he may give us, and if he chooses that this should be in the form of a roundel, or even of a hundred roundels, who is there to complain ? But we are sure that we are expressing the feelings of many readers, when we say that the choice in this particular instance does not seem to us a very happy one. A roundel is a very pretty and ingenious toy. Constructed with the metrical skill of which
Mr. Swinburne is a master, it is capable of giving, on occasion, a good deal of pleasure. But the occasion, we take it, is when it comes as a change, a relief after some poem which requires
laborious thought, or which appeals to the deeper emotions. Such poems give us the impression of the human soul approaching regions which are almost too lofty for its life, or struggling with emotions which almost master it. All this is changed, when we come to an elaborate composition like a roundel. Here man is evidently master of what he deals with. He sports with language, twists it and turns it at his pleasure, and so stirs no deeper feeling than the satisfaction with which we regard the skilful exercise of art. Hence there naturally follows
a very narrow limitation of the themes with which such poems can properly deal. There was a time, perhaps, when genuine feeling may have expressed itself in these highly artificial forms. It can scarcely so express itself now. The happiest efforts of the kind that are now produced are those in which there is at least a suspicion of banter. If we want a roundel or a ballade a
double refrains in perfection, we should be inclined to go to the semi-humorous muse of Mr. Andrew Lang. Who does not feel that the pathetic tone of the following example of Mr. Swin- burne's Century is injured, not by anything incongruous in the language, which, indeed, is all that could be wished, but by the metrical form, a form which seems to us wanting both in dignity and in sweetness :—
"How should life, 0 friend, forget Death, whose guest art thou ? Faith responds to love's regrets flow?
Still, for us that bow Sorrowing, sun, though life be set, Shines thy mild bright brow.
Tea, though death and thou be met, Love may find thee now Still, albeit we know not yet How."
Surely there is something very jarring in this abrupt mono- syllable" how," something which makes us feel, as a great poet never should allow us to feel, the mechanism of the verse. In this case, the word is peculiarly unlucky, for it seems to have compelled Mr. Swinburne, who is far too great a master of lan- guage to allow of such compulsion, to use a very strange inversion in the second line. "Whose guest art thou," for "whose guest thou
art," is obscure and harsh. Such of the hundred poems as have a similar monosyllable as the pivot, so to speak, of their metrical
construction, are, in our judgment, the least felicitous of the collection. But though the others jar less upon the ear, often indeed, we willingly allow, do not jar at all, the impression made by this long succession of ingenious efforts is wanting in true effectiveness. We should say this in the case of any writer, we say it with the more emphasis in the case of Mr. Swinburne,
• A Century of Roundels. By Algernon Charles Swinburne. London: Chatto and Windas. 1583.
because the special quality of his verse, his sonorous, even magnificent rhythm, is lost in what is at best a melodious elegance.
Our ungracious task of fault-finding ended, we gladly acknow- ledge the many charms and beauties of this volume. Never has the poet touched to more effect the note of pathos. Here are two successive poems which seem to us very happy, both in their resemblance and their contrast :—
"Above the sea and sea-washed town we dwelt, We twain together, two brief summers, free From heed of hours as light as.clonds that melt Above the sea.
Free from all heed of aught at all were we, Save chance of change that clouds or sunbeams dealt, And gleam of heaven to windward or to lee.
The Norman downs, with bright grey waves for belt Were more for us than inland ways might be ; A clearer sense of nearer heaven was felt Above the sea.
Cliffs and downs and headlands which the forward-hasting Flight of dawn, and eve empurples and embrowns, Wings of wild sea-winds and stormy seasons wasting Cliffs and downs,
These, or ever man was, were ; the same sky frowns, Laughs, and lightens, as before his soul, forecasting Times to be, conceived such hopes as time discrowns.
These we loved of old ; but now for me the blasting Breath of death makes dull the bright small seaward towns, Clothes with human change these all but everlasting Cliffs and downs."
To the same class may be referred the seven poems that come under the title of "A Baby's Death." Their pathetic beauty would be marred by separating any one from the rest, and the reader must go to Mr. Swinburne's volumes to judge of them. The "Etude Realiste," as Mr. Swinburne half-mockingly, it would seem, entitles the three roundels which celebrate the charms of a baby's feet, hands, and eyes, is ingenious, but little more ; but a higher note again is touched in the eleven poems which
the poet devotes to various phases of babyhood and childhood. It is no small increase to the charms of this volume that throughout it Mr. Swinburne sings virginibis puerisque. As
we began by venturing to criticise the form in which he has chosen to put his thoughts, we shall conclude by quoting the very graceful little poem in which he describes and, so to speaks defends his art :—
" A roundel is wrought as a ring or a starbright sphere,
With craft of delight and with cunning of sound unsought, That the heart of the hearer may smile, if to pleasure his ear A roundel is wrought.
Its jewel of music is earven of all or of aught— Love, laughter, or mourning—remembrance of rapture or fear— That fancy may fashion to hang in the ear a thought.
As a bird's quick sound runs round, and the hearts in us hear Pause answer to pause, and again the same strain is caught, So moves the device whence, round as a pearl or tear, A roundel is wrought."