MR. SWINBURNE'S CHA,STELARD.*
Mn. SWEIBURNE'S poetry runs clearer year by year, and no one with a grain of feeling for poetry can doubt that it is both remark- ably original, and luxuriant with a luxuriance rare even among true poets. But the clearer it runs, and the more we feel its full • Chasielard. A Tragedy. By Alvrnon Charles Swinturne. London: Edward Atuxuo. essence, the more the want of moral and intellectual relief for the coarseness of passion, and for the deep physical instincts of tender- ness or cruelty on which he delights to employ his rich imagination, strikes us as a radical deformity of his poetry. He paints women far better than men, and the only grand thing he paints in women is the depth of instinct in them,—the mother's passionate yearn- ings, for instance, as painted in Atalanta in Calydon, and the thirsty vindictiveness of a woman's hatred as described in this play, both in Mary Stuart's feeling towards Darnley and Mary Beaton's towards the Queen. There is something broader, sterner, deeper in his delineation of the instinctive side of love and hatred, than in any other element of his voluptuous poetry. While Mr. Swinburne is dealing with the purely animal aide of the nature of man, he seems to have a strength and reality of touch which, though the picture is not always attractive, satisfies the legitimate demand of the imagination from poetry for a further insight into some of the deep and inexhaustible roots of life. To our minds Mr. Swinburne is never radical, never gets down to the living foun- tains of human nature, except on the animal side. The grandest thing by far which he has written is the wonderful passage to which we have alluded in his last play, in which Althies describes the passions of her maternity, and the agony of her mind in quench- ing again the life to which she had given birth. And so in this drama, animal instinct, the mere hunger and thirst of a sort of sensual ferocity of nature, is far more finely described than the sentiment of love. The poetry of lust—its craving and its cruelty—a grand and legitimate subject for poetry if only it were in contrast, which it is not in Mr. Swinburne's drama, with some- thing of higher and purer mould,—is of the finest here, but apples of Sodom are not the kind of fruit on which alone we ought to be feasted in any true drama. We might say of Mr. Swinburne's ways of poetry in this drama as his hero Chastelard says of Mary Stuart's "ways of loving :"— " I know her ways of loving—all of them ;
A sweet soft way the first is ; afterward It burns and bites like fire ; the end of that, Charred dust, and eyelids bitten through with smoke."
Such also are the degrees, positive, comparative, and superlative, of the poetry of this play :—the sentiment sweet and soft, the pas- sion a fire, then the lust of beauty and ef blood charring into dust, —and there is the end. There is nothing of intellectual and moral relief in the whole play. From the delicately beautiful French song with which it begins, to the splendid closing scene in which Mary Stuart sees one lover's head fall that she may make room for another,—" Place for my Lord of Bothwell next the Queen,"—there is no poetry that is not occupied with one of these three grades of sensibility,—the coarsest and most animal being the most truly and imaginatively treated. Even religion is pressed into the service of the same sort of passion. In Atalanta in Calydon it was perhaps allowable to make the religion a sort of physical despair and defiance, because the passionate sense of the greatness of life's failure and misery might, in a Greek drama, be one of the most natural outcomes of infinite wants. But it is the same here. Chastelard in his last interview with the Queen expresses his own intensity of passion by ascribing,— without any dramatic justification, and apparently out of the depth of Mr. Swinburne's pure delight in the infinitude of animal feelings,—the same delight in Mary Stuart which he himself feels to her Creator ; and this, too, in the closest possible connection with his sense of the destroying character of her loveliness. The following passage, though it cannot be denied poetic power, is false in dramatic feeling, and therefore hideous (because foisted in through pure love of the idea) in moral sensibility :— Li /1
"It may be man will never love me more ; For I am sure I shall not love man tsice."
"I know not : men must love you in life's spite ;
For you will always kill them ; man by man Your lips will bite them dead ; yea, though you would, You shall not spare one ; all will die of you; I cannot tell what love shall do with these, But I for all my love shall have no might
To help you more, mine arms and hands no power To fasten on you more. This cleaves my heart.,
That they shall never touch your body more.
But for your grief—you will not have to grieve ;
For being in such poor eyes so beautiful It must needs be as God is more than I
So much more love he hath of you than mine ;
Yea, God shell not be bitter with my love, Seeing she is so sweet."
To speak of Mary Stuart as a destroying Syren, "so false" as he has confessed her to himself, so full of the beauty of a "hard, sweet heart," so deadly to all who love her, and then to speak of God as loving that beauty more than he, is a piece of undramatic senti- ment, quite unlike the monopolizing mood of Chastelard's hungry passion, which would never have attributed to any being, spiritual or otherwise, a love so devouring as his own,—and still more unlike the religious superstition of the day, which would probably have kept even light-minded men of pleasure from attributing any love of destroying female loveliness to their God. Mr. Swinburne, in his eager search for means to express the illimitable gnawing of physical passion after adequate expression, stumbles too often on impieties which are undramatic as well as in bad taste. The essence of the poem consists, however, in this power Mr. Swin- burne has of painting the piercing, insatiable element of all genuine passion in his poetry, and he does it nowhere so forcibly perhaps as in the following passage :— " Cassrausan.
"I think I know that well.
Sit here a little till I feel you through In all my breath and blood for some sweet while.
0 gracious body that mine arms have had, And hair my face has felt on it ! grave eyes And low thick lids that keep since years agone In the blue sweet of each particular vein Some special print of me! I am right glad That I must never feel a bitterer thing Than your soft curled up-shoulder and amorous arms From this time forth ; nothing can hap to me Less good than this for all my whole life through.
I would not have some new pain after this Come spoil the savour. 0, your round bird's throat More soft than sleep or singing ; your calm cheeks, Turned bright, turned wan with kisses hard and hot ; The beautiful colour of your deep curved hands, Made of a red rose that had changed to white ; That month mine Own holds half the sweetness of, Yea, my heart holds the sweetness of it, whence My life begun in me ; mine that ends here Because you have no mercy, nay, you know You never could have mercy. My fair love, Kiss me again, God loves you not the less ; Why should one woman have all goodly things ?
You have all beauty ; let mean women's lips Be pitiful, and speak truth : they will not be Such perfect things as yours. Be not ashamed That hands not made like these that snare men's souls
Should do men good, give alms, relieve men's pain ;
You have the better, being more fair than they,
They are half foul, being rather good than fair;
You asellsart sabalstittviiir ie east. * 5 5 • 5. * *
Ah, your old kiss—I know the ways of it : Let the lips cling a little. Take them off, And speak some word or I go mad with love."
But to make this sort of wasting and sensual passion toler- able in a great drama, Mr. Swinburne should be able to paint something greater and more noble with which to compare it, which he does not. He introduces Murray into the play—indeed calls one Act by his name—and we look eagerly to find in the strong stern soldier something of relief from the "charred ashes" of Chastelard's and Mary Stuart's loves. But Murray is a lay figure, nothing but a name. John Knox flits by like a shadow at whose unse,nsual sternness—cruelty indeed (but of how much grander a. kind than Mary Stuart's)—Mr. Swiuburne had glanced with a vision of its fitness for his purpose, but with a sense that he was unequal to the task. The only sort of relief intended to be given is in Mary Beaton's love for Chastelard, which is, we suppose, meant to be something better and purer in sentiment than the passion of the Queen. But really it is only the same wasting fever, with less of unscrupulous cruelty, and perhaps a little more of self-sacrifice in it. This, for instance, sounds fine, but it is in the old strain ; Mary Beaton is pressed to sing, and replies, speaking of her song,— " Nay, it is sad :—
For either sorrow with the beaten lips ' Sings not at all, or it does get breath. Sings quick and Amp, like a hard sort of mirth, Aud so this song does ; or I would it did, That it might please me better than it does."
And all she really represents is "sorrow with the beaten lips,”— the hard pain of unrequited passion, without the cruel thirstiness of the Queen's, but not of a much higher order.
As a drama it is not a great poem. The Queen alone is dramatic. Her tigerish nature, her delight in playing with the life of her lover, her pleasure in battle and cowardice in pain, her musings over past voluptuous joy, her suppressed laughter as the axe descends on her lover's neck, are all unquestionably fine, —but then it is the only character in the play. Chastelard is a mere voice for passion, without a distinct man's character outside his passion ; Darnley is of course weak and poor in nature, but the picture of him makes no impression ; the girls, except Mary Beaton, are all names,—and Mary Beaton herself only passion disappointed and desperate. The fourth act, called "Murray," which contains the scenes between Mary and her lords as to Chastelard's condemnation, is poor nearly throughout. And on the whole we must say of this poem, that while four of the acts at least are full of fine poetry, and while the one great character, sensual, cruel, playful, treacherous, overflowing with the lustre of a glorious destroying beauty, is both exceedingly finely conceived and exceedingly finely executed, there is so little relief to the luscious voluptuousness of passion and the charied ashes' in which that passion burns itself out, that we lay the drama down in utter weariness of the particular mood of imaginative feeling to which it appeals, with something hie resentment of the ' insolent joy which the poet evidently takes in dilating on a theme so repulsive, and with a sense of profound thankfulness that we have at last got out of the oppressive atmosphere in that forcing- house of sensual appetite into the open air.