LORD STRATFORD DE REDCLIFFE'S VERSES.* IT is not pleasant to find a man who has shown himself a master in any line of human achievement utterly misjudge, at least misjudge
• ShaeLars of the Past. In verse. By Viscount Stratford de liedollftb. London : Macmillan.
to overrate, his powers in any other. Lord Stratford de Redcliffe has certainly done this,—not of course that he speaks otherwise than modestly in his own preface, he is too much a man of the world for that, but that by publishing at all, he shows his belief that his work as a poet is not quite unworthy of the great name he has made for himself among diplomatists, but will add distinc- tion to a reputation already high ; while after reading every poem in the volume with a curiosity and hope which, at first con- siderable, rapidly diminished as we read, we feel satisfied, not without sincere regret, that there is not a poem in the book, scarcely a copy of verses which a man of real literary insight would not feel reluctant to own, and a great many of which he would be heartily ashamed. Lord Stratford de Red cliffe stands too high to suffer by publishing weak verse. But even a statesman loses some- thing,—not certainly by the inability to vrritegood poetry, but by the ability to mistake his own bad poetry for good. A certain power of estimating his true position amongst other men,—knowing what. he can do and what he cannot,—is a part of the proper wisdoni and sagacity of a statesman. Self-confidence, even arrogant self- confidence, such as has often been attributed to Sir Stratford Can- ning, is not indeed a deficiency and may be a great source of strength so far as it rests upon a real personal pre-eminence in
lucidity of view and tenacity of purpose ; but self-confidence, to be worth anything, should be confidence in a man's own light and power, and not mere superstitious confidence in everything that. belongs to himself. Every man's self has weak sides, and it is the part of true political wisdom to know these weak aides, and fortify the character against the foibles to which they give rise. There- fore, while we feel no doubt that Lord Stratford de Redcliffe's Shadows of the Past will soon be forgotten without casting any shadow worth the name on his own brilliant Past, we cannot pre- tend to believe that they will not, to some slight extent, diminish, and very justly, his reputation for general sagacity, and destroy any he may have been gratuitously credited with,—and generally able men are constantly credited with all sorts of powers in
which they are deficient,—for intellectual self-knowledge.
Lord Stratford's conception of poetry is entirely of the old- fashioned sort, which looks upon poetry as a marginal embellish- ment of life, a conception in which sentimental feelings about. time, and death, and youth, and love, and pretty maids, and roses, and war, and patriotism, and snow mountains, and genius, and freedom, shall be worked off into rhyme, with a proper amount of flowery illustration. This at least is our inference as to Lord Stratford's conception of poetry from the rhymes which he has given us. But then if we are right. as to the nature of that conception,—and whether right or wrong, that is the sort of thing which, except as regards the jocose element, of which we shall speak presently, makes up this volume,—Lord Stratford seems to us the last man in the world to carry it out effectively. If poetry is to be a slightly trivial and sentimental embellishment of life of this kind, the kind of mind to make it pleasant is the kind of mind which flirts with life rather than lives in it, such, for instance, as Tom Moore's.
There at least you have the perfect lightness, the feathery effect of a mind that did naturally float on the surface of things. And if poetry ought to be the foam of life, —them clearly poets ought to be of the class whose minds effervesce most easily with light sentiment, who have in them the volatile essence of sweet transient emotions, and who can live momentarily in fleeting dreams. But Lord Stratford de Redcliffe has been a heavy armed politician, with a strong will and his heart in his work, and when he turns aside to sing, and smile, and weep, and trifle in rhyme, the effect is not light, but clumsy.
His sentiment,—we mean its mode of expression, for of course we do not dispute the genuineness of the sentiment itself,—is all of the " stock " kind, and if Lord Stratford goes out of his way for an original epithet, it is pretty sure to be the worst epithet in his. poem. Thus in the regular kind of thing about an Italian vine- gleaner, the wild-eyed young woman of simple innocence, who has.
"Eyes where a world might enter, Though soft their fawn-like gaze,"
—and other attributes to match, we have one word quite new in it& application, at least as far as our memory serves us, and that. word is, poetically speaking, the worst in the poem : —
"The farm, the vine-clad mountain, Are oft a source of care ; Be mine you bubbling fountain, And mine the buxom air.'
" Buxom " etymologically means what Lord Stratford intends,— " bending," "pliant," "yielding," like the German biegsam. And it has been so used in the old poets. But the whole " Ye talk of pain and sorrow,
Of bosoms made to sigh ; Come ! read a golden morrow In yonder golden sky.
essence of the word has been spoiled by its constant modern application to a certain smart and jolly species of female handsomeness,—a handsomeness founded on cheery embonpoint, and specially valuable to barmaids. How the word may have acquired its etymologically secondary, but now principal, meaning, we do not know,—perhaps through the too great pliancy of that species of beauty ; but anyhow it is utterly spoiled as an epithet of the air ; and its use is one of the most convincing, though also one of the slightest, proofs of Lord Stratford's entire insensibility to those light currents of association by the aid of which alone he could succeed in poetry of this sentimental class. But the radical clumsiness of Lord Stratford's imagination, or what he may be ." pleased to call" his imagination, does not only break out now and then in a copy of verses otherwise like enough to ordinary album verses ; it not nnfrequently bounces about through a whole soi-disant poem. Take this, for example :— 'Old England is a Ship of war, 'That, peace restored and funds at pert,
Near Plymouth dock reposes ; Her ministers are each a tar, Whose manly forehead many a sear, More precious than th' embroider'd star
On Valour's breast, discloses :
"Her broadsides are no longer beard; But still her 'meteor' flag's re- vered, While nations mark, with wonder, How deep the shade her bulwarks throw
On the dark, mutt'ring waves below, And hope or fear, as friend or foe, To rouse their slumb'ring thun- der.
4' Old England is a Royal Beast, That, when th' assailant's war hath ceased,
His wonted jungle seeking ; 'There, stretch'd in giant length, inhales 'The freshness of the temper'd gales, Or smoothes awhile, ere sleep pre- vails, His paws with carnage reeking : "Cave, rock, and wood repeat no more The warning echoes of his roar— That sound of fearful token ; But still the monarch's sinewy frame, His eyes of vigilance and flame, His shaggy mane and limbs pro- claim A heart and nerve unbroken.
"Old England is an Orb of light, That speeds thro' hear'n its track- less light,
In silent radiance moving ; Where, round the sun's refulgent urn, And stars remote, that sanlike burn, Ten thousand glorious planets turn, Some steady, others roving : "Resolved, in her unwearied race, The path ordain'd by Hear'n to trace, Her own just rights maintaining, She brooks nor guide nor partner there : All else of freedom, light, and air Content with rival pow'ra to share, The feeblest not disdaining."
"We should think nothing worse than that has appeared in the !poet's corner of magazines and country newspapers this year. England, as a ship of war reposing at Plymouth, "with funds at par" is a truly imposing picture,—that distant view of the Funds being no doubt put in on Mr. Ruakin's principle of opening out a -vista to the true horizon in order to suggest to the mind the idea of infinitude, in delineating even the most limited scene. England -as a royal beast " smoothing " its bloody paws before it goes to aleep,--low do lions smooth their paws, by the way ? we suppose Lord Stratford means by licking them,—is in the main a more -common-place image, which depends on its grandeur solely for the details connected with the paws. But the last of the three images -is certainly the grandest, and the most difficult. England is clearly meant to be planetary, as Lord Stratford speaks of her rapid motion round a central sun as the chief feature of the simile, but there is a difficulty as to the orbit. It is localized in these remarkable terms :— " Where round the sun's refulgent urn, And stars remote that sunlike burn, Ten thousand glorious planets turn, Some steady, others roving."
And where is that? Does England, as an "orb of light," revolve round more than one sun ? Ten thousand planets must clearly, -even on the highest estimate of the number of the little planetoids, be far too large a number for our own system. Yet certainly an .adverb professing to be of place, ivrch leaves you to take your -choice of all imaginable planetary systems is a rather delusive adverb of place. Also we are rather troubled in our mind as to the two sorts of planets, "some steady, others roving." Which are the steady planets, and why planets if they are steady? 'Then, that a planet shares its air with rival planets is surely a discovery of Lord Stratford de Redcliffe's. The old theory used to be that the atmosphere belongs to the planet and circulates with it. Again, how does a planet show that it brooks "nor guide nor partner ?" We should have thought that a planet, of all things in the universe, had about as little alternative, or appear- ance of alternative, about "brooking nor guide nor partner" as any other you could select. If the earth took objection to the moon, for instabee, or the moon to the earth, as a partner and guide, the difficulty about giving any force to either objection would not be trifling. These criticisms may seem cavils, but we do not urge them in that spirit. We only wish to substantiate by a" few
examples our opinion that Lord Stratford de Redcliffe has nothing which can be called a poetical imagination, and flounders about in the most prosaic and stilted nonsense, directly he gets out of the regular line of stock sentiment. In the ordinary world of stock metaphors he is quite at home. For a man of almost world-wide reputation it is no doubt a little ignoble to write stuff about a mother's wishing
"To hail, with eyes unsullied by a tear,
Her own loved boy, the sun of glory's year;"
— or about an unappreciating public not being ashamed
"To thrive on arts -that proved the inventor's bane,
And bridge with glory's wreck the swamps of gain ;"
— or about
"The sense of wrong that, quick with morbid life, Gives man the viper lot of endless strife,"
(do vipers, by the way, strive more incessantly than other animals ?)—or about woman's genius thus :—
"Their genius, true, is most in feeling shown, Like flowers, their virtues may be too much blown;"
—but all these metaphors are merely the ordinary poetic stock of common-place verse-makers singularly ill applied. Their use in those cases is only like a bad theatrical manager's using the pro- perties he took with the lease in a gaudy, tasteless, and unbecoming way. But the ear of the public is so well used to hearing of the ram in a distinguished relation to the year, whether of glory or any- thing else ; and of bridging swamps, though not often, we admit, with wrecks ; and of a viper lot as at least an ignoble one ; and of flowers being too much blown (though what relation that has to women's virtues, or their genius, or anything else belonging to them, unless it were their reputations, we have no notion at all), that the words pass over the ear in an idle sort of way, as if we were hearing verses in a dream. But when Lord Stratford is original, he is usually quite original in the exceeding badness of his poetical ideas.
Lord Stratford's playfulness is harder to bear than his poetical sentiment. We can best describe it by saying it is elephantine,— like the frisking of an elephant mistaking itself temporarily for a kitten. He describes a mountain water nymph's proceedings thus:— " And just for sport, the risk not weighing, Leapt from her native spring,
And frisking plunging, shrinking, straying, Her charms half veiling, half displaying, Right downward led the Highland fling. "Her form of blended air and water, Elastic, pure, and free, Might -well have puzzled one who- caught her To guess what sire for such a daughter Had paid the registrciticm fee."
What .a merry, wanton, gushing notion for an elderly poetical politician is that about the "registration fee !" or, as the young
ladies will say of Lord Stratford, when they read it, "What a gay, darling old thing ! " And when the mountain nymph gets fairly
to the sea, her poet treats her condition still more playfully :—
" But o'er her bosom scarce hat flutter'd The plumes of ocean's breeze,
When from her lips the brine she sputteed The plaintive word, she might have utteed, Reserved in vain for smoother seas."
There is another facetious poem called "The Pardoned Thief," apologizing for Time's robberies (or for some of them, for the point of the justification appears to lie in showing very needlessly how useless the restoration of some of Time's plunder to men would be, without that of the other gifts of which he has robbed them, and which constitute the power to enjoy the former) in verse of the most jocund and festive ponderosity. Lord Stratford supposes a judgment of Court ordering Time to restore his gifts, when the claimants appear in procession, and are thus sportively described :— " Methusalem, on spindles, begs "Two aldermen without a tooth To claim a pair of porter's legs ; Some Witch of Ender fain would wear Yon clust'ring locks of auburn hair. "Old Priam clasps with childish joy A model of beleaguer'd Troy ; And Hercules, — resumed his club,—
Looks out for somebody to drub. "Good David bathes with many a tear The harp that Salem loved to hear ; And Samson, were he not quite blind, Hiayoutbful curls again would find.
We think this may suffice to show that our judgment on LordStant- ford's poetry has not been too severe. The truth ia, it has never
Demand the grinders of their youth ; But, finding no digestion left, Submit to Time's malicious theft.
"A spendthrift rain'd ten times over,
His lost estates would fain recover • But since he then must pay his debts,
'Tis best to be without assets.
"Two seedy princes rush to own, Each for himself, an antique throne; Struggling to reach the upper board, It crumbles, and they both lie floor'd."
occurred to him that poetry, like most other living things, to be really good should have a man's best mind, and that if any power- ful mind cannot throw its real self into poetry, poetry is not its proper work. At all events this volume has no sort of life, or meaning, or faculty of any sort in it; though it comes from a man of so much faculty of other kinds. The following are the best verses in the book, and have a tone of sincere simplicity in them which is rare indeed in the volume :--
"She left us in her twentieth "The lovely form, the grace, the
:The expression applied to the earth here, as covering a body once so fair, "Dull nurse of bones, her dust is thine !" is the only one in the volume which seems to give any hint that—in a better state of existence—Lord Stratford's imagination might be exalted by feeling into real poetry. For the rest, the book is a mixture of poor thoughts, poor sentiment, and either poor or stilted images from end to end. But what would be smiled down with a line of pity in a man of no mark, demands criticism when coming from an eminent and able man, who will not be the less eminent or less able for learning, if he will only learn, that even be can say very foolish things, and yet think them -in bin own heart both beautiful and wise. year, ;—
Never, ah!—never to return ! 'Why anateh'd away so young, se dear, We dared not even wish to learn.
" She left us,—yet in death so fair, We seem'd as in a dream to weep, And half believed the fresh'ning air Might break too soon that fatal sleep. worth, Of =Ilya bosom long were guests; If more ye seek, the jealous earth Will haste to answer, Here she rests.'
"Dull nurse of bones ! her dust is thine, At least in these thy fleeting hours ; 'Tis life we store in memory's shrine, And that, nor age, nor worm devours."