MRS. KEMBLE'S POEMS.*
MANY of these poems are familiar to us, from having appeared in nearly the most diminutive volume of poems we ever remember to have seen, published by the present author in 1844, and the impres- sion of which upon us her later verses are calculated to deepen in- deed, but not to change. Mrs. Kemble's best pieces are almost all of the same kind, pieces of impassioned oratory rather than of poetry, —the stream of feeling running somewhat too swift and strong for the creative act of the imagination, so as rather to mould the feel- ings of others by a powerful and vivid expression of her own than to shape new conceptions, to build up new imaginative structures out of the materials that have long been lying undergoing decom- posing and recomposing processes in the poet's thought. Thus one of the most striking of Mrs. Kemble's early poems is that elo- quent but much too melancholy address written to lads " leaving the academy at Lowell, Massachusetts,"—the essential charac- teristic of which is glowing oratory, elaborating the theme of un- seen troubles, dangers, griefs, and failures, and that dominat- ing conception of duty which can alone render a darkened life endurable :— " Life is before ye—oh ! if ye could look Into the secrets of that sealed book,
Strong as ye are in youth, and hope, and faith, Ye should sink down, and falter, Give us death !' Could the dread Sphinx's lips but once disclose, And utter but a whisper of the woes Which must o'ertako ye, in your life-long doom, Well might ye cry, ' Our cradle be our tomb !' Could ye foresee your spirit's broken wings, Earth's brightest triumphs what despised things, Friendship how feeble, love how fierce a flame, Your joy half sorrow, half your glory shame, Hollowness, weariness, and worst of all, Self-scorn that pities not its own deep fall, Fast gathering darkness, and fast waning light, Oh could ye see it all, yo might, ye might Cower in the dust, unequal to the strife, And die but in beholding what is life!
"Life is before ye—from the fated road Ye cannot turn : then take ye up your load. Not yours to tread, or leave the unknown way, Ye must go o'er it, meet ye what ye may.
• Poems by Franca Asst Iambic. London : Maxon and Co. 1866.
Gird up your souls within ye to the deed, Angels, and fellow spirits, bid ye speed !
What though the brightness dim, the pleasure fade, The glory wane,—oh ! not of these is made The awful life that to your trust is given.
Children of God ! inheritors of heaven !
Mourn not the perishing of each fair toy, Ye were ordained to do, not to enjoy, To suffer, which is nobler than to dare ; A sacred burden is this life ye bear, Look on it, lift it, bear it solemnly, Stand up and walk beneath it steadfastly ; Fail not for sorrow, falter not for sin, But onward, upward, till the goal ye win ; God guard ye, and God guide ye on your way, Young pilgrim warriors who set forth to-day."
Force,—of the impassionel kind,—and great fertility in slight but telling variations on any single vein of feeling that takes full hold of her, are Mrs. Kemble's chief powers as a poet. Her pieces of lighter fancy are poor, and we are sorry that she has not weeded them out more carefully. When successful she almost always takes her starting-point from some strong emotion, and translates it with much power and play of feeling into words, never rising above the plane of the feeling in which she begins, but within that plane showing great freedom and, as it were, dramatic resource. Thus she hears some melancholy symphony of Beethoven's, in which passion seems everywhere overpowered by despair, and translates it into these vivid words :—
" ON A SYMPHONY OF Basruovas.
" Terrible music, whose strange utterance Seemed like the spell of some dread conscious trance ; Motionless misery, impotent despair, With beckoning visions of things dear and fair ; Restless desire, sharp poignant agonies ; Soft, thrilling, melting, tender memories ; Struggle and tempest, and around it all, The heavy muffling folds of some black pall Stifling it slowly ; a wild wail for life, Sinking in darkness—a short passionate strife With hideous fate, crushing the soul to earth ; Sweet snatches of some melancholy mirth ; A creeping fear, a shuddering dismay, Like the cold dawning of some fatal day ; Dim faces growing pale in distant lands ; Departing feet, and slowly severing hands ;
Voices of love, speaking the words of hate,—
The mockery of a blessing come too late ;
Loveless and hopeless life, with memory,— This curse that music seemed to speak to me."
But Mrs. Kemble is not nearly always as much herself as this. She is often, what she ought never to be, conventional, and such lines as the following, for instance, from one who knows so well the difference between genuine and artificial moods of feeling, affect us with the sense of a moral emetic :—
" To Tnomss MOORE, ESQ. "Here's a health to thee, Bard of Erin ! To the goblet's brim we will fill; For all that to life is endearing,
Thy strains have made dearer still!
"Wherever fond woman's eyes eclipse The midnight moon's soft ray ; Whenever around dear woman's lips, The smiles of affection play : "We will drink to thee, Bard of Erin ! To the goblet's brim we will fill, For all that to life is endearing, Thy strains have made dearer still!
"Wherever the warrior's sword is bound With the laurel of victory, Wherever the patriot's brow is crowned With the halo of liberty: "We will drink to thee, Bard of Erin ! To the goblet's brim we will fill ; For all that to life is endearing, Thy strains have made dearer still!
"Wherever the voice of mirth hath rung, On the listening ear of night, Wherever the soul of wit hath flung Its flashes of vivid light : " We will drink to thee, Bard of Erin! To the goblet's brim we will fill ; For all that to life is endearing, In thy strains is dearer still !"
First the metre is hacknied, suggesting a forced, winy sort of mirth, —then goblets' are hacknied ;—who ever drinks out of goblets now? Then we very much doubt indeed whether it is true either of Mrs. Kemble, or of any other living being, that all that to life is endearing Tom Moore's strains have made dearer still ; — or whether indeed he has ever written anything to increase the sweet- ness of any one true reality of life, except a certain champaigny effervescing sort of sentiment. Has Mr. Moore made "fond woman" any fonder? If he has done anything for her in that way, has it not been to render her fondness a little more showy and tinselly? In his own light way no doubt he had au eager feeling about freedom, and admired a heart that " indignant breaks to show that still she lives," but he was the last man to have gone through that little ceremony himself ; and, on the whole, such poetry as he wrote, clever, witty, and sparkling with sentiment as it was, was utterly shallow and full of the sort of false conventional tone which it has managed to impart, without its own qualifying bril- liancy, to these verses of Mrs. Kemble's. We wish she had weeded out from among poems that have a real beauty characteristic of herself, this and other pieces whose character is purely conven- tional. They are early indiscretions which should have been omitted by Mrs. Kemble's maturer judgment.
Mrs. Kemble's later pieces have the same character as her earliest, but instead of the tumult that may be seen in the former, the emotion they express is usually calmer, more dignified, more noble, as in the almost stately linos on the fall of Richmond which appeared first in these columns,—and in the three fine sonnets on the American war, in which, though she writes, as she at all events is entitled to do, as an American glorying in America, rather than as an Englishwoman identifying herself merely with the cause of freedom, she makes the latter feeling quite prominent enough to secure our sympathy while she charms our ears :-
" SOxNsrs ON THE AMERICAN WAR.
"' She has gone down !' they shout it from afar, Kings—nobles—priests—all men of every race, Whose lagging clogs Time's swift relentless pace ;— She has gone down ! our evil-boding star ! Rebellion, smitten with rebellion's sword, Anarchy, done to death by slavery, Of ancient right insolent enemy ; Beneath a hideous cloud of civil war, Strife, such as heathen slaughterers had abhorr'd, The lawless land, where no man was call'd lord, Spurning all wholesome curb, and dreaming free Her rabble rules licentious tyranny ;— In the fierce splendour of her arrogant morn, She has gone down ! the world's eternal scorn."
" She has gone down! Woe for the world and all
Its weary workers ! gazing from afar
At the clear rising of that hopeful star :
Star of redemption to each weeping thrall Of pow'r decrepit, and of rule outworn ; Beautiful shining of that blessed morn, Which was to bring leave for the poor to live ; To work and rest, to labour and to thrive, And righteous room for all who nobly strive: She has gone down ! Woo for the struggling world, Back on its path of progress sternly hurled !
Land of sufficient harvests for all dearth,
Home of far-seeing Hope, Time's latest birth—
Woe for the promised land of the whole earth !"
" Triumph not, fools ! and weep not, ye faint-hearted ! Have ye believed that the supreme decree Of Heaven had given this people o'er to perish? Have ye believed that God had ceased to cherish This great New World of Christian liberty ? Nay, by the precious blood shed to redeem The nation from its selfishness and sin ; By each bravo heart that burst in holy strife, Leaving its kindred hearts to break through life ; By all the bitter tears, whose source must stream For ever every desolate home within; We will return to our appointed place, First, in.the vanguard of the human race."
It is curious that in a purely literary point of view, the first of these powerful sonnets, which expresses the incipient joy felt at the anticipation of the Union's fall, is perhaps the finest. Mrs. Kemble has the dramatic insight of true antagonism, and can express the feelings she detests with as much power as those which possess her heart and soul. There is another illustration in a different way of Mrs. Kemble's dramatic feeling in the striking verses on the wreck of the Birkenhead, which are quite too long for extract here. She puts the story into the mouth of one of the soldiers, who is picked up in a state of unconsciousness after clinging to the mast all night, and describes the whole scene as it would have appeared to him. The passage in which he expresses the loathing with which he regarded himself after unloosing the hold of a dead man, who was dragging him down, upon his arm, and the fear that suddenly flashed through him that it might have been his own brother whom he had thus cast loose, is one of the finest in these poems. Had Mrs. Kemble reduced the bulk of the volume by one- half she would have greatly increased its effect on the minds of her readers. Every poor, unreadable, or even merely ineffective page in a volume of poems does something to render the impression of the poet less, and to arrest the contagion of the poetic influence.