12 AUGUST 1882, Page 15


MR. SWINBURNE'S TRISTRAM.* To Mr. Swinburne's poetry you may certainly apply the saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees. It is a forest—about that there is no possibility of mistake, and a forest of tropically luxuriant growth—but still you hardly ever see it as a whole, nor even a portion of the whole which gives you any idea of what the whole is. To apply the metaphor, you never see the poem itself, for the verses. In every part of the poem there are verses, and a multitude of them, which seem almost intended to obscure the vision of that part, and to becloud the significance of the whole. Tristram of Lyman° is full of genius,— too full of passion, because the passion is not the higher imaginative passion, but an imaginative expression of the lowest physical passion,—but in its elements confused and sadly wanting in clearness of outline. There are glorious flashes of sunlight in it, but not unfrequently, for pages together, the words, fine as they are, are more like the lavish spray of a waterfall flashing in the sunlight or glimmering in the shade, than the interpreters to the mind of any definite and specific meaning. Of passage after passage, you say to yourself, 'How wonderful, how brilliant, but how fatiguing 1 When shall I come to the drift, and get out of these tantalising eddies of bewildering fancy, which, instead of preparing the mind for any special mood, only agitate and unhinge it ?' Take, for instance, the close of the prologue on love, with its fanciful division of the year into twelve months made sacred by twelve lovely women's names. No verse was ever more musical, no verse ever contained finer individual lines, no verso had ever a more pathetic ring, than the following ; but then how it confuses the mind, and leaves it oppressed with the sense of doubtful meaning, and even doubtful feeling,—feeling that sounds a hundred different notes, and blends them into a sort of harmony, but only a harmony of vacillation, after all ! After giving us his twelve names of women who have inspired the world with memorable passions, Mr. Swinburne goes on :— " So shine above dead chance and conquered change

The spherbd signs, and leave without their range Doubt and desire, and hope with fear for wife, Pale pains, and pleasures long worn out of life.

Yea, even the shadows of them spiritless, Through the dim door of sleep that seem to press, Forms without form, a piteous people and blind Men and no men, whose lamentable kind The shadow of death and shadow of life compel Through ambiances of heaven and false-faced hell, Through dreams of light and dreams of darkness test

On waves innavigable, are these so lost ?

Shapes that wax pale and shift in swift strange wise, Void faces with unspeculative eyes, Dim things that gaze and glare, dead mouths that move, Featureless heads disorowned of hate and love, Mockeries and masks of motion and mate breath,

Leavings of life, the superflux of death—

If these things and no more than these things be Left when man ends or changes, who can see ?

Or who can say with what more subtle, sense

Their subtler natures taste in air less douse

A life less thick and palpable than ours,

Warmed with faint fires and sweetened with dead flowers And measured by low music ? how time fares In that wan time-forgotten world of theirs, Their pale poor world too deep for sun or star To live in, where the eyes of Helen are, And hers who made as God's own eyes to shine The eyes that met them of the Florentine, Wherein the godhead thence transfigured lit All time for all men with the shadow of it ?

Ah, and these too felt on them as God's grace

The pity and glory of this maa's breathing faco ;

For these too, these my lovers, these my twain, Saw Dante, saw God visible by pain, With lips that thundered and with feet that trod Before men's eyes incognisable God ; Saw love and wrath and light and night and fire Live with one life and at one mouth respire, And in one golden sound their whole soul heard Sounding, one sweet immitigable word.

They have the night, who had like us the day; We, whom day binds, shall have the night as they.

We, from the fetters of the light unbound,

Healed of our wound of living, shall sleep sound.

All gifts but one the jealous God may keep From our soul's longing, one be cannot—sleep. This, though he grudge all other grape to prayer, This grace his closed hand cannot choose but spare. This, though his ear be sealed to all that live,

Tristram of Lyonesee, and other Poem.. By Algernon Cliarlos Swinburne. London: Ohatto and Windus.

Be it lightly given or lothly, God must give. We, as the men whose name on earth is none, We too shall surely pass out of the sun ; Out of the sound and eyeless light of things,

Wide as the stretch of life's time-wandering wings,

Wide as the naked world and shadowless, And long-lived as the world's own weariness.

Us, too, when all the fires of time are cold, The heights shall hide ns and the depths shall hold. Us, too, when all the tears of time are dry, The night shall lighten from her tearless eye.

Blind is the day and eyeless all its light, But the large, unbewildered eye of night Hath sense and speculation ; and the sheer, Limitless length of lifeless life and clear, The timeless space wherein the brief worlds move Clothed with light life and fruitful with light love, With hopes that threaten, and with fears that cease, Past fear and hope, hath in it only peace.

Yet of these lives inlaid with hopes and fears, Spun fine as fire and jewelled thick with tears, These lives made out of loves that long since were,

Lives wrought as ours of earth and burning air,

Fugitive flame, and water of secret springs, And clothed with joys and sorrows as with wings, Some yet are good, if aught be good, to save Some while from washing wreck and wrecking wave.

Was such not theirs, the twain I take, and give Out of my life to make their dead life live Some days of mine, and blow my living breath Between dead lips forgotten even of death ?

So many and many of old have given my twain Love and live song and honey-hearted pain, Whose root is sweetness and whose fruit is sweet, So many and with such joy have tracked their feet, What should I do to follow ? yet I too, I have the heart to follow, many or few Be the feet gone before me; for the way, Rose-red with remnant roses of the day Westward, and eastward white with stars that break, Between the green and foam is fair to take For any sail the sea-wind steers for me

From morning into morning, sea to sea."

That is poetry as brilliant in its detail as it is possible to conceive, but how vague and obscure its drift, if there be a drift. Who shall explain what it is that Mr. Swinburne means to say is left " without the range " of the " sphered signs P" Are "the pale pains and pleasures long worn out of life," the pains and pleasures of Helen, Hero, Alcyone, Iseult, and the rest P Who are " the piteous people blind," the " men and no men P" Whose are the " void faces with unspeculative eyes," the "featureless heads discrowned of hate and love?" Sometimes you think it must be the world of those who are incapable of the highest passion of love. Sometimes, again, you think it must be the world of these great lovers them- selves when they have passed the gates of death, since Mr. Swinburne tells us that it is impossible to guess,- " How time fares In that wan time-forgotten world of theirs, Their pale poor world too deep for sun or star To live in, where the eyes of Helen are."

And then, again, who shall say what is the exact meaning of those magnificently sounding lines about " Those my twain " who-

" Saw Dante, saw God visible by pain, With lips that thundered and with feet that trod Before men's oyes, incognisable God."

They seem to us the words nearest to pure nonsense which ever left the flash of poetic impression on the brain. If they have a meaning, it is, we suppose, that it was Dante himself, who trod before "men's eyes incognisable God," which is both blas- phemous and unmeaning praise. And what is the drift of all that defiance of God to rob us of sleep P Certainly, reading this pas- sage, we envy profoundly the " large, unbewildered eye of night," for one's own eyes are dazzled and bewildered more than enough. And what we have said of this passage, we might say of a great part of this wonderful, and yet bewildering, poem. Mr. Swinburne seems to us to have very few distinct and positive emotions. lie paints the beauty of women with wonderful force and fire. He paints the sensual appetite with a redundancy and excess that excite disgust. He paints jealousy and hate of the narrower kind with a keen and bitter force,— especially when he can connect it, as he does in this poem, with the purity of an unimpassioned life. But whenever he ap- proaches the realm of thought, he ceases to paint even emotion clearly; he confuses us with striking a hundred different chords, and giving no chord prominence; he leaves the tone of the heart, as well as of the mind, in doubt; he subdues it to no overmastering melody. Mr. Swinburne's art works by reiteration instead of by new touches combined together in harmony. This is in itself defective art, as well as art which ostentatiously parades itself, instead of hiding itself.

We have given an example of the great fault of this fine poetry, —the confusion of emotions Mr. Swinburne excites, without apparently knowing himself to which he desires to give the pre- dominance. Let us now give Mr. Swinburne at his best. It is impossible to imagine anything more splendid in its way than this picture of Iseult of Ireland:- " And on the deck between the rowers at dawn,

As the bright sail with brightening wind was drawn, Sat with full face against the strengthening light Iseult, more fair than foam or dawn was white.

Her gaze was glad past love's own singing of, And her face lovely past desire of love.

Past thought and speech her maiden motions were, And a more golden sunrise was her hair. The very veil of her bright flesh was made As of light woven and moonbeam-coloured shade More fine than moonbeams ; white her eyelids shone

As snow sun-stricken that endures the sun,

And through their curled and coloured clouds of deep Luminous lashes, thick as dreams in sleep Shone as the sea's depth swallowing up the sky's, The springs of unimaginable eyes.

As the wave's subtler emerald is pierced through With the utmost heaven's inextricable blue, And both are woven and molten in one sleight Of amorous colour and implicated light Under the golden guard and gaze of noon, So glowed their awless amorous plenilune, Azure and gold and ardent grey, made strange With fiery difference and deep interchange Inexplicable of glories multiform ; Now as the sullen sapphire swells toward storm Foamless, their bitter beauty grew acold, And now afire with ardour of fine gold.

Her flower-soft lips were meek and passionate, For love upon them like a shadow sate Patient, a foreseen shadow of sweet things, A dream with eyes fast shut and plumeless wings That knew not what man's love or life should be, Nor had it sight nor heart to hope or see What thing should come, but childlike satisfied Watched out its virgin vigil in soft pride And unkissed expectation ; and the glad Clear cheeks and throat and tender temples had Such maiden heat as if a rose's blood Beat in the live heart of a lily-bad.

Between the small, round breasts a white way led Heavenward, and from slight foot to slender head The whole fair body flower-like swayed and shone Moving, and what her light hand leant upon Grew blossom-scented : her warm arms began To round and ripen for delight of man That they should clasp and circle : her fresh hands, Like regent lilies of reflowering lands Whose vassal firstlings, crown and star and plume, Bow down to the empire of that sovereign bloom, Shone soeptreless, and from her face there went A silent light as of a God content ; Save when, more swift and keen than love or shame, Some flash of blood, light as the laugh of flame, Broke it with sudden beam and shining speech, As dream by dream shot through her eyes, and each Outshone the last, that lightened, and not one

Showed her such things as should be borne and done, Though hard against her shone the Btu:dike face

That in all change and wreck of time and place Should be the star of her sweet living soul."

There you see the workmanship of a wonderful poet, with lavish wealth at his command, all spent on the delineation of a lovely face in which passion has not yet dawned. And this passage is the gem of the poem. Nowhere, so far as we can judge, does Mr. Swinburne approach it in power again.

His treatment of his subject is not pleasant, as we may be sure that, the poet being Mr. Swinburne, it could not be, nor is it even consistent with itself. In a very fine passage describing the last moments of innocence, before Tristram and Iseult drink the enchanted potion together, we are told :— " And answering some light courteous word of grace

He saw her clear face lighten on his face Unwittingly, with unenamonred eyes, For the last time. A live man in such wise Looks in the deadly face of his fixed hoar And laughs with lips wherein he hath no power To keep the life yet some five minutes' space. So Tristram looked on Iseult face to face

And knew not, and she knew not. The last time—

The last that should be told in any rhyme Heard anywhere on months of singing men That ever should sing praise of them again ; The last hour of their hurtless hearts at rest, The last that peace should touch them breast to breast, The last that sorrow far from them should sit, This last was with them, and they knew not it."

But though Mr. Swinburne has written this, there is nothing in his description of Tristram and Iseult's life together after the guilty passion is at its height, that in the least bears this out. On the contrary, the picture of their life in Cornwall is the picture of life quite without remorse, of a love entirely unscarecl by any sort of pangs, of pas- sion exultant in its own fullness and freedom from fear or penitence or doubt. The truth is that the brief passage we have extracted does not express Mr. Swinburne's real feeling, though he could not resist the poetical pleasure of descanting on the last moment of innocence and peace. For any- thing he paints, the whole guilty passion might have been as free from care and doubt as was that last moment, till Tristram comes to lie on his death-bed, when he at last appears to fancy that he ought to have lived a life of suffering, as his name portended, and to indulge himself with the illusion that he really had lived one, though of this the poet has given us no glimpse till he came to be separated from Iseult of Ireland. Mr. Swinburne has, of course, some great qualities as a poet which Mr. Matthew Arnold has not, but his Trietraln of Lyonesso cannot compare with Mr. Arnold's Triefrant and Iseult for form, meaning, and impressiveness. To the latter poem we return year after year, with ever new delight. To Mr. Swinburne's we shall probably never turn with unmixed feelings at all, or feelings in which the predomin- ant chord is not painful. No one can deny its genius. But the whole effect is not great, in spite of the surpassing splen- dour of individual parts. The chiselling is not clear; the story is not well told ; the mode of dealing with Iseult of Brittany is cruel, and even wantonly cruel, and makes the end of the whole bitterer than it need be. Still, there is a profusion of wonderful gems distributed in the poem. Take this, for an example :- " For well ho wist all subtle ways of song, And in his soul the secret eye was strong That burns in meditation till bright words

Break flame-like forth, as notes from fledgling birds

That feel the soul speak through them of the spring."

If Mr. Swinburne would but be itt general as clear and com- pressed as that, how much more pleasure his poems would give I But usually he overlays his thoughts so thick with words and fancies, reduplicating and multiplying all shades of his meaning, that we lose the main thread, in catching at the voluminous fringes. There are other impressive poems in the volume, of which that on Athens is probably the finest and the most repulsive. It has all the faults of Tristranz of Lyonesse, but not nearly all the beauties. The poet who writes as follows in praise of the Athenians cannot well expect any one who feels that all the highest poetry of the world is realised in Christ, and that without him poetry would be an illusion that might almost drive the mature mind to desperation, to sympathise in any degree with his deeper moods. Hear his ravings :— " Ye that bear the name about you of her glory,

Men that wear the sign of Greeks upon yon seek d,

Yours is yet the choice to write yourselves in story

Sons of them that fought the Marathonian field. Slaves of no men were ye, said your warrior poet, Neither subject unto man as underlings : Yours is now the season here wherein to show it,

If the seed ye be of them that know not kings.

If ye be not, swords nor words alike found brittle From the dust of death to raise you shall prevail : Subject swords and dead men's words may stead you little, If their old king-hating heart within you fail. If your spirit of old, and not your bonds be broken, If the kingless heart be molten in your breasts, By what signs and wonders, by what word or token, Shall ye drive the vultures from your eagles' nests ? All the gains of tyrants Freedom counts for losses; Nought of all the work done holds she worth the work, When the slaves whose faith ie set on crowns and crosses Drive the Cossack bear against the tiger Turk. Neither cross nor crown nor crescent shall ye bow to, Nought of Araby nor Jewry, priest nor king : As your watchword was of old, so be it now too : As from lips long stilled, from yours let healing spring. Through the fights of old, your battle-cry was healing, And the Saviour that ye called on was the Sun : Dawn by dawn behold in heaven your God, revealing Light from darkness as when Marathon was won. Gods were yours yet strange to Turk or Galilean, Light and Wisdom only then as gods adored : Pallas was your shield, your comforter was Bran, From your bright world's navel spoke the Sun your Lord."

That is eloquent blasphemy, though not very intelligent, in spite of its eloquence. But there are wonderful touches in this ode to Athena; as, for example, the following noble and perfect illustration :— " All the lesser tribes put on the pore Athenian fashion, One Hellenic heart was from the mountains to the sea: Sparta's bitter self grew sweet with high half-human passion, And her dry thorns flushed aflower in strait Thermopyho."

On the whole, we have not, for many years back, found Mr. Swinburne's genius so potent as it is in this volume. Repellent it is to all pure taste, but, as we trust, so repellent as to be comparatively harmless.