Papers on Literature and Art (Fuller)/Part II/Chapter 1
PAPERS ON LITERATURE AND ART.
POETS OF THE PEOPLE.
RHYMES AND RECOLLECTIONS OF A HAND-LOOM WEAVER.
By William Thom, of Iverury.
“An’ syne whan nichts grew cauld an’ lang,
Ae while he sicht—ae while he sang.”
Second Edition, with Additions. London, 1845.
We cannot give a notion of the plan and contents of this little volume better than by copying some passages from the Preface:
“The narrative portion of these pages,” says Thom, “is a record of scenes and circumstances interwoven with my experience—with my destiny. * * The feelings and fancies, the pleasure and the pain that hovered about my aimless existence were all my own—my property. These aerial investments I held and fashioned into measured verse. * * The self-portraiture herein attempted is not altogether Egotism neither, inasmuch as the main lineaments of the sketch are to be found in the separate histories of a thousand families in Scotland within these last ten years. That fact, however, being contemplated in mass, and in reference to its bulk only, acts more on the wonder than on the pity of mankind, as if human sympathies, like the human eye, could not compass an object exceedingly large, and, at the same time, exceedingly near. It is no small share in the end and aim of the present little work, to impart to one portion of the community a glimpse of what is sometimes going on in another; and even if only that is accomplished, some good service will be done. I have long had a notion that many of the heart-burnings that run through the Social Whole spring not so much from the distinctiveness of classes as their mutual ignorance of each other. The miserably rich look upon the miserably poor with distrust and dread, scarcely giving them credit for sensibility sufficient to feel their own sorrows. That is ignorance with its gilded side. The poor, in turn foster a hatred of the wealthy as a sole inheritance—look on grandeur as their natural enemy, and bend to the rich man’s rule in gall and bleeding scorn. Shallows on the one side and Demagogues on the other, are the portions that come oftenest into contact. These are the luckless things that skirt the great divisions, exchanging all that is offensive therein. ‘Man know thyself,’ should be written on the right hand; on the left, ‘Men, know each other.’”
In this book, the recollections are introduced for the sake of the “Rhymes,” and in the same relationship as parent and child, one the offspring of the other; and in that association alone can they be interesting. “I write no more in either than what I knew—and not all of that—so Feeling has left Fancy little to do in the matter.”
There are two ways of considering Poems, or the products of literature in general. We may tolerate only what is excellent, and demand that whatever is consigned to print for the benefit of the human race should exhibit fruits perfect in shape, colour, and flavour, enclosing kernels of permanent value.
Those who demand this will be content only with the Iliads and Odysseys of the mind’s endeavour.—They can feed no where but at rich men’s tables; in the wildest recess of nature roots and berries will not content them. They say, “If you can thus satiate your appetite it is degrading; we, the highly refined in taste and the tissue of the mind, can nowhere be appeased, unless by golden apples, served up on silver dishes.”
But, on the other hand, literature may be regarded as the great mutual system of interpretation between all kinds and classes of men. It is an epistolary correspondence between brethren of one family, subject to many and wide separations, and anxious to remain in spiritual presence one of another. These letters may be written by the prisoner in soot and water, illustrated by rude sketches in charcoal;—by nature’s nobleman, free to use his inheritance, in letters of gold, with the fair margin filled with exquisite miniatures;—to the true man each will have value, first, in proportion to the degree of its revelation as to the life of the human soul, second, in proportion to the perfection of form in which that revelation is expressed.
In like manner are there two modes of criticism. One which tries, by the highest standard of literary perfection the critic is capable of conceiving, each work which comes in his way; rejecting all that it is possible to reject, and reserving for toleration only what is capable of standing the severest test. It crushes to earth without mercy all the humble buds of Phantasy, all the plants that, though green and fruitful, are also a prey to insects, or have suffered by drouth. It weeds well the garden, and cannot believe, that the weed in its native soil, may be a pretty, graceful plant.
There is another mode which enters into the natural history of every thing that breathes and lives, which believes no impulse to be entirely in vain, which scrutinizes circumstances, motive and object before it condemns, and believes there is a beauty in each natural form, if its law and purpose be understood. It does not consider a literature merely as the garden of the nation, but as the growth of the entire region, with all its variety of mountain, forest, pasture, and tillage lands. Those who observe in this spirit will often experience, from some humble offering to the Muses, the delight felt by the naturalist in the grasses and lichens of some otherwise barren spot. These are the earliest and humblest efforts of nature, but to a discerning eye they indicate the entire range of her energies.
These two schools have each their dangers. The first tends to hypercriticism and pedantry, to a cold restriction on the unstudied action of a large and flowing life. In demanding that the stream should always flow transparent over golden sands, it tends to repress its careless majesty, its vigour, and its fertilizing power.
The other shares the usual perils of the genial and affectionate; it tends to indiscriminate indulgence and a leveling of the beautiful with what is merely tolerable. For indeed the vines need judicious pruning if they are to bring us the ruby wine.
In the golden age to which we are ever looking forward, these two tendencies will be harmonized. The highest sense of fulfilled excellence will be found to consist with the largest appreciation of every sign of life. The eye of man is fitted to range all around no less than to be lifted on high.
Meanwhile the spirit of the time, which is certainly seeking, though by many and strange ways, the greatest happiness for the greatest number, by discoveries which facilitate mental no less than bodily communication, till soon it will be almost as easy to get your thought printed or engraved on a thousand leaves as to drop it from the pen on one, and by the simultaneous bubbling up of rills of thought in a thousand hitherto obscure and silent places, declares that the genial and generous tendency shall have the lead, at least for the present.
We are not ourselves at all concerned, lest excellent expression should cease because the power of speech to some extent becomes more general. The larger the wave and the more fish it sweeps along, the likelier that some fine ones should enrich the net. It has always been so. The great efforts of art belong to artistic regions, where the boys in the street draw sketches on the wall and torment melodies on rude flutes; shoals of sonneteers follow in the wake of the great poet. The electricity which flashes with the thunderbolts of Jove must first pervade the whole atmosphere.
How glad then are we to see that such men as Prince and Thom, if they are forced by ‘poortith cauld’ to sigh much in the long winter night, which brings them neither work nor pleasure, can also sing between.
Thom passed his boyhood in a factory, where, beside the disadvantage of ceaseless toil and din, he describes himself as being under the worst moral influences. These, however, had no power to corrupt his native goodness and sweetness. One of the most remarkable things about him is his disposition to look on the bright side, and the light and gentle playfulness with which he enlivened, when possible, the darkest pages of his life.
The only teachers that found access to the Factory were some works of contemporary poets. These were great contemporaries for him. Scott, Byron, Moore, breathed full enough to fan a good blaze.—But still more important to the Scotsman and the craftsman were the teachings of those commemorated in the following passage which describes the first introduction of them to the literary world, and gives no unfair specimen both of his prose and his poetry:
“Nearer and dearer to hearts like ours was the Ettrick Shepherd, then in his full tide of song and story; but nearer and dearer still than he, or any living songster—to us dearer—was our ill-fated fellow-craftsman, Tannahill, who had just then taken himself from a neglecting world, while yet that world waxed mellow in his lay. Poor weaver chiel! What we owe to thee! Your “Braes o’ Balquidder,” and “Yon Burnside,” and “Gloomy Winter,” and the “Minstrel’s” wailing ditty, and the noble “Gleneifer.” Oh! how they did ring above the rattling of a hundred shuttles! Let me again proclaim the debt we owe those Song Spirits, as they walked in melody from loom to loom, ministering to the low-hearted; and when the breast was filled with everything but hope and happiness, and all but seared, let only break forth the healthy and vigorous chorus “A man’s a man for a’ that,” the fagged weaver brightens up. His very shuttle skytes boldly along, and clatters through in faithful time to the tune of his merrier shopmates!
“Who dare measure in doubt the restraining influences of these very Songs? To us they were all instead of sermons. Had one of us been bold enough to enter a church he must have been ejected for the sake of decency. His forlorn and curiously patched habiliments would have contested the point of attraction with the ordinary eloquence of that period. So for all parties it was better that he kept to his garret, or wandered far “in the deep green wood.” Church bells rang not for us. Poets were indeed our Priests. But for those, the last relic of our moral existence would have surely passed away!
“Song was the dew-drops that gathered during the long dark night of despondency, and were sure to glitter in the very first blink of the sun. * * * * To us Virtue, in whatever shape, came only in shadow, but even by that we saw her sweet proportions, and sometimes fain would have sought a kind acquaintance with her.—Thinking that the better features of humanity could not be utterly defaced where song and melody were permitted to exist, and that where they were not all crushed, Hope and Mercy might yet bless the spot, some waxed bold, and for a time took leave of those who were called to “sing ayont the moon,” groping amidst the material around and stringing it up, ventured on a home-made lilt.—Short was the search to find a newly kindled love, or some old heart abreaking. Such was aye amongst us and not always unnoticed, nor as ye shall see, unsung.
“It was not enough that we merely chaunted, and listened; but some more ambitious, or idle if ye will, they in time would try a self-conceived song. Just as if some funny little boy, bolder than the rest, would creep into the room where laid Neil Gow’s fiddle, and touch a note or two he could not name. How proud he is! how blest! for he had made a sound, and more, his playmates heard it, faith! Here I will introduce one of these early touches, not for any merit of its own, but it will show that we could sometimes bear and even seek for our minds a short residence, though not elegant at least sinless,—a fleeting visit of healthy things, though small they were in size and few in number. Spray from a gushing “linn,” if it slackened not the thirst, it cooled the brow.
“The following ditty had its foundation in one of those luckless doings which ever and aye follow misguided attachments; and in our abode of freedom these were almost the only kind of attachments known; so they were all on the wrong side of durability or happiness.
|Air—“Lass, gin you lo’e me, tell me noo.”|
|We'll meet in yon wood, ’neath a starless sky,|
|When wrestling leaves forsake ilk tree;|
|We mauna speak mair o’ the days gane by,|
|Nor o’ friends that again we never maun see:|
|Nae weak word o’ mine shall remembrance gie|
|O’ vows that were made and were broken to me:|
|I'll seem in my silence to reckon them dead,|
|A’ wither’d and lost as the leaves that we tread.|
|Alane ye maun meet me, when midnight is near,|
|By yon blighted auld bush that we fatally ken;|
|The voice that allured me, O! let me nae hear,|
|For my heart mauna beat to its music again. |
|In darkness we’ll meet, and in silence remain,’|
|Ilk word now and look now, were mockful or vain;|
|Ae mute moment morne the dream that misled,|
|Syne sinder as cauld as the leaves that we tread.|
“This ditty was sung in the weaving shops, and when in the warbling of one who could lend a good voice to the occasion, and could coax the words and air into a sort of social understanding, then was it a song.”
Thom had no furtherance for many years after this first appearance. It was hard work at all times to win bread; when work failed he was obliged to wander on foot elsewhere to procure it, losing his youngest child in a barn from the hardships endured one cold night of this untimely “flitting;” his admirable wife too died prematurely from the same cause. At one time he was obliged to go with his little daughter and his flute, (on which he is an excellent performer,) into the streets as a mendicant, to procure bread for his family. This last seems to have been far more cruel than any hardship to the honest pride native to the Scotchman. But there is another side. Like Prince, he was happy, as men in a rank more favoured by fortune seldom are, in his choice of a wife. He had an equal friend, a refined love, a brave, gentle, and uncomplaining companion in every sorrow, and wrote from his own experience the following lines:
|THEY SPEAK O’ WYLES.|
|Air—“Gin a bodie meet a bodie.”|
|They speak o’ wyles in woman’s smiles,|
|An’ ruin in her e’e—|
|I ken they bring a pang at whiles|
|That’s unco sair to dree;|
|But mind ye this, the half-ta’en kiss,|
|The first fond fa’in’ tear,|
|Is, Heaven kens, fu’ sweet amends|
|An’ tints o’ heaven here. |
|When twa leal hearts in fondness meet,|
|Life’s tempests howl in vain—|
|The very tears o’ love are sweet|
|When paid with tears again.|
|Shall sapless prudence shake its pow,|
|Shall cauldrife caution fear?|
|Oh, dinna, dinna droun the lowe|
|That lichts a heaven here!|
He was equally happy in his children, though the motherless bairns had to be sent, the little girl to tend cows, the darling boy to a hospital (where his being subjected, when alone, to a surgical operation, is the occasion of one of the poor Poet’s most touching strains.) They were indeed his children in love and sympathy, the source of thought and joy, such as is never known to the rich man who gives up for banks and ships all the immortal riches domestic joys might bring him, leaving his children first to the nursery-maid, then to hired masters, and last to the embrace of a corrupt world. He was also most happy in his “aërial investments,” and like Prince, so fortunate, midway in life before his power of resistance was exhausted, and those bitterest of all bitter words Too Late, stamped upon his brow, as to secure the enlightened assistance of one generous journal, the timely assistance of one generous friend, which, though little in money, was large in results. So Thom is far from an unfortunate man, though the portrait which we find in his book is marked with wrinkles of such premature depth. Indeed he declares that while work was plenty and his wife with him, he was blest for “nine years with such happiness as rarely falls to the lot of a human being.”
Thom has a poetical mind, rather than is a poet. He has a delicate perception of relations, and is more a poet in discerning good occasions for poems than in using them. Accordingly his prefaces to, or notes upon, his verses, are often, as was the case with Sir Walter Scott, far more poetical than the verses themthemselves. This is the case as to those which followed this little sketch:
“For a period of seventeen years, I was employed in a great weaving factory in Aberdeen. It contained upwards of three hundred looms, worked by as many male and female weavers. ’Twas a sad place, indeed, and many a curiosity sort of man and woman entered that blue gate. Amongst the rest, that little sly fellow Cupid would steal past ‘Willie, the porter’ (who never dreamed of such a being)—steal in amongst us, and make a very harvest of it. Upon the remembrance of one of his rather grave doings, the song of ‘Mary’ is composed. One of our shopmates, a virtuous young woman, fairly though unconsciously, carried away the whole bulk and value of a poor weaver’s heart. He became restless and miserable, but could never muster spirit to speak his flame. “He never told his love”—yes, he told it to me. At his request, I told it to Mary, and she laughed. Five wecks passed away, and I saw him to the churchyard. For many days ere he died, Mary watched by his bedside, a sorrowful woman, indeed. Never did widow’s tears fall more burningly. It is twenty years since then. She is now a wife and a mother; but the remembrance of that, their last meeting, still haunts her sensitive nature, as if she had done a deed of blood.”
The charming little description of one of the rural academies known by the name of a “Wifie’s Squeel,” we reserve to reprint in another connexion. As we are overstepping all limits, we shall give, in place of farther comments, three specimens of how the Muse sings while she throws a shuttle. They are all interesting in different ways. “One of the Heart’s Struggles” is a faithful transcript of the refined feelings of the craftsman, how opposite to the vulgar selfishness which so often profanes the name of Love! “A Chieftain Unknown to the Queen,” expresses many thoughts that arose in our own mind as we used to read the bulletins of the Royal Progress through Scotland so carefully transferred to the columns of American journals. “Whisper Low” is perhaps the best specimen of song as song, to be found in this volume.
By signs too numerous to be counted, yet some of them made fruitful by specification, the Spirit of the Age announces that she is slowly, toilsomely, but surely, working that revolution, whose mighty deluge rolling back, shall leave a new aspect smiling on earth to greet the ‘most ancient heavens.’ The wave rolls forward slowly, and may be as long in retreating, but when it has retired into the eternal deep, it will leave behind it a refreshed world, in which there may still be many low and mean men, but no lower classes; for it will be understood that it is the glory of a man to labour, and that all kinds of labour have their poetry, and that there is really no more a lower and higher among the world of men with their various spheres, than in the world of stars. All kinds of labour are equally honorable, if the mind of the labourer be only open so to understand them. But as
“The glory ’tis of Man’s estate,—
For this his dower did he receive,
That he in mind should contemplate
What with his hands he doth achieve.”
“Observe we sharply, then, what vantage,
From conflux of weak efforts springs;
He turns his craft to small advantage
Who knows not what to light it brings.”
It is this that has made the difference of high and low, that certain occupations were supposed to have a better influence in liberalizing and refining the higher faculties than others. Now, the tables are turning. The inferences and impressions to be gained from the pursuits that have ranked highest are, for the present, exhausted. They have been written about, prated about, till they have had their day, and need to lie in the shadow and recruit their energies through silence. ‘The mind of the time has detected the truth that as there is nothing, the least, effected in this universe, which does not somehow represent the whole, which it is again the whole scope and effort of human Intelligence to do, no deed, no pursuit can fail, if the mind be ‘divinely intended’ upon it, to communicate divine knowledge. Thus it is seen that all a man needs for his education is to take whatsoever lies in his way to do, and do it with his might, and think about it with his might, too; for
“He turns his craft to small advantage,
Who knows not what to light it brings.”
And, as a mark of this diffusion of the true, the poetic, the philosophic education, we greet the emergence more and more of poets from the working classes—men who not only have poet hearts and eyes, but use them to write and print verses.
Beranger, the man of the people, is the greatest poet, and, in fact, the greatest literary genius of modern France. In other nations if “the lower classes” have not such an one to boast, they at least have many buds and shoots of new talent. Not to speak of the patronized ploughboys and detected merits, they have now an order, constantly increasing, able to live by the day labor of that good right hand which wields the pen at night; with aims, thoughts, feelings of their own, neither borrowing from nor aspiring to the region of the Rich and Great. Elliott, Nicol, Prince, and Thom find enough in the hedge-rows that border their everyday path;—they need not steal an entrance to padlocked flower-gardens, nor orchards guarded by man-traps and spring-guns.
Of three of these it may be said, they
“Were cradled into Poesy by Wrong,
And learnt in Suffering what they taught in Song.”
But of the fourth—Prince, we mean—though he indeed suffered enough of the severest hardships of work-day life, the extreme hardships of life when work could not be got, yet he was no flint that needed such hard blows to strike out the fire, but an easily bubbling naphtha-spring that would have burned much the same, through whatever soil it had reached the open air.
He was born of the poorest laboring people, taught to read and write imperfectly only by means of the Sunday Schools, discouraged in any taste for books by his father lest his time, if any portion were that way bestowed, should not suffice to win his bread,—with no friends of the mind, in youthful years, except a volume of Byron, and an old German who loved to tell stories of his native land;—married at nineteen, in the hope of mingling some solace with his cup; plunged by the birth of children into deeper want, going forth to foreign lands a beggar in search of employment, returning to his own country to be received as a pauper, having won nothing but mental treasure which no man wished to buy; he found his wife and children in the workhouse, and took them thence home to lie with him on straw in an unfurnished garret. Thus passed the first half of the span allotted on earth to one made in God’s image. And during those years Prince constantly wrote into verse how such things struck him. But we cannot say that his human experiences were deep; for all these things that would have tortured other men, only pained him superficially. Into the soul of Elliott, the iron has entered; the lightest song of Beranger echocs to a melancholy sense of the defects of this world with its Tantalus destinies, a melancholy which touches it at times with celestial pathos. But life has made but little impression on Prince. Endowed by Nature with great purity of instincts, a healthy vigor of feeling more than of thought, he sees, and expresses in all his works, the happiness natural to Man. He sees him growing, gently, gradually, with no more of struggle and labour than is wanted to develope his manly strength, learning his best self from the precious teachings of domestic affections, fully and intelligently the son, the lover, the husband, the father. He sees him walking amid the infinite fair shows of Nature, kingly, yet companionable, too. He sees him offering to his God no sacrifice of blood and tears, whether others’ or his own, but the incense of a grateful and obedient heart, ever ready for love and good works.
It is this childishness, rather this virginity of soul, that makes Prince’s poems remarkable. He has no high poetic power, not even a marked individuality of expression. There are no lines, verses, or images that strike by themselves; neither human nor external nature are described so as to make the mind of the poet foster-father to its subject. The poems are only easy expression of the common mood of a healthy mind and tender heart, which needs to vent itself in words and metres. Every body should be able to write as good verse,—every body has the same simple, substantial things to put into it. On such a general basis the high constructive faculty, the imagination, might rear her palaces, unafraid of ruin from war or time.
This being the case with Prince, we shall not make detailed remarks upon his poems, but merely substantiate what we have said by some extracts.
1st. We give the description of his Journey and Return. This, to us, presents a delightful picture; the man is so sufficient to himself and his own improvement; so unconquerably sweet and happy.
2d. The poem ‘Land and Sea,’ as giving a true presentment of the riches of this poor man.
3d. A poem to his Child, showing how a pure and refined sense of the beauty and value of these relations, often unknown in palaces, may make a temple of an unfurnished garret.
4th. In an extract from ‘A Vision of the Future,’ a presentation of the life fit for man, as seen by a ‘reed-maker for weavers;’ such as we doubt Mrs. Norton’s Child of the Islands would not have vigor and purity of mental sense even to sympathize with, when conceived, far less to conceive.
These extracts speak for themselves; they show the stream of the poet’s mind to be as clear as if it had flowed over the sands of Pactolus. But most waters show the color of the soil through which they had to force their passage; this is the case with Elliott, and with Thom, of whose writings we shall soon give some notice.
Prince is an unique, as we sometimes find a noble Bayard, born of a worldly statesman—a sweet shepherdess or nun, of a heartless woman of fashion. Such characters are the direct gift of Heaven, and symbolize nothing in what is now called Society.
THE CHILD OF THE ISLANDS: By the Hon. Mrs. Norton. London: Chapman and Hull. 1845.
HOURS WITH THE MUSES: By John Critchley Prince. Second Edition. London. Simpkin, Marshall & Co. 1841.
The Hon. Mrs. Norton and Prince, “a reed-maker for weavers,” meet upon a common theme—the existing miseries and possible relief of that most wretched body, England’s poor: most wretched of the world’s sufferers in being worse mocked by pretensions of freedom and glory, most wretched in having minds more awakened to feel their wretchedness.
Mrs. Norton and Prince meet on the same ground, but in strongly contrasted garb and expression, as might be expected from the opposite quarters from which they come. Prince takes this truly noble motto:
“Knowledge and Truth and Virtue were his theme,
And lofty hopes of Liberty divine.”—Shelley.
Mrs. Norton prefaces a poem on a subject of such sorrowful earnestness, and in which she calls the future sovereign of a groaning land to thought upon his duties, with this weak wish couched in the verse of Moore:
“As, half in shade and half in sun,
This world along its course advances,
May that side the sun’s upon
Be all that shall ever meet thy glances.”
Thus unconsciously showing her state of mind. It is a very different wish that a good friend, ‘let alone’ a good angel, would proffer to the Prince of Wales at this moment. Shame indeed will it be for him if he does wish to stand in the sun, while the millions that he ought to spend all his blood to benefit are shivering in the cold and dark. The position of the heirs of fortune in that country, under present circumstances, is one of dread, which to a noble soul would bring almost the anguish of crucifixion. How can they enjoy one moment in peace the benefit of their possessions? And how can they give them up, and be sure it will be any benefit to others? The causes of ill seem so deeply rooted in the public economy of England, that, if all her rich men were to sell all they have and give to the poor, it would yield but a temporary relief. Yea! all those heaped-up gems, the Court array of England’s beauty; the immense treasures of art, enough to arouse old Greece from her grave; the stately parks, full of dewy glades and bosky dells, haunted by the stately deer and still more thickly by exquisite memories; the enormous wealth of episcopal palaces, might all be given up for the good of the people at large, and not relieve their sufferings ten years. It is not merely that sense of right usually dignified by the name of generosity that is wanted, but wisdom—a deeper wisdom by far as to the conduct of national affairs than the world has ever yet known. It is not enough now for prince or noble to be awakened to good dispositions. Let him not hope at once to be able to do good with the best dispositions; things have got too far from health and simplicity for that; the return must be tedious, and whoever sets out on that path must resign himself to be a patient student, with a painfully studying world for his companion. In work he can for a long time hope no shining results; the miners dig in the dark as yet for the ransom of the suffering million.
Hard is the problem for the whole civilized world at present, hard for bankrupt Europe, hard for endangered America. We say bankrupt Europe, for surely nations are so who have not known how to secure peace, education, or even bodily sustenance for the people at large. The lightest lore of fairy tale is wise enough to show that such nations must be considered bankrupt, notwithstanding the accumulation of wealth, the development of resources, the prodigies of genius and science they have to boast. Some successes have been achieved, but at what a price of blood and tears, of error and of crime!
And, in this hard school-time, hardest must be the lot of him who has outward advantages above the rest, and yet is at all awakened to the wants of all. Has he mind? how shall he learn? time—how employ it? means—where apply them? The poor little “trapper,” kept in the dark at his automaton task twelve hours a day, has an easy and happy life before him, compared with the prince on the throne, if that prince possesses a conscience that can be roused, a mind that can be developed.
The position of such a prince is indicated in the following extract which we take from the Schnellpost. Laube says in his late work, called “Three royal cities of the North,” “King Oscar still lives in the second story of the castle at Stockholm, where he lived when he was crowned prince. He was out, and his dressing gown thrown upon an elbow chair before the writing table: all was open, showing how he was occupied. I found among the books, that seemed in present use, many in German, among them the “Staats Lexicon,” “Julius upon Prisons,” “Rotteck’s History of the World.” It is well known that King Oscar is especially interested in studies for the advantage of the most unhappy classes of citizens, the poor and the prisoners, and has, himself, written upon the subject. His apartment shows domestic habits like those of a writer. No fine library full of books left to accumulate dust, but what he wants, chosen with judgment, ready for use around him. A hundred little things showed what should be the modern kingly character, at home in the intellectual life of our time, earnest for a general culture. Every thing in his simple arrangements showed the manly democratic prince. He is up, early and late, attending with zealous conscientiousness to the duties of his office.”
Such a life should England’s prince live, and then he would be only one of the many virtuous seekers, with a better chance to try experiments. The genius of the time is working through myriad organs, speaking through myriad mouths, but condescends chiefly to men of low estate. She is spelling a new and sublime spell; its first word we know is brotherhood, but that must be well pronounced and learnt by heart before we shall hear another so clearly. One thing is obvious, we must cease to worship princes even in genius. The greatest geniuses will in this day rank themselves as the chief servants only. It is not even the most exquisite, the highest, but rather the largest and deepest experience that can serve us. The Prince of Wales, like his poetess, will not be so able a servant on account of the privileges she so gracefully enumerates and cannot persuade herself are not blessings. But they will keep him, as they have kept her, farther from the truth and knowledge wanted than he would have been in a less sheltered position.
Yet we sympathize with Mrs. Norton in her appeal. Every boy should be a young prince; since it is not so, in the present distorted state of society, it is natural to select some one cherished object as the heir to our hopes. Children become the angels of a better future to all who attain middle age without losing from the breast that chief jewel, the idea of what man and life should be. They must do what we hoped to do, but find time, strength, perhaps even spirit, failing. They show not yet their limitations; in their eyes shines an infinite hope; we can imagine it realized in their lives, and this consoles us for the deficiencies in our own, for the soul, though demanding the beautiful and good every where, can yet be consoled if it is found some where. ’Tis an illusion to look for it in these children more than in ourselves, but it is one we seem to need, being the second strain of the music that cheers our fatiguing march through this part of the scene of life.
There was a good deal of prestige about Queen Victoria’s coming to the throne. She was young, “and had what in a princess might be styled beauty.” She wept lest she should not reign wisely, and that seemed as if she might. Many hoped she might prove another Elizabeth, with more heart, using the privileges of the woman, her high feeling, sympathy, tact and quick penetration in unison with, and as corrective of, the advice of experienced statesmen. We hoped she would be a mother to the country. But she has given no signs of distinguished character; her walk seems a private one. She is a fashionable lady and the mother of a family. We hope she may prove the mother of a good prince, but it will not do to wait for him; the present generation must do all it can. If he does no harm, it is more than is reasonable to expect from a prince—does no harm and is the keystone to keep the social arch from falling into ruins till the time be ripe to construct a better in its stead.
Mrs. Norton, addressing herself to the Child of the Islands, goes through the circling seasons of the year and finds plenty of topics in their changes to subserve her main aim. This is to awaken the rich to their duty. And, though the traces of her education are visible, and weak prejudices linger among newly awakened thoughts, yet, on the whole, she shows a just sense of the relationship betwixt man and man, and musically doth she proclaim her creed in the lines beginning
The stamps of imperfection rests on all
Our human intellect has power to plan.
After an eloquent enumeration of the difficulties that beset our path and our faith, she concludes—
Lo! out of chaos was the world first called,
And Order out of blank Disorder came,
The feebly-toiling heart that shrinks appalled,
In dangers weak, in difficulties tame,
Hath lost the spark of that creative flame
Dimly permitted still on earth to burn,
Working out slowly Order's perfect frame;
Distributed to those whose souls can learn,
As labourers under God, His task-work to discern.
“To discern,” ay! that is what is needed. Only these “labourers under God” have that clearness of mind that is needed, and though in the present time they walk as men in a subterranean passage where the lamp sheds its light only a little way onward, yet that light suffices to keep their feet from stumbling while they seek an outlet to the blessed day.
The above presents a fair specimen of the poem. As poetry it is inferior to her earlier verses, where, without pretension to much thought, or commanding view, Mrs. Norton expressed simply the feelings of the girl and the woman. Willis has described them well in one of the most touching of his poems, as being a tale
—“of feelings which in me are cold,
But ah! with what a passionate sweetness told!”
The best passages in the present poem are personal, as where a mother’s feelings are expressed in speaking of infants and young children, recollections of a Scotch Autumn, and the description of the imprisoned gipsey.
In the same soft and flowing style, and with the same unstudied fidelity to nature, is the grief of the gipsey husband painted when he comes and finds her dead. After the first fury of rage and despair is spent, he “weepeth like a child”—
And many a day by many a sunny bank,
Or forest pond, close fringed with rushes dank,
He wails, his clench’d hands on his eyelids prest;
Or by lone hedges, where the grass grows rank,
Stretched prone, as travelers deem, in idle rest,
Mourns for that murdered girl, the dove of his wild nest.
To such passages the woman’s heart lends the rhetoric.
Generally the poem is written with considerable strength, in a good style, sustained, and sufficiently adorned, by the flowers of feeling. It shows an expansion of mind highly honourable to a lady placed as Mrs. Norton has been, and for which she, no doubt, is much indebted to her experience of sorrow. She has felt the need of faith and hope, of an enlargement of sympathy. The poem may be read through at once and without fatigue; this is much to say for an ethical poem, filling a large volume. It is, however, chiefly indebted for its celebrity to the circumstances of its authorship. A beautiful lady, celebrated in aristocratic circles, joins the democratic movement, now so widely spreading in light literature, and men hail the fact as a sign of the times. The poem is addressed to the “upper classes,” and, even from its defects, calculated to win access to their minds. Its outward garb, too, is suited to attract their notice. The book is simply but beautifully got up, the two stanzas looking as if written for the page they fill, and in a pre-existent harmony with the frame-work and margin. There is only one ugly thing, and that frightfully ugly, the design for the frontispiece by Maclise. The Child of the Islands, represented by an infant form to whose frigid awkwardness there is no correspondence in the most degraded models that can be found in Nature for that age, with the tamest of angels kneeling at his head and feet, angels that have not spirit and sweetness enough to pray away a fly, forms the centre. Around him are other figures of whom it is impossible to say whether they are goblins or fairies, come to curse or bless. The accessories are as bad as the main group, mean in conception, tame in execution. And the subject admitted of so beautiful and noble an illustration by Art! We marvel that a person of so refined taste as Mrs. Norton, and so warmly engaged in the subject, should have admitted this to its companionship.
We intended to have given some account of Prince and his poems, in this connection, but must now wait till another number, for we have spread our words over too much space already.
- This extract was inserted in the original notice, but must be omitted here for want of room.