1853 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Caroline Norton

Frederic Rowton, in Female Poets of Great Britian (1853) 409-10.



Amongst the Poetesses of our land, Mrs. Norton certainly claims a most distinguished place. Not a few critics, indeed assign her the very first. And I think it would be difficult to disprove her right to a position with the loftiest. It is most assuredly not my intention to attempt such a demonstration; for if I do not agree unreservedly with the assertion of her superiority over all, I at all events am prepared to maintain her equality with any of, her sister poets. I will go further, and avow my belief that, under other and more favourable circumstances, Mrs. Norton might have gained even greater fame than she has yet achieved. Just as some paintings give one the idea that the artist has power to produce works of higher merit, so do Mrs. Norton's poems suggest the possession of latent genius far transcending that which is displayed in them.

But we must speak of her as she is.

The Quarterly Review, in a criticism of Mrs. Norton's writings, says of her — that "she is the Byron of our modern poetesses. She has very much of that intense personal passion by which Byron's poetry is distinguished from the larger grasp and deeper communion with man and nature of Wordsworth. She has also Byron's beautiful intervals of tenderness, his strong practical thought, and his forceful expression. It is not an artificial imitation, but a natural parallel." I think we cannot safely adopt this opinion without a little qualification. That Mrs. Norton has a fervour, a tenderness, and a force of expression which greatly resemble Byron's, there cannot be a doubt: but there all similarity ceases. Byron is the personification of passionate selfishness: his range of sympathy is extremely small: Mrs. Norton, on the other hand, has a large and generous heart, essentially unselfish in its feelings, and universal in its sympathies. Byron has a sneering, mocking, disbelieving spirit: Mrs. Norton a simple, beautiful, childlike, implicitness of soul. Byron's strains resemble the vast, roaring, willful waterfall, rushing headlong over desolate rocks, with a sound like the wail of a lost spirit: Mrs. Norton's, the soft full-flowing River, margined with flowers, and uttering sweet music. What is there in Byron that resembles this:—

THE MOTHER'S HEART.
When first thou camest, gentle, shy, and fond,
My eldest born, first hope, and dearest treasure,
My heart received thee with a joy beyond
All that it yet had felt of earthly pleasure;
Nor thought that any love again might be
So deep and strong as that I felt for thee.

Faithful and true, with sense beyond thy years,
And natural piety that lean'd to heaven;
Wrung by a harsh word suddenly to tears,
Yet patient of rebuke when justly given—
Obedient, easy to be reconciled,
And meekly cheerful — such wert thou, my child!

Not willing to be left: still by my side
Haunting my walks, while summer-day was dying;
Nor leaving in thy turn; but pleas'd to glide
Through the dark room, where I was sadly lying;
Or by the couch of pain, a sitter meek,
Watch the dim eye, and kiss the feverish cheek.

O boy! of such as thou oftenest made
Earth's fragile idols; like a tender flower,
No strength in all thy freshness — prone to fade—
And bending weakly to the thunder-shower—
Still round the loved, thy heart found force to bind,
And clung like woodbine shaken in the wind.

Her passionate poems display a radical difference from those of Byron. Byron is, even in his purest moments, sensual and earthly; Mrs. Norton is invariably serene and spiritual. Byron's passion is light a lightning flash. Mrs. Norton's like a sunbeam. I would refer to her exquisite poem of Sappho, in illustration. I deeply regret that I am not permitted to present the lines themselves [additional illustrations and commentary omitted].