1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Josiah Conder

John Keble, in Review of Conder, Star of the East; Quarterly Review 32 (June 1825) 211-17.



There are many circumstances about this little volume, which tend powerfully to disarm criticism. In the first place, it is for the most part, of a sacred character: taken up with those subjects, which least of all admit, with propriety, either in the author or critic, the exercise of intellectual subtlety. For the practical tendency, indeed, of such compositions, both are most deeply responsible; the author who publishes, and the critic who undertakes to recommend or to censure them. But if they appear to be written with any degree of sincerity and earnestness, we naturally shrink from treating them merely as literary efforts. To interrupt the current of a reader's sympathy in such a case, by critical objections, is not merely to deprive him of a little harmless pleasure, it is to disturb him almost in a devotional exercise. The most considerate reviewer, therefore, of a volume of sacred poetry, will think it a subject on which it is easier to say too much than too little.

In the present instance, this consideration is enforced by the unpretending tone of the volume, which bears internal evidence, for the most part, of not having been written to meet the eye of the world. It is in vain to say, that this claim on the critic's favour is nullified by publication. The author may give it up, and yet the work may retain it. We may still feel that we have no right to judge severely of what was not, at first, intended to come before our judgment at all. This of course applies only to those compositions, which indicate, by something within themselves, this freedom from the pretension of authorship. And such are most of those, to which we are now bespeaking our readers' attention.

Most of them, we say, because the first poem in the volume, "The Star in the East," is of a more ambitious and less pleasing character. Although in blank verse, it is, in fact, a lyrical effusion; an ode on the rapid progress and final triumph of the Gospel. It looks like the composition of a young man: harsh and turgid in parts, but interspersed with some rather beautiful touches. The opening lines are a fair specimen.

O to have heard th' unearthly symphonies,
Which o'er the starlight peace of Syrian skies
Came floating like a dream, that blessed night
When angel songs were heard by sinful men,
Hymning Messiah's advent! O to have watch'd
The night with those poor shepherds, whom, when first
The glory of the Lord shed sudden day—
Day without dawn, starting from midnight, day
Brighter than morning — on those lonely hills
Strange fear surpris'd — fear lost in wondering joy,
When from th' angelic multitude swell'd forth
The many voiced consonance of praise:—
Glory in th' highest to GOD, and upon earth
Peace, towards men good will. But once before,
In such glad strains of joyous fellowship,
The silent earth was greeted by the heavens,
When at its first foundation they looked down
From their bright orbs, those heavenly ministries,
Hailing the new-born world with bursts of joy.

Notwithstanding beauties scattered here and there, there is an effort and constrained stateliness in the poem, very different from the rapidity and simplicity of many of the shorter lyrics, which follow under the titles of Sacred and Domestic Poems. Such, for instance, as the Poor Man's Hymn.

As much have I of worldly good
As e'er my master had:
I diet on as dainty food,
And am as richly clad,
Tho' plain my garb, though scant my board,
As Mary's Son and Nature's Lord.

The manger was his infant bed,
His home, the mountain-cave,
He had not where to lay his head,
He borrow'd even his grave.
Earth yielded him no resting spot,—
Her Maker, but she knew him not.

As much the world's good will I bear,
Its favours and applause,
As He, whose blessed name I bear,—
Hated without a cause,
Despis'd, rejected, mock'd by pride,
Betray'd, forsaken, crucified.

Why should I court my Master's foe?
Why should I fear its frown?
Why should I seek for rest below,
Or sigh for brief renown?
A pilgrim to a better land,
An heir of joys at Gon's right hand.

Or the following sweet lines on Home, which occur among the Domestic poems.

That is not home, where day by day
I wear the busy hours away.
That is not home, where lonely night
Prepares me for the toils of light—
'Tis hope, and joy, and memory, give
A home in which the heart can live—
These walls no lingering hopes endear,
No fond remembrance chains me here,
Cheerless I heave the lonely sigh—
Eliza, canst thou tell me why?
'Tis where thou art is home to me,
And home without thee cannot be.

There are who strangely love to roam,
And find in wildest haunts their home;
And some in halls of lordly state,
Who yet are homeless, desolate.
The sailor's home is on the main,
The warrior's, on the tented plain,
The maiden's, in her bower of rest,
The infant's, on his mother's breast—
But where thou art, is home to me,
And home without thee cannot be.

There is no home in halls of pride,
They are too high, and cold, and wide.
No home is by the wanderer found:
'Tis not in place: it hath no bound.
It is a circling atmosphere
Investing all the heart holds dear
A law of strange attractive force,
That holds the feelings in their course;

It is a presence undefin'd,
O'er-shadowing the conscious mind,
Where love and duty sweetly blend
To consecrate the name of friend;—
Where'er thou art, is home to me,
And home without thee cannot be.

My love, forgive the anxious sigh—
I hear the moments rushing by,
And think that life is fleeting fast,
That youth with us will soon be past.
Oh! when will time, consenting, give
The home in which my heart can live?
There shall the past and future meet,
And o'er our couch, in union sweet,
Extend their cherub wings, and shower
Bright influence on the present hour.
Oh! when shall Israel's mystic guide,
The pillar'd cloud, our steps decide,
Then, resting, spread its guardian shade,
To bless the home which love hath made?
Daily, my love, shall thence arise
Our hearts' united sacrifice;
And home indeed a home will be,
Thus consecrate and shar'd with thee.

We will add one more specimen of the same kind, which forms a natural and pleasing appendix to the preceding lines.

Louise! you wept, that morn of gladness
Which made your Brother blest;
And tears of half-reproachful sadness
Fell on the Bridegroom's vest:
Yet, pearly tears were those, to gem
A sister's bridal diadem.

No words could half so well have spoken,
What thus was deeply shewn
By Nature's simplest, dearest token,
How much was then my own;
Endearing her for whom they fell,
And Thee, for having loved so well.

But now no more — nor let a Brother,
Louise, regretful see,
That still 'tis sorrow to another,
That he should happy be.
Those were, I trust, the only tears
That day shall cost through coming years.

Smile with us. Happy and light-hearted,
We three the time will while.
And when sometimes a season parted.
Still think of us, and smile.
But come to us in gloomy weather;
We'll weep, when we must weep, together.
pp. 128-130.

Now, what is the reason of the great difference between these extracts and that from the Star in the East? a difference which the earlier date of the latter, so far from accounting for, only makes the more extraordinary. In some instances, the interval of time is very short, but at all events more effort and turgidness might have been expected in the earlier poems, more simplicity and care and a more subdued tone in the later. We suspect a reason, which both poets and poetical readers are too apt to leave out of sight. There is a want of Truth in the Star in the East — not that the author is otherwise than quite in earnest — but his earnestness seems rather an artificial glow, to which he has been worked up by reading and conversation of a particular cast, than the overflowing warmth of his own natural feelings, kindles by circumstances in which he was himself placed. In a word, when he writes of the success of the Bible Society, and the supposed amelioration of the world in consequence, he writes from report and fancy only: but when he speaks of a happy home, of kindly affections, of the comforts which piety can administer in disappointment and sorrow; either we are greatly mistaken, or he speaks from real and present experience. The poetical result is what the reader has seen:

—mens onus reponit, et peregrino
Labore fessi venimus Larem ad nostrum.—

We turn gladly from our fairy voyage round the world to refresh ourselves with a picture, which we feel to be drawn from the life, of a happy and innocent fireside. Nor is it, in the slightest degree, derogatory to an author's talent, to say, that he has failed, comparatively, on that subject, of which he must have known comparatively little.

Let us here pause a moment to explain what is meant when we speak of such prospects as are above alluded to, being shadowy and unreal in respect of what is matter of experience. It is not that we doubt the tenor of the Scripture, regarding the final conversion of the whole world, or that we close our eyes to the wonderful arrangements, if the expression may be used, which divine providence seems every where making, with a view to that great consummation. One circumstance, in particular, arrests our attention, as pervading the whole of modern history, but gradually standing out in a stronger light as the view draws nearer our own times: we mean the rapid increase of colonization, from Christian nations only. So that the larger half of the globe, and what in the nature of things will soon become the more populous, is already, in profession, Christian. The event, therefore, is unquestionable: but experience, we fear, will hardly warrant the exulting anticipations, which our author, in common with many of whose sincerity there is no reason to doubt, has raised upon it. It is but too conceivable, that the whole world may become nominally Christian, yet the face of things may be very little changed for the better. And any view of the progress of the gospel, whether in verse or in prose, which leaves out this possibility, is so far wanting in truth, and in that depth of thought, which is as necessary to the higher kinds of poetical beauty, as to philosophy or theology itself.

This, however, is too solemn and comprehensive a subject to be lightly or hastily spoken of. It is enough to have glanced at it, as accounting, in some measure, for the general failure of modern poets in their attempts to describe the predicted triumph of the gospel in the latter days.

To return to the sacred and domestic poems; thus advantageously distinguished from that which gives name to the volume. Affection, whether heavenly or earthly, is the simplest idea that can be; and in the graceful and harmonious expression of it lies the principal beauty of these poems. In the descriptive parts, and in the developement of abstract sentiment, there is more of effort, and occasionally something very like affectation: approaching, in one instance, (the Nightingale,) far nearer than we could wish, to the most vicious of all styles, the style of Mr. Leigh Hunt and his miserable followers.

Now, these are just the sort of merit and the sort of defect, which one might naturally expect to find united: the very simplicity of attachment, which qualifies the mind for sacred or domestic poetry, making its movements awkward and constrained, when scenes are to be described, or thoughts unravelled, of more complication and less immediate interest. This is the rather to be observed, as many other sacred poets have become less generally pleasing and useful, than they otherwise would have been, from this very circumstance. The simple and touching devoutness of many of Bishop Kenn's lyrical effusions has been unregarded, because of the ungraceful contrivances, and heavy movement of his narrative. The same may be said, in our own times, of some parts of Montgomery's writings. His bursts of sacred poetry, compared with his Greenland, remind us of a person singing enchantingly by ear, but becoming languid and powerless the moment he sits down to a note-book.

Such writers, it is obvious, do not sufficiently trust to the command which the simple expression of their feelings would obtain over their readers. They think it must be relieved with something of more variety and imagery, to which they work themselves up with laborious, and therefore necessarily unsuccessful efforts. The model for correcting their error is to be found in the inspired volume. We can, in general, be but incompetent judges of this, because we have been used to it from our boyhood. But let us suppose a person, whose ideas of poetry were entirely gathered from modern compositions, taking up the Psalms for the first time. Among many other remarkable differences, he would surely be impressed with the sacred writer's total carelessness about originality, and what is technically called effect. He would say, "This is something better than merely attractive poetry; it is absolute and divine truth." The same remark ought to be suggested by all sacred hymns; and it is, indeed, greatly to be lamented, that such writers as we have just mentioned should have ever lost sight of it — should have had so little confidence in the power of simplicity, and have condescended so largely to the laborious refinements of the profane muse.