1817 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Croly

John Wilson Croker, Review of Croly, Paris in 1815; Quarterly Review 17 (April 1817) 218-29.



This is the work of a powerful and poetic imagination; but the style and expression are of very unequal merit. Occasionally uncouth, and frequently obscure, they nevertheless are often, perhaps we might say generally, suitable to the ardent inspirations which they are destined to convey.

The subject of the poem is a desultory walk through Paris, in which the author observes, with very little regularity, but with great force, on the different objects which present themselves. It is evident that he visited Paris already well imbued with the local history of the town, and more particularly with that of those most interesting events which for five-and-twenty years have rendered that capital equally the object of horror and curiosity.

The bias of the author's mind, both in religion and politics, is strongly adverse to the revolution and the revolutionists, and when he enters the scenes on which so many atrocious crimes have been committed, his descriptions are tinged with the deep and mellow colours of an enthusiasm against which no reader, we think, can easily defend himself.

Approaching from Mont Martre, the first object that strikes our poetical traveller is the British flag which, from that remarkable eminence, floated over the haughty capital of France. — The hurried fortifications raised here by Buonaparte, symbols of

What terror on the boastful land has been,

are well delineated; but the stanzas, which describe the feelings of the British army when they first scaled Mont Martre, and glutted their eyes with the view of conquered PARIS, appear to us to be of a still higher strain:

IX.
War has its mighty moments: — Heart of Man!
Have all thy pulses vigour for a thrill
Prouder than through those gallant bosoms ran
When first their standards waved above that hill?
When first they strove their downward gaze to fill
With the full grandeur of their glorious prize—
Paris! the name that from their cradle still
Stung them in dreams; now, glittering in their eyes,
Now won — won by the Victory of Victories!

X.
For this had bled their battle round the world;
For this they round the world had come to war;
Some, with the shatter'd ensign that unfurl'd
Its lion-emblems to the Orient star;
And some, the blue Atlantic stemming far;
And some, a matchless band, from swarthy Spain—
With well-worn steel, and breasts of many a scar;
And all their plains to their last conquering plain
Were sport, and all their trophies to this trophy vain. — p. 5, 6.

Before we proceed, we must take the opportunity of stating, once for all, that the author is sometimes extremely negligent in the construction of his Alexandrines. It requires more management than he is entitled to demand, on the part of his readers, to modulate the closing lines of the two stanzas just quoted (and there are many others ejusdem farinae) into any thing like verse. This is a fault which no authority can sanction, and which, therefore, like the errors of Hamlet's strolling players, "should be reformed all-together."

On entering Paris, the author changes his metre, (on which we shall say a word hereafter,) and gives the following striking picture of the first impressions created by a sight so new to his eyes.

The barriers reach'd — out rolls the drowsy guard;
A scowl — a question — and the gates unbarr'd.
And this is Paris! The postilion's thong
Rings round a desert, as we bound along,
From rut to deeper rut of shapeless stone,
With many a general heave, and general groan.
Onward, still darker, doubly desolate,
Winds o'er the shrinking head the dangerous strait.
The light is lost; in vain we peer our way
Through the rank dimness of the Fauxbourg day;
In vain the wearied eyeball strains to scale
That squalid height, half hovel and half jail:
At every steep the struggling vision bar
Projections sudden, black, and angular,
Streak'd with what once was gore, deep rent with shot,
Marks of some conflict furious and — forgot!
At every step, from sewer and alley sail
The crossing steams that make the senses quail,
Defying breezes breath and summer's glow,
Charter'd to hold eternal mire below.
Grim loneliness! — and yet some blasted form
Will start upon the sight, a human worm
Clung to the chapel's wall — the lank throat bare,
The glance shot woeful from the tangled hair,
The fleshless, outstretch'd arm, and ghastly cry,
Half forcing, half repelling charity.
Or, from the portal of the old hotel,
Gleams on his post the victor-centinel,
Briton or German, shooting round his ken,
From its dark depth, a lion from his den. — pp. 12, 13.

If, as we suspect, this passage should remind our readers of Mr. Crabbe, the following description of the lodging of one of Buonaparte's last-stake ruffians, the federes whom he attempted to arm in 1814, less in his own defence than for the overthrow of all order, will press the resemblance more strongly upon them.

Heavy that chamber's air; the sunbeams fall
Scattered and sickly on the naked wall;
Through the time-crusted casement scarcely shown
The rafter'd roof, the floor of chilling stone,
The crazy bed, the mirror that betrays
Frameless, where vanity yet loves to gaze;
And still, the symbols of his darker trade,
The musquet, robber-pistol, sabre blade,
Hung rusting, where around the scanty fire
His squalid offspring watch its brands expire.
His glance is there; — another, statelier spot
Has full possession of his fever'd thought;
In the fierce past the fierce to-come he sees,
The day return'd of plunder'd palaces,
When faction revell'd, mobs kept thrones in awe,
And the red pike at once was King and Law. — p. 16.

We regret that our limits do not permit us to give the whole of the vivid and energetic passage in which the author describes the infamous Abbaye, and exhibits the horrors of the massacres of September, 1792. The contrast between the present appearance of the building, and the recollections which it inspires, are finely conceived and forcibly expressed.

He then proceeds to a more detailed description of those dreadful nights; — it is all good, particularly the account of that most awful scene in which a priest ascended a kind of pulpit in the prison, and gave the last admonitions of piety and the last consolations of religion to the mixed and melancholy crowds of fellow sufferers who knelt before him: — but we must limit ourselves to such passages as may be most easily disconnected from the context.

The following incident in that dreadful tragedy is not more powerfully given than the rest, but it is an insulated episode which will lose nothing by being quoted alone. After sketching, with the hand of a master, the bloody and drunken tribunal of that night, (drunk with wine as well as blood,) he goes on—

And now, a prisoner stood before them, wan
With dungeon damps and woe — an aged man,
But stately; — there was in his hoary hair
A reverend grace that Murder's self might spare.
Two of the mob, half naked, freshly dyed
In crimson clots, waved sabres at his side.
He told his tale, — a brief, plain, prison tale,—
Well vouch'd by those faint limbs and features pale:
His words were strong, the manly energy
Of one not unprepared to live or die.
His judges wavered, whispered, seemed to feel
Some human touches at his firm appeal.—
He named his king! — a burst of scoff and sneer
Pour'd down, that even the slumberers sprang to hear;
Startled, to every grating round the room
Sprang visages already seal'd for doom;
Red from their work without, in rush'd a crowd,
Like wolves that heard the wonted cry of blood.
He gazed above, — the torch's downward flame
Flash'd o'er his cheek; — 'twas red, — it might be shame,
Shame for his country, sorrow for her throne;—
'Twas pale, — the hectic of the heart was gone.
His guards were shaken off; — he tore his vest,
A ribbon'd cross was on his knightly breast,
It covered scars; — he deigned no more reply;
None, but the scorn that lighten'd from his eye.
His huddled, hurried judges dropp'd their gaze;
The villain soul's involuntary praise!
He kiss'd his cross, and turn'd him to the door—
An instant, — and they heard his murderers' roar! — pp. 24, 25.

The dreadful continuance of these scenes, and the long line of victims immolated, are thus beautifully described:

The evening fell, — in bloody mists the sun
Rush'd glaring down; nor yet the work was done;
'Twas night; — and still upon the Bandit's eye
Came from their cavern those who came to die;
A long, weak, wavering, melancholy wave,
As from the grave, returning to the grave.
'Twas midnight; — still the gusty torches blazed
On shapes of woe, dim gestures, faces glazed;
And still, as through the dusk the ghastly file
Moved onward, it was added to the pile! — p. 26.

From this heart-touching subject, the poet turns to the royal procession to Notre Dame in 1815; and here again his description of the objects that move before his eyes is exquisitely tinged with the colour of the thoughts that pass through his memory, and of the feelings that arise in his heart.

When the Mousquetaires who had accompanied the king to Ghent (and who have been therefore, we believe, since disbanded) appeared in the procession, the applauses of the crowd (mob as it was) rent the air.

'Twas the heart's shout — the vilest of the vile
By instinct bow before the virtuous brave.

The fatal night of the departure of this gallant band from Paris, and the melancholy festivity in which at Ghent they renewed the pledges of their devotion, are finely imagined, and (with the exception of the last line) forcibly expressed.

XXXII.
It was a dreary hour; that deep midnight,
Which saw those warriors to their chargers spring,
And, sadly gathering by the torch's light,
Draw up their squadrons to receive their king:
Then, thro' the streets, long, silent, slumbering,
Move like some secret noble funeral;
Each forced in turn to feel his bosom wring,
As in the gleam shone out his own proud hall,
His own no more; — no more! — he had abandon'd all!

XXXIII.
And when, thro' many a league of chase and toil,
With panting steed, red spur, and sheathless sword,
At last they reach'd the stranger's sheltering soil;
They saw their country, where they saw its lord.
All ruin'd now, they fenc'd his couch and board,
But with still humbler head, and lower knee;
And scorn'd the tauntings of the rebel horde;
Nay, in the hour that seal'd the base decree
Of exile, pledged their faith in proud festivity.

XXXIV.
I love not war, too oft the mere, mad game
That tyrants play to keep themselves awake.
But 'tis not war — it earns a nobler name—
When men gird on the sword for conscience sake,
When country, king, faith, freedom are the stake.
And my eye would have left earth's gaudiest show,
To see those men at their poor banquet take
The sword, and, mid the song and cup's gay flow,
Swear on it, for their prince to live — or to lie low. — p. 31.

The high mass of Notre Dame is described with appropriate splendour; but in the midst of the parade of this ostentatious worship, the poet recals us, by the most touching strokes, to the humble scenes of our own purer devotion.

XLV.
Gorgeous! — but love I not such pomp of prayer;
Ill bends the heart 'mid mortal luxury.
Rather let me the meek devotion share,
Where, in their silent glens and thickets high,
England, thy lone and lowly chapels lie.
The spotless table by the eastern wall,
The marble, rudely traced with names gone by,
The pale-eyed pastor's simple, fervent call;
Those deeper wake the heart, where heart is all in all.

XLVI.
Vain the world's grandeur to that hallow'd roof
Where sate our fathers many a gentle year;
All round us memory; at our feet the proof,
How deep the grave holds all we treasure here:
Nay, where we bend, still trembling on our ear
The voice whose parting rent life's loveliest ties;
And who demands us all, heart, thought, tear, prayer?
Ev'n He who saith "Mercy, not sacrifice,"
Cares He for mortal pomp, whose footstool is the skies! — p. 37.

At this ceremony, the author witnessed the expression of the deep-rooted grief of the Duchess of Angouleme; and he touches upon the unparalleled sufferings of the orphan of the Temple in a tone which will go to the reader's heart, and console him, in some measure, for the pain which he may have felt at the unmanly brutality of Mr. Hobhouse, and the unwomanly brutality of Lady Morgan.

After a spirited apostrophe, which beautifully contrasts the promise of her fortune with the event—

Daughter of France! in what empurpled bow'r
Pass'd thy young loveliness the sunny hour? — p. 41.

the poet describes the dark and dismal scene in which she was secluded: and then adds, in a strain of poetry and pathos which we have seldom seen equalled—

She had companions. Deeper misery!
All whom she loved on earth were there — to die!
And they must perish from her — one by one—
And her soul bleed with each, till all were gone.
This is the woe of woes, the sting of fate,
To see our little world grow desolate—
The few on whom the very soul reclin'd,
Sink from the eye, and feel we stay behind;—
Life, to the farthest glance, a desert road,
Dark, fearful, weary — yet that must be trod.

Daughter of France! did not such pangs compress
Thy heart in its last, utter loneliness?
Didst thou not droop thy head upon thy hand,
Then, starting, think that time was at a stand,
And find its flight but by the thicker gloom
That dimm'd thy solitary dungeon-room?
Didst thou not gaze upon thy glimpse of sky,
And long to bid the last, best hour be nigh?
Or melted even by that moment's view,
Stoop to the world again, and think, how blue,
How bright to thousands spread its canopy;
How many a joyous heart and laughing eye,
Buoyant with life and hope, and free, — oh, free!—
Based in the brightness thou shouldst never see?
Her world was past; her hours, or few or more,
Left her bound, wretched — all she was before!
This, this is misery — the headsman's steel
Strikes, and we perish — but we cease to feel. — pp. 42, 43.

The author's description of his own feelings when he visited the .scene of these sorrows, is not less beautiful.

The Temple tower is fallen; yet still the grot
Lives in pale mockery of the woeful spot;
The weedy walk still borders the parterre,
A few wild shrubs chok'd in the heavy air;
And, helped by some rude tracery on the green,
The eye may image where the pile has been:
But all is past, — trench, buttress, bustling guard,
For silence, ruin, and the pale, dead sward.

Heaven! what wild weight of suffering was prest
In this close den, this grave in all but rest!
What hope, fear, agony the high hearts thrill'd,
That mercy, though 'twas blood, so quickly still'd;
And what high hearts that fiery circle ran,
And what fiends urged them, in the shape of man!
I trod the ground with reverence, for that ground
Was holy to my tread; its dungeon-bound,
Dear as the spot where blood and ashes tell
That there the martyr closed his triumph well;
The tortures tools even hallow'd — brand and stake,
Scourge, fetter — all, all relics for his sake. — pp. 43, 44.

Such sentiments as these will prepare our readers to believe that the captivity of the royal family is, if we may use the expression, rather wept than sung. There is in all these passages a tone of deep and seal feeling which springs from a higher source than any fabled fountain of the Muses.

But we must pursue our walk — and that leads us to the Boulevards, where we think our author will be found to be as acute and pleasant a painter of Parisian fopperies and gambols, as we have before seen him an indignant and pathetic censor of their crimes.

Now comes the idler's hour. The beggar-bard
Takes his old quarters on the Boulevard;
Beneath the trees the Conjuror spreads his tools;
The Quack harangues his group of graver fools
In lofty lies, unruffled by the jar
Thrumm'd from his neighbour Savoyard's guitar;
Veil'd virgins beam, like Dian in a mist;
Philosophers show mites; she-tumblers twist;
Each the fix'd genius of some favourite tree,
Dryads and fauns of Gallic minstrelsy.
In double glories now, the broad Marchande,
Fire-eyed, her skin by Gascon summers tann'd,
Red as the kerchief round her coal-black hair,
Lays out her tempting trays of rich and rare.
Resistless ruby bands, delicious rings,
In genuine paste; the true wax coral strings,
Mingling with wonders of profounder art,
Woman's dear helps to mystify the heart;
Crisp auburn curls, — to hide th' obtrusive gray;
That stubborn hue, which yet will make its way;
Glass eyes, mouse eyebrows, teeth like studs of snow,
Grinning in grim good humour row by row.
Secrets so stiffly kept from upper air,
Yet here let loose, the sex's whole repair;
And here, in all the splendors of placard,
Beauty's last polishers, the rouge and fard!
Mysterious things! that, like the tricks of dreams,
Make what is seem not, while what is not, seems. — p. 47.

We have already indulged ourselves in more quotation than we could well spare room for, and must here therefore close our extracts with the conclusion of the poem, which alludes to Waterloo in strains that become a Briton and a Christian.

The heavens were sick of crime, — the endless strife
Where black ambition flung its stake of life.
The trial came. — On rush'd, with shout and ban,
The rebel hosts, their Idol in the van;
Strength of their heart, and wonder of their eye;
Illusive glory, for his hour was nigh.
Their rites of blood arose. In vain the name
Of their dark Baal echoed. Evening came.—
Then the true thunders roll'd. Their livid gaze
Saw the horizon one advancing blaze;
They saw it smite their Idol on his throne;
And he was smote, — pomp, art, illusion gone.
Then died his worshippers. The jealous steel
Raged through their quivering ranks with faithful zeal.
The sacrifice was done! and on its wing
The earth sent up the shout of thanksgiving. — p. 59.

From these extracts our readers will probably pronounce the anonymous author of this work to be an admirable poet — and they will do him no more than justice; they may also be inclined to call the work itself an admirable poem, in which candour obliges us to declare that they will not be altogether so correct. It has some very considerable faults, and these happen to be of the kind that are least perceptible in extracts: namely, a general want of plan, much abruptness, and frequent obscurities. A poem, we admit, should not be a diary; and a poet is not bound to drive Pegasus in a cabriolet through the streets of Paris; — but there are limits to poetic licence; abrupt transitions and obscure chasms break and ruffle the stream of feeling down which the heart delights to glide; and an over anxious desire of contrast and variety has always the effect of distracting and wearying the mind. It is irksome, for instance, to be hurried in one page from the early markets of the Faubourg Mont Martre to the midnight festivities of the Faubourg St. Germain. In truth, we think we discover in several parts of the poem, sufficient proof that the author made on the spot the separate sketches, and that afterwards, desirous of making a whole, he joined them together, sometimes ungracefully, and not always intelligibly.

To this mode of composition we also should have been inclined to attribute the variety of metre which the author has adopted, and which in his preface he attempts to defend as right in principle.

"The occasional changes in the metre have been adopted, not in the idle imitation of superior writers, but simply to avoid the monotony of a perpetual recurrence of the same measure. The diversity of the subjects in these pages might of itself require diversity of metre. Pomps and processions are not to he told in the same cadence with murders. But, independently of the subject, there is a physical delight in this variety. The ear, or that combined sense of ear, eye, and wind by which we enjoy the full charm of versification, requires change to give the fulness of the charm. No excellence of poetry has been perfectly able, in our most illustrious models, to resist the antagonist monotony of a thousand lines in the same stanza. The suitableness of adopting the practice at all may be dependent on the length of the poem: in a very short performance, the monotony can scarcely arise from the measure; in a very long one, the reader makes intervals for himself, and comes refreshed by the intervals; in the intermediate order, too long to be despatched like a sonnet, and too short to be reserved for another sitting, he may require more aids than the present writer has allowed himself to supply in diversity of metre." — Pref. pp. xi, xii, xiii.

None of these reasons appear to us to be founded in fact or just in principle; — they are, or at least they look like, the after-excuses which a person sometimes invents to justify to himself a practice which he is too indolent to correct. For instance — "pomps, processions and murders are not to be told in the same cadence;" and yet the liveliest pomp of the whole poem, the description of a ballroom,

The buoyant, brilliant dance of tress and plume
Gleaming o'er diamond eyes and cheeks of bloom. — p. 17.

is immediately followed, and in the same metre and cadence, by the massacre at the Abbaye.

That mass of cloven bone, and shatter'd limb,
And spouting brain, and visage strain'd and dim,
And horrid life still quivering in the eye,
As chok'd in blood the victim toil'd to die. — p. 27.

Again: — the gorgeous procession to Notre Dame is in the same stanza and cadence with the description of the death of the suicide, and the exposure of the body in the Morgue. Our readers will thank its for exemplifying this assertion by the last stanza on this melancholy subject, which describes the recognition of the body by the unhappy parent.

The crowd pass on. The hurried, trembling look,
That dreaded to have seen some dear one there,
Soon glanced, they silent pass. But in yon nook,
Who kneels, deep shrinking from the oriel's glare,
Her forehead veil'd, her lip in quivering prayer,
Her raised hands with the unfelt rosary wound?
That shrouded, — silent — statue of despair
Is she who through the world's delusive round
Had sought her erring child, and found, and there had found! — p. 40.

On what principle is it that, if the author really intended to suit his metre to his subject, the same form of stanza should be adopted for the following description:—

But musing's done. — The rabble round me press,
With every cry of earth since Babel's fall.
The world's in gala. — Poissarde loveliness
Glides, faint and feather'd from her last night's ball,
Dispensing glances on the friseur small,
The tiptoe thing beside her, — all bouquet;
His bowing head, a curly carnival;
His shoulders to his earrings, grimly gay;—
All have put on their smiles; 'tis the King's holiday. — p. 28.

These instances are sufficient to show that the author has not acted on his own principles, and that if he is right in his preface he is wrong n his poem; but the fact we take to be as we have before hinted, and that he is wrong in both. Nor does the length of his poem (which does not, we believe, exceed a thousand lines) appear to us to require or justify these variations, even admitting that such an irregularity could be, in any case, admissible. There are many other faults incident to this mixture of metre; one is that it alternately reminds the reader of Lord Byron and Mr. Crabbe, and excites in his mind an unjust and disparaging impression that the author is rather an imitator, than an emulator of the merits of those two admirable poets. If he reminded us of but one of them, the resemblance might be considered as accidental; but when he so frequently and so strongly brings both to our recollection, a reader will hardly admit the likeness to be fortuitous, and will be inclined to think that it belongs more to mimicry than to fair poetical imitation. Yet such suspicions would be essentially unjust to the author's real powers; he has a vigorous originality of thought, which places him rather by the side than in the train of those whom he most resembles: but, as we have already said, the poem has evidently been composed of detached sketches, it, which the author involuntarily fell into the stanza of Lord Byron or the couplet of Mr. Crabbe, as the recollections of these great poets happened, at the moment, to be uppermost in his mind. — The error, therefore, of being at once like Childe Harold and the Village is venial, and may he natural, — but it is an error, and it is our duty to warn the unknown author, that it will not on repetition be forgiven by the judicious part of the public.

He must also, we would take the liberty of saying, endeavour to divest himself of a habit of inversion — the wretched expedient which Darwin employed to cover the weakness of his style, and the poverty of his imagination, and which we should be sorry to see sanctioned by one who so little needs these mechanical aids as the author of "Paris." He needs no such helps, and the only passages in his poem which we have not read with unmixed pleasure, are those in which he has taken pains to be forcible or line. Nothing can be better than his natural style; while it flows from his heart it is full at once of force, feeling, and simplicity; but sometimes, in search of a strong expression, he stumbles upon a hard one, and in his anxiety for the sublime, lie now and then falls into the obscure. We have thrown out, we hope not in vain, these few observations on the defects of an author in whose future success we feel interested — who seems to exhibit a union, unhappily too rare, of piety and poetry, of what is right in politics, respectable in morals, correct in taste, and splendid in imagination.