We have often thought it unnatural to say, or to think, any thing harsh of the innocent and irritable race of poets. Most other writers are apt, in a thousand ways, to excite our spleen, and mortify our vanity, — by pretending to instruct our ignorance, to refute our errors, or to expose our prejudices. They offend us, in short, by assuming a superiority over us, and either disturbing our favourite notions, or at least showing us how much we have still to learn. The poet alone has none of this polemic and offensive spirit. His sole business is to give pleasure, and to gain praise from all descriptions of men. He contradicts nobody, and refutes nothing; but puts himself to a great deal of trouble for the sole purpose of raising delightful emotions in the breasts of his readers; — and asks no other reward than that inward gratitude and approbation which, in such circumstances, it must be still more blessed to give than to receive. He is naturally to be regarded, therefore, as a benefactor to mankind — at least in purpose and design; and we really think that he generally is so in fact and reality also: For though the degrees of pleasure which they afford are infinitely various, and usually bear no proportion, either to the pains they have taken, or the opinion they entertain of their success, we think there are few poets (of course we do not speak of mere versemongers), from a candid perusal of whose works all who have any true relish for poetry may not derive a sensible gratification, or who may not be regarded as having added something to the stores of our most refined and ennobling enjoyments. For our own parts, therefore, we confess that we are inclined to look on the whole tribe not only with indulgence, but with gratitude; and that we have often been indebted for very considerable gratification to works which we should be somewhat ashamed to praise, and not very proud of having written — works too humble, or too full of faults, to be tolerated by critical readers, or recommended with safety to such as are not critical.
But though we generally endeavour to read poetry in this indulgent humour, we cannot always afford to criticize it in the same amiable spirit — and that for reasons which we have explained, we believe, on some former occasion. Yet we are inclined to hope that, even in the discharge of this stern duty, it would not be difficult for an intelligent reader to trace the habitual operation of the same lenient principles which we have now been endeavouring to recommend; — and, hardly as we have been accused of dealing with some poetical adventurers, we flatter ourselves that we have always manifested the greatest tenderness and consideration for the whole tuneful brotherhood. There are some faults, indeed, to which we have found it impossible to show any mercy: But to all those errors that arise out of the poetical temperament, or are at least consistent with its higher attributes, we venture to assert, that we have been uniformly indulgent in a very remarkable degree — and have shown more favour than any critics ever did before us to extravagance and exaggeration, when springing from a genuine enthusiasm — to redundant or misplaced description, when arising out of a true love of nature or of art, — and even to a little sickliness or weakness of sentiment, whenever it could be traced to an unaffected kindness of heart, or tenderness of fancy.
There are faults, however, as we have already hinted, incident to this branch of literature, for which we have little toleration; but we cannot think that our severity towards them should be construed into any want of indulgence to poets in general, since they are all of a kind that can only affect those who have a genuine veneration for the poetical character, and consist chiefly of apparent violations of its dignity and honour. Among the first and most usual, we might mention the indications of great conceit and self-admiration, when united with ordinary talents. Excellence in poetry is so high and so rare an excellence, as not only to eclipse, but to appear contrasted with all moderate degrees of merit. It has a tone and a language of its own, therefore, which it is mere impertinence in ordinary mortals to usurp; and when a writer of slender endowments assumes that which is only allowed to the highest, he not only makes his defects more conspicuous, by exposing them to such overwhelming comparisons, but provokes and disgusts us by the manifest folly and vanity of his pretensions-which unlucky qualities come naturally to strike us as the most prominent and characteristic of his works, and effectually indispose us towards any trifling though real merits they may happen to possess. Another and a more intolerable fault, as more frequently attaching to superior talents, is that perversity or affectation which leads an author to distort or disfigure his compositions, either by a silly ambition of singularity, an unfortunate attempt to combine qualities that are truly irreconcileable, or an absurd predilection for some fantastic style or manner, in which no one but himself can perceive any fitness or beauty. In such cases, we are not merely offended by the positive deformities which are thus produced, but by the feeling that they are produced wilfully and with much effort, and by the humiliating spectacle they afford of the existence of paltry prejudices and despicable vanities in minds which we naturally love to consider as the dwelling-place of noble sentiments and enchanting contemplations. Akin to this source of displeasure, but of a more aggravated description, is that which arises from the visible indication of any great moral defect in those highly gifted spirits, whose natural office it seems to be, to purify and exalt the conceptions of ordinary men, by images more lofty and refined than can be suggested by the coarse realities of existence. We do not here allude so much to the loose and luxurious descriptions of love and pleasure which may be found in the works of some great masters, as to the traces of those meaner and more malignant vices which appear still more inconsistent with the poetical character — the traces of paltry jealousy and envy of rival genius — of base servility and adulation to power or riches — of party profligacy or personal spite or rancour — and all the other low and unworthy passions which excite a mingled feeling of loathing and contempt, and not only untune the mind for all fine or exalted contemplations, but at once disenchant all the fairy scenes whose creation must be referred to the agency of spirits so degraded.
Except when our bile is stirred by the display of such infirmities as these, we look upon ourselves as very indulgent judges of poetry; and believe we have, upon the whole, incurred the displeasure of the judicious much oftener by an excessive lenity, than by any undue measure of severity — for our rash and unqualified praises, than for our intemperate or embittered censures. In spite of all we have heard upon this subject, however, we still incline to adhere to our former system, and, to say the truth, are much more frequently disposed to repent us of our seventies, than of our indulgence, — as it is the nature of all angry feelings to be short-lived, and is, at all events, so much more agreeable to contemplate what is beautiful than what is offensive.
We do not know very well how we have been led into this long encomium on our own gentleness — unless it be that we are conscious of being more pleased with the volume before us than we feel any assurance that our readers will be. — There is something extremely amiable, at all events, in the character of Mr. Wilson's genius: — a constant glow of kind and of pure affection — a great sensibility to the charms of external nature, and the delights of a private, innocent, and contemplative life — a fancy richly stored with images of natural beauty and simple enjoyments — great tenderness and pathos in the representation of sufferings and sorrow, though almost always calmed, and even brightened, by the healing influences of pitying love, confiding piety, and conscious innocence. Almost the only passions with which his poetry is conversant, are the gentler sympathies of our nature — tender compassion — confiding affection, and guiltless sorrow. From all this there results, along with a most touching and tranquillizing sweetness, a certain monotony and languor, which, to those who read poetry for amusement merely, will be apt to appear like dullness, and must be felt as a defect by all who have been used to the variety, rapidity, and energy of the more popular poetry of the day. The poetry before us, on the other hand, is almost entirely contemplative or descriptive. There is little incident, and no conflict of passion or opposition of character. — The interest is that of love or of pity alone: there is no entanglement of situation, no opposition of interests — no struggle of discordant feelings. There is not even any delineation of guilt, or any scene of vengeance, resentment, or other stormy passion. The effect of the piece, at least, never depends upon such elements. The author seems to have written just to embody the scenes and characters on which he had most pleasure in dwelling — and his chief art consists in fixing his eye intently upon them — and drawing them with the truth, the force, the fondness and the fullness of complete portraits of beloved objects. In pursuing this pleasing occupation, he was not likely to become so soon wearied as the comparatively indifferent spectators in whose eye be was working; — and from this has resulted another fault-the excessive diffuseness and oppressive fulness of most of his pictures and details — which has inevitably led to occasional weakness in the diction, and a want of brilliancy and effect in the colouring of the style. Still, however, there is a charm about the work, to which it would be unfortunate, we think, to be insensible — a certain pastoral purity, joined with deeper feelings, and more solemn and impressive images than belong to pastoral — and reflecting, if not the more agitated and deeply shaded scenes of adventurous life, an enchanting image of peace, purity, and tenderness, which, we hope, is not more unlike the ordinary tenor of actual existence.
The most important piece in the present volume, is a dramatic poem entitled, "The City of the Plague," — by which is meant London, during the great sickness of 1666. Most of our readers are probably familiar with De Foe's history of that great calamity — a work in which fabulous incidents and circumstances are combined with authentic narratives, with an art and a verisimilitude which no other writer has ever been able to communicate to fiction. A great part of Mr. Wilson's materials, and indeed most of the ground colour of his poem, are derived from this source; — and there is not much complication or invention in the particular incidents lie has imagined for bringing them into connexion. Though the nature of the subject, and the uniformity of sadness to which it inevitably led, rendered it eminently unfit for actual representation, and not very suitable for a dramatic form, we think there are many dramatic beauties in the poem before us, and a very great number of passage; that are both pathetic and poetical in a very high degree. We shall make no apology, therefore, for presenting our readers with a pretty full account of it, and with such specimens of the execution as may enable them to judge of its merits.
The scene opens with the conversation of Frankfort and Wilmot, two young naval officers, on the banks of the Thames, a few miles below the city. They had heard of the pestilence on their making the coast some days before; — and one of them is pressing on with overwhelming fears and forebodings, to satisfy himself as to the fate of a beloved mother and brother, whom he had left in the devoted city at his last sailing, and not heard of since; — the other belongs to a different part of the kingdom, and accompanies his friend from mere love and affection. The lonely and desolate appearances of the once gay and populous region through which they are advancing, oppress the despairing son with new terrors, while his friend endeavours to comfort him, by reminding him that it is then the sabbath evening, and consequently devoted to rest. He answers, in a fine vein of poetry—
O unrejoicing Sabbath! not of yore
Did thy sweet evenings die along the Thames
Thus silently! Now every sail is furl'd,
The oar hath dropt from out the rower's hand,
And on thou flow'st in lifeless majesty,
River of a desert lately filled with joy!
O'er all that mighty wilderness of stone
The air is clear and cloudless as at sea
Above the gliding ship. All fires are dead,
And not one single wreath of smoke ascends
Above the stillness of the towers and spires.
How idly hangs that arch magnificent
Across the idle river! Not a speck
Is seen to move along it. There it hangs,
Still as a rainbow in the pathless sky. p. 6.
In the same spirit of fanciful foreboding, he views all the objects that successively present themselves; and at last observes—
Here, on this very spot where now we rest,
Upon the morning I last sail'd from England,
My mother put her arms around my neck,
And in a solemn voice, unchok'd by tears,
Said, "Son! a last farewell!" That solemn voice,
Amid the ocean's roaring solitude,
Oft past across my soul, and I have heard it
Steal in sad music from the sunny calm.
Upon our homeward voyage, when we spake
The ship that told us of the Plague, I knew
That the trumpet's voice would send into our souls
Some dismal tidings; for I saw her sails
Black in the distance, flinging off with scorn
A shower of radiance from the blessed sun. p. 9.
While they are pausing in these melancholy contemplations, they are accosted by an old man flying from the city with a little infant, the sole survivor of a late happy family, who holds a long conversation with them, in a tone rather too elevated and poetical for the occasion. There is considerable force and effect, however, in the following passage.
Know ye what you will meet with in the city?
Together will ye walk, through long, long streets,
All standing silent as a midnight church.
You will hear nothing but the brown red grass
Rustling beneath your feet; the very beating
Of your own hearts will awe you; the small voice
Of that vain bauble, idly counting time,
Will speak a solemn language in the desert.
Look up to heaven, and there the sultry clouds,
Still threatening thunder, lower with grim delight,
As if the Spirit of the plague dwelt there,
Darkening the city with the shadows of death. p. 14.
He then proceeds to describe the horrors of the scene, and, in particular, the nightly interment of the dead, in cart and waggon loads, in the vast pits that were opened in different parts of the city.
Would you look in? Grey hairs and golden tresses,
Wan shrivell'd cheeks that have not smil'd for years;
And many a rosy visage smiling still;
Bodies in the noisome weeds of beggary wrapt,
With age decrepit, and wasted to the bone;
And youthful frames, august and beautiful,
In spite of mortal pangs, — there lie they all
Embrac'd in ghastliness! But look not long,
For haply, 'mid the faces glimmering there,
The well-known cheek of some beloved friend
Will meet thy gaze, or some small snow-white hand,
Bright with the ring that holds her lover's hair. p. 15.
He then warns them again against entering the devoted place; but, finding them resolved, commends them to the prayers of "the radiant angel," whom he assures them they will meet, conveying peace and consolation through the despairing streets.
The Second Scene is of a more questionable character. It represents a crazy impostor, dealing out his astrological prognostications to a wild and distracted multitude, in one of the squares of the city. There is a good deal of striking and agonizing detail in the statements that are made by the pale inquirers, and many traits of a savage and powerful eloquence in the dread and mystical responses that are returned by the oracle. In the midst of his prophesying, and just after Frankfort and Wilmot have mingled in the audience, he is smitten with the plague, and the assembly flies from the contagion.
All ye who prize your lives! — Soon will the air
Be foul with his dead body.
The Third Scene introduces us to Magdalene the gentle heroine of the piece. This innocent maid, bred from her infancy among the lakes and hills of Westmoreland, where she had been betrothed to Frankfort, had come to London in his absence with her father and mother, at the period when the pestilence began its ravages. Both parents had fallen among its earliest victims; and the poor orphan had been left with one female friend among the dead and the dying. In this awful situation, she felt herself roused to extraordinary exertions; and, regardless of her own danger, had passed several months in tending the dying and the friendless, praying by the desperate, and rendering all offices of saintly humanity to the miserable sufferers of the devoted city. She is here presented praying by night in one of the deserted churches.
Oh! let me walk the waves of this wild world
Through faith unsinking; — stretch thy saving hand
To a lone castaway upon the sea,
Who hopes no resting-place except in heaven.
And oh! this holy calm, — this peace profound,—
That sky so glorious in infinitude,—
That countless host of softly-burning stars,
And all that floating universe of light,
Lift up my spirit far above the grave,
And tell me that my pray'rs are heard in Heaven. p. 38.
A ruffian who had entered the same place for purposes of sacrilege and violence, is touched by her sweet voice and saint-like demeanour; — confesses with horror the tremendous profligacy in which he and his associates had been living since the plague had rendered them desperate; — and is sent away heart-struck and penitent.
The Fourth Scene is rather an unsuccessful attempt to represent one of those seemingly unnatural orgies, — those frantic displays of wild and daring revelry, to which the desperation of the time naturally gave rise, and which are so strikingly depicted in the work of De Foe. Mr. Wilson has set out a long table in a silent and deserted street, and placed around it a party of licentious young men and women carousing. He has made them drink toasts and memories, sing songs in praise of the plague, and even utter scoffs and impieties against a reverend priest who comes to reprove their excesses — but he has not in any one instance caught the true tone of profligacy, or even of convivial gaiety. It seems as if he had not the heart to represent human creatures as thoroughly reprobate or unamiable. Accordingly, they all give signs of penitence and good feeling. Even the prostitutes are gentle-hearted, delicate and interesting beings; and the master of those unseemly revels, turns out to be graced with almost every virtue under heaven. However creditable it may be to his philanthropy, this faintheartedness in conceiving profligacy, is a great defect in an author who deals in effect. With what bold hues and strong colouring would Scott have drawn such a scene as this! — what shuddering and horror would Crabbe have excited by means of it! — what mingled laughter and pity and terror would it have breathed in the hands of Shakespeare!
The Second Act shows us Frankfort at the door of his mother's house, looking in agony upon its black windows, flow gleaming in the silent moon; afraid to enter, and watching or the least sign of life or motion in that beloved dwelling. A pious priest at last comes and tells him, that his mother and little brother had both died that very morning. After some bursts of eloquent sorrow, the poor youth inquires how they died; and priest answers—
Last night I sat with her,
And talk'd of thee; — two tranquil hours we talk'd
Of thee and none beside, while little William
Sat in his sweet and timid silent way
Upon his stool beside his mother's knees,
And, sometimes looking upwards to her face,
Seem'd listening of his brother far at sea.
This morning early I look'd in upon them
Almost by chance. There little William lay
With his bright hair and rosy countenance
Dead! though at first I thought he only slept.
"You think," his mother said, "that William sleeps!
But he is dead! He sicken'd during the night,
And while I pray'd he drew a long deep sigh,
And breath'd no more!"
—I found that she had laid upon her bed
Many of those little presents that you brought her
From your first voyage to the Indies. Shells
With a sad lustre brighten'd o'er the whiteness
Of these her funeral sheets; and gorgeous feathers,
With which, few hours before, her child was playing,
And lisping all the while his brother's name,
Form'd a sad contrast with the pale, pale face
Lying so still beneath its auburn hair.
Two letters still are in her death-closed hand
And will be buried with her. One was written
By your captain, after the great victory
Over De Ruyter, and with loftiest praise
Of her son's consummate skill and gallantry.
The other, now almost effaced by tears,
Was from yourself, the last she had from you,
And spoke of your return. God bless thee, boy
I am too old to weep — but such return
Wrings out the tears from my old wither'd heart.
Frank. O 'tis the curse of absence that our love
Becomes too sad — too tender — too profound
Towards all our far-off friends. Home we return
And find them dead for whom we often wept,
Needlessly wept when they were in their joy!
Then goes the broken-hearted mariner
Back to the sea that welters drearily
Around the homeless earth! p. 69-71.
The Second Scene passes between the holy Magdalene and her faithful Isabel, within their little apartment in a lonely street of the suburbs. It is very characteristic of the author's manner, — and is full, we think, of tenderness and beauty. After talking over their daily tasks of charity, their thoughts wander back to their own happy home among the mountains — and to the days when Frankfort's smiles lent new glory to the landscape.
How bright and fair that afternoon returns
When last we parted! Even now I feel
Its dewy freshness in my soul! Sweet breeze!
That hymning like a spirit up the lake
Came through the tall pines on you little isle
Across to us upon the vernal shore
With a kind friendly greeting. Frankfort blest
The unseen musician floating through the air,
And smiling said, "Wild harper of the hill!
So may'st thou play thy ditty when once more
This lake I do revisit." As he spoke,
Away died the music in the firmament,
And unto silence left our parting hour.
No breeze will ever steal from Nature's heart
So sweet again to me.
Whate'er my doom,
It cannot be unhappy. God hath given me
The boon of resignation: I could die,
Though doubtless human fears would cross my soul,
Calmly even now; — yet if it be ordain'd
That I return unto my native valley
And live with Frankfort there, why should I fear
To say I might be happy — happier far
Than I deserve to be. Sweet Rydal lake!
Am I again to visit thee? to hear
The glad waves murmuring all around my soul?
Isabel. Methinks I see us in a cheerful groupe
Walking along the margin of the bay
Where our lone summer-house....
Magd. Sweet mossy cell!
So cool — so shady — silent and compos'd!
A constant evening full of gentle dreams!
Where joy was felt like sadness, and our grief
A melancholy pleasant to be borne.
Hath the green linnet built her nest this spring
In her own rose-bush near the quiet door?
Bright solitary bird! she oft will miss
Her human friends: Our orchard now must be
A wilderness of sweets, by none belov'd.
Isabel. One blessed week would soon restore its beauty,
Were we at home. Nature can work no wrong.
The very weeds how lovely! the confusion
Doth speak of breezes, sunshine, and the dew.
Magd. I hear the murmuring of a thousand bees
In that bright odorous honeysuckle wall
That once enclos'd the happiest family
That ever lived beneath the blessed skies.
Where is that family now? O Isabel,
I feel my soul descending to the grave,
And all these loveliest rural images
Fade, like waves breaking on a dreary shore.
Isabel. Even now I see a stream of sunshine bathing
The bright moss-roses round our parlour window!
Oh! were we sitting in that room once more!
Magd. 'Twould seem inhuman to be happy there,
And both my parents dead. How could I walk
On what I used to call my father's walk,
He in his grave! or look upon that tree
Each year so full of blossoms or of fruit
Planted by my mother, and her holy name
Graven on its stem by mine own infant hands! p. 75-77.
This overflowing of innocent hearts is continued with the same sweetness through several pages; — and then they sing their evening hymns together, and pass to the discharge of other duties.
The Third Scene has scarcely any reference to the main agents in the story, — but consists altogether of conversations in the streets on the subject of the wide-wasting pestilence, and the signs by which its approach was announced. There is something very terrific and impressive in the images Mr. W. has conjured up for this purpose. The orator of the superstitious gossips demands—
—Did any here behold, as I beheld,
That Phantom who three several nights appear'd,
Sitting upon a cloud-built throne of state
Right o'er St Paul's Cathedral? On that throne
At the dead hour of night he took his seat,
And monarch-like stretch'd out his mighty arm
That shone like lightning. In that kingly motion
There seem'd a steadfast threat'ning — and his features,
Gigantic 'neath their shadowy diadem,
Frown'd, as the Phantom vow'd within his heart
Perdition to the City. Then he rose,
Majestic spectre! keeping still his face
Towards the domes beneath, and disappear'd,
Still threatening with his outstretch'd arm of light,
Into a black abyss behind the clouds.
Voice from the crowd. And saw ye not
The sheeted corpses stalking through the sky
In long long troops together — yet all silent,
And unobservant of each other, gliding
Down a dark flight of steps that seem'd to lead
Into the bosom of eternity What sawest thou else?
3d Man. I have seen hearses moving through the sky!
Not few or solitary, as on earth
They pass us by upon a lonesome road.
But thousands, tens of thousands mov'd along
In grim procession — a long league of plumes
Tossing in the storm that roar'd aloft in heaven,
Yet bearing onwards through the hurricane,
A black, a silent, a wild cavalcade
That nothing might restrain; till in a moment
The heavens were freed, and all the sparkling stars
Look'd through the blue and empty firmament! p. 87, 88.
There is, then, another attempt to portray profligate insensibility and blasphemous daring; — but the author's heart again fails him, and a few words of mild exhortation from Megdalene melts the whole party into tears of penitential sorrow.
The following scene passes calmly and sorrowfully between Frankfort, his friend, and the Priest, beside the bodies of the innocent sufferers. The Priest describes the death of Magdalene's parents, and her heroic devotion since that event.
—What! though thy Magdalene heretofore had known
Only the name of sorrow, living far
Within the heart of peace, with birds and flocks,
The flowers of the earth, and the high stars of heaven
Companions of her love and innocence;
Yet she who in that region of delight,
Slumber'd in the sunshine, or the shelter'd shade,
Rose with the rising storm, and like an angel
With hair unruffled in its radiance, stood
Beside the couch of tossing agony!
As undisturb'd as on some vernal day
Walking alone through mountain-solitude,
To bring home in her arms a new-yean'd lamb
Too feeble for the snow!
Frank. I wonder not! Its beauty was most touching, and I loved
The bright and smiling surface of her soul;
But I have gazed with adoration
Upon its awful depths profoundly calm,
Seen far down shadowing the sweet face of heaven. p. 106, 107.
While they are thus discoursing, she enters, — and the loving orphans embrace each other in speechless sorrow and delight. The last scene of this act begins with rather a dull dialogue between a gravedigger and his apprentice, broken off by a brawl and fatal duel in the churchyard, and ends with the funeral of Frankfort's mother.
The Last Act, for there are but three, opens with a quiet conversation between Frankfort's friend and the reverend Priest, in which the latter describes some of the most remarkable effects of the first appearance of the plague.
—As thunder quails
Th' inferior creatures of the air and earth,
So bowed the Plague at once all human souls,
And the brave man beside the natural coward
Walk'd trembling. On the restless multitude,
Thoughtlessly toiling through a busy life,
Nor hearing in the tumult of their souls
The ordinary language of decay,
A voice came down that made itself be heard,
As Death's benumbing fingers suddenly
Swept off whole crowded streets into the grave.
Then rose a direful struggle with the Pest!
And all the ordinary forms of life
Mov'd onwards with the violence of despair.
Wide flew the crowded gates of theatres,
And a pale frightful audience, with their souls
Looking in perturbation through the glare
Of a convulsive laughter, sat and shouted
At obscene ribaldry, and mirth profane.
There yet was heard parading through the streets
War-music, and the soldier's tossing plumes
Mov'd with their wonted pride. O idle show
Of these poor worthless instruments of death,
Themselves devoted! Childish mockery!
At which the Plague did scoff, who in one night
The trumpet silenc'd and the plumes laid low. p. 119, 120.
And a little after—
Silent as nature's solitary glens
Slept the long streets-and mighty London seem'd,
With all its temples, domes, and palaces,
Like some sublime assemblage of tall cliffs
That bring down the deep stillness of the heavens
To shroud them in the desert. Groves of masts
Rose through the brightness of the sun-smote river,
But all their flags were struck, and every sail
Was lower'd. Many a distant land had felt
The sudden stoppage of that mighty heart.
And as I look'd
Down on the courts and markets, where the soul
Of this world's business once roar'd like the sea,
That sound within my memory strove in vain, &c. p. 122-3.
In this interesting conversation, they are interrupted by the return of Frankfort himself — in a wild access of delirium and fever. He is with difficulty borne home; and the scene shuts to the lonely chamber of Magdalene, where it soon appears that the same unsparing malady has likewise laid its spell on that sainted creature. After some starts of natural sorrow, she composes herself in blissful gentleness—
—O were Frankfort happy!
I now could follow death into the grave
As joyfully as in the month of May
A lamb glides after its soft-bleating mother
Into a sunny field of untrod dew. p. 138.
—but hearing of his seizure, she insists upon going instantly to him; and accordingly arrives in the next scene to still the tossing of his wounded spirit, with her meek eyes and enchanting voice. He recognizes her almost immediately, and regains his perfect recollection; and she says—
Thy face Is all at once spread over with a calm
More beautiful than sleep, or mirth, or joy
I am no more disconsolate. We shall die
Like two glad waves, that, meeting on the sea
In moonlight and in music, melt away
Quietly 'mid the quiet wilderness! p. 147, 148.
She then clasps him in her arms; and he says—
Thy soft white spotless bosom, like the plumes
Of some compassionate angel, meets my heart!
And all therein is quiet as the snow
At breathless midnight.
A sweet mild voice is echoing far away
In the remotest regions of my soul.
'Tis clearer now — and now again it dies,
And leaves a silence smooth as any sea,
When all the stars of heaven are on its breast.
Magd. We go to sleep, and shall awake with God.
Frank. Sing me one verse of a hymn before I die.
One of those hymns you sang long, long ago
On Sabbath evenings! Sob not so, my Magdalene. p. 149.
We pity the reader who does not feel the beauty and the pathos of those simple expressions. He dies in that pure embrace: and she remains entranced upon his bosom. The Priest says—
See her breath just moves
The ringlets on his cheek! — How lovingly
In her last sleep these white and gentle hands
Lie on his neck and breast! — Her soul is parting! p. 151.
She does not die there, however; but is present at his funeral in the concluding scene. She faints at the edge of his grave, and is thus commiserated by the by-standers.
That one small grave — that one dead mariner—
That dying Lady — and those wond'rous friends
So calm, so lofty, yet compassionate—
Do strike a deeper awe into our souls,
A deeper human grief than yon wide pit
With its unnumber'd corpses.
Another Voice. Woe and death
Have made that Angel bright their prey at last!
But yesterday I saw her heavenly face
Becalm a shrieking room with one sweet smile!
For her, old age will tear his hoary locks,
And childhood murmur forth her holy name
Weeping in sorrowful dreams!
Another Voice. Her soft hand clos'd
My children's eyes, — and when she turn'd to go,
The beauty of her weeping countenance
So sank into my heart, that I beheld
The little corpses with a kind of joy,
Assured by that compassionate Angel's smile
That they had gone to heaven. p. 162.
She dies at length in blissful resignation, and the scene closes with prayers and benedictions.
We have dwelt so long upon this leading part of the volume before us, that we can afford to give but a short account of the rest. There is another dramatic fragment, entitled — "The Convict, " which we think has extraordinary merit. — The subject is the conviction and deliverance, at the place of execution, of an innocent country man, upon whom accidental circumstances had fastened irresistible suspicions of murder. The topics may seem low and ignoble, but the interest excited is prodigious, and of a true tragic character, — while the piety of the unhappy victim, the innocent simplicity of his wife and children, and the rustic images belonging to his condition, serve to redeem the horror of the main incidents, and lend a certain elegance and dignity to what might otherwise appear but a dreadful or an edifying story. The great merit of the piece, however, consists in the fine dissection and leisurely display of all the terrible emotions that belong to such an occurrence, and in forcing the reader to contemplate it steadily and fixedly, till all the powerful emotions with which it is pregnant are developed, and find their way to the heart. We have not room now to give any considerable specimens of the way in which this is executed. But we must add a part of the last scene. One compassionate and distant spectator observes,
I see the hill-side all alive,
With silent faces gazing steadfastly
On one poor single solitary wretch,
Who views not in the darkness of his trouble
One human face among the many thousands
All staring towards the scaffold! Some are there
Who have driven their carts with his unto the market,
Have shook hands with him meeting at the Fair,
Have in his very cottage been partakers
Of the homely fare which rev'rently he blessed,
Yea! who have seen his face in holier places,
And in the same seat been at worship with him,
Within the House of God. May God forgive them! p. 283.
The whole process of dreadful preparation, with its effect on the sympathizing crowd, is then described with admirable force of colouring. When all is about to be concluded, the true murderer is accidentally discovered, and dragged to the foot of the scaffold, amidst shouts to stop the execution; at this instant the prisoner's wife, followed by her children, bursts through the crowd, and exclaims,
Come down-come down-my husband! from the scaffold.
—O Christ! art thou alive — or dead with fear
Let me leap up with one bound to his side,
And strain him to my bosom till our souls
Are mix'd like rushing waters.
Dost hear thy Alice? Come down from the scaffold,
And walk upon the green and flowery earth
With me, thy wife, in everlasting joy!
[She tries to move forward, but fails down in a fainting-fit.]
One of the crowd. See — see his little daughter! how she tears
The covering from his eyes — unbinds the halter—
Leaps up to his bosom — and with sobs is kissing
His pale fix'd face. "I am thy daughter — Father!
But there he stands — as lifeless as a stone—
Nor sees — nor feels — nor hears — his soul seems gone
Upon a dismal travel!
[The PRISONER is led down from the scaffold, with his daughter held unconsciously in his arms.]
Prisoner. Must this wild dream be all dreamt o'er again!
Who put this little Child into my arms? My wife
Lying dead! — Thy judgments, Heaven! are terrible.
The Clergyman. Look up — this world is shining out once more
In welcome to thy soul recalled from death.
The murderer is discovered.
[The prisoner falls on his knees, and his who has recovered, goes and kneels by his side.]
Clergyman. Crowd not so round them — let the glad fresh air
Enter into their souls.
Prisoner. Alice! one word!
Let me hear thy voice assuring me of life.
Ah me! that soft cheek brings me by its touch
From the black, dizzy, roaring brink of death,
At once into the heart of happiness!
—Gasping with gratitude! she cannot speak.
Wife. I never shall smile more — but all my days
Walk with still footsteps, and with humble eyes,
An everlasting hymn within my soul
To the great God of Mercy!
Prisoner (starting up). O thou bright angel with that golden hair,
Scattering thy sunshine through the light,
Art thou my own sweet Daughter! Come, my Child,
Come dancing on into thy Father's soul!
Come with those big tears sparkling on thy cheeks,
And let me drink them with a thousand kisses.
—That laugh bath fill'd the silent world with joy! p. 287-89.
The two most considerable of the other poems are "The Children's Dance," and "The Scholar's Funeral," both written with very considerable elegance, and full of the author's characteristic sweetness and tenderness. The first is not the celebration of a city ball, but of the annual assembly of the infant rustics around Grassmere and its romantic neighbourhood, who meet in a little lowly room, garnished with holly boughs and Christmas roses, to exhibit before their delighted parents their proficiency in the arts taught by the old village dancing master, the judicious instructor of more than one generation. It begins,
How calm and beautiful the frosty Night
Has stol'n unnotic'd like the hush of sleep
O'er Grassmere vale! Beneath the mellowing light,
How sinks in softness every rugged steep! p. 171.
Through many a vale how rang each snow-roof'd cot,
This livelong day with rapture blithe and wild
All thoughts but of the lingering eve forgot,
Both by grave Parent, and light hearted Child. &c.
All day the earthen floors have felt their feet
Twinkling quick measures to the liquid sound
Of their own small-piped voices shrilly sweet,—
As hand in hand they wheel'd their giddy round.
Ne'er fairy-revels on the greensward mound
To dreaming bard a lovelier show display'd:—
Titania's self did ne'er with lighter bound
Dance o'er the diamonds of the dewy glade,
Than danc'd, at peep of morn, mine own dear mountain-maid.
Oft in her own small mirror had the gleam,
The soften'd gleam of her rich golden hair,
That o'er her white neck floated in a stream,
Kindled to smiles that Infant's visage fair,
Half-conscious she that beauty glistened there!
Oft had she glanced her restless eyes aside
On silken sash so bright and debonnair,
Then to her mother flown with leaf-like glide,
Who kiss'd her cherub-head with tears of silent pride. p. 172, 173.
The description of the whole scene is equally beautiful and touching; but we can afford room for no more than the breaking up and retiring of the party.
But now the lights are waxing dim and pale,
And shed a fitful gleaming o'er the room;
'Mid the dim hollies one by one they fail,
Another hour, and all is wrapt in gloom.
And lo! without, the cold, bright stars illume
The cloudless air, so beautiful and still,
While proudly placed in her meridian dome
Night's peerless Queen the realms of heaven doth fill
With peace and joy, and smiles on each vast slumbering hill.
The dance and music cease their blended glee,
And many a wearied infant bangs her head,
Dropping asleep upon her mother's knee,
Worn out with joy, and longing for her bed.
Yet some lament the bliss too quickly fled, &c. p. 185.
O'er Loughrig-cliffs I see one party climb,
Whose 'empty dwellings through the hush'd midnight
Sleep in the shade of Langdale-pikes sublime—
Up Dummail-Raise, unmindful of the height,
His daughter in his arms, with footsteps light
The father walks, afraid lest she should wake!
Through lonely Easdale past yon cots so white
On Helm-crag side, their journey others take;
And some to those sweet homes that smile by Rydal lake.
He too, the Poet of this humble show,
Silent walks homeward through the hour of rest—
While quiet as the depth of spotless snow,
A pensive calm contentment fills his breast!
O wayward man! were he not truly blest!
That Lake so still below — that Sky above!
Unto his heart a sinless Infant prest,
Whose ringlets like the glittering dew-wire move,
Floating and sinking soft amid the breath of love! p. 186, 187.
The scene of "the Scholar's Funeral" is at Oxford; and it commemorates the untimely death of a glorious youth, who sickened and died while pursuing his studies at that seat of learning. It is written throughout with singular elegance and beauty; and has an air of sad reality about it, that assures us its being drawn from nature. But we can afford no more extracts — and must here close our notice of this interesting volume.
We take our leave of it with unfeigned regret, and very sincere admiration of the author's talents. He has undoubtedly both the heart and the fancy of a poet; and, with these great requisites, is almost sure of attaining the higher honours of his art, if he continue to cultivate it with the docility and diligence of which he has already given proof. Though his style is still too diffuse, and his range too limited, the present volume is greatly less objectionable on these grounds than the former. It has also less of the peculiarities of the Lake School; and, in particular, is honourably distinguished from the productions of its founders, by being quite free from the paltry spite and fanatical reprobation with which, like other fierce and narrow-minded sectaries, they think it necessary to abuse all whose tastes or opinions are not exactly conformable to their own. There is no shadow of this ludicrous insolence in the work before us; in consequence of which, we think it extremely likely, that he will be execrated and reviled, on the first good opportunity, by his late kind masters.