1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Herbert

Anonymous, Review of Herbert, Pia Della Pietra, Hedin; Monthly Review S2 94 (March 1821) 309-13.



ART. XV. Pia Della Pietra. A Tale. By the Honourable William Herbert. 8vo. 3s. 6d. sewed. Murray. 1820.

ART. XVI. Hedin; or, the Spectre of the Tomb; a Tale. From the Danish History. By the Honourable William Herbert, Clerc. 8vo. 3s. 6d. sewed. Murray. 1820.

It has been often remarked that writers of the same age can scarcely escape from catching something of a contemporary manner; and, if any great and broad divisions of poetical style co-exist at a given period, with distinguished poets at the head of each, this imitation is especially observable in the multitude of inferior minstrels. Though we have always been far from rating Mr. Herbert's pretensions by a low standard, he is obviously not leader in any of the classes of poetry to which we have just alluded; and to whatever school he may have belonged in his former productions, it is very plain that, in the. present, the "Corsair" and "Lara" of Lord Byron have been his conscious or unconscious models. The tale of Pia della Pietra bears, however, very considerable marks of originality; and, if Mr. Herbert has suffered the delightful narrative ease and rapidity of Dryden to pass through a modern medium before he chose it as an object of study, still he evidently retains sufficient respect for that genuine English classic to make him, in some measure, his primary example.

The materials of this tale have been rather too hackneyed of late for the chance of a greatly successful re-appearance, previously to the birth of another generation. In the first place, (though various other instances float in our recollection,) Mrs. Hannah More, in one of her poetical publications, has recorded the untimely fate of a brother killed in a sister's embraces by her jealous husband, who mistook him for a favoured lover. In the second place, the author of "Rokeby," closely following Mrs. M., recorded the same story in that admirably contrived metrical romance; one of the least popular, we believe, of his poems, but, we fear not to assert, one of the most highly finished and most originally conceived. Thirdly, (for we must refrain from specifying the preceding or intervening imitators,) comes Mr. Herbert, and murders the brother of poor Pia in the sister's arms, by the hand of her husband Della Pietra. The vengeance that follows is newer in verse. The, mistaken Della Pietra sends his much injured wife to the Maremma; that maritime district of Italy which is so fatally exposed to the contagion of the mal'aria. Here the unhappy victim languishes in a slow decay; and certainly Mr. Herbert has contrived to throw a corresponding tenderness of tone and cadence into his very elegant verses on this part of the subject. We prefer, however, a quotation of the passage in which the husband is described as arriving at the death-bed of his wife, just in time to receive from her hands the letter which imparts her wrongs, her forgiveness, and her last request; which letter, too, is poetically and beautifully traced.

It was upon a still and breathless eve
Her spirit seem'd about to take its leave.
The church's rites were ended; and, resign'd,
She felt sweet comfort beaming on her mind,
All that religion can of peace bestow,
To calm the heart, and soothe the throb of woe.
The holy man had spoke his latest pray'r,
Foul spirits from the bed of death to scare;
And, like grief's image, that desponding maid
Bent in mild pity o'er her dying, head.
Her limbs wax'd cold, though sultry was the night,
And darkness dimly grew upon her sight.
She ask'd for light, the taper's cheering ray;
But 'twas her light within that did decay:
Four tapers gleam'd, and on her alter'd face,
As in a death-wake, shone their pallid blaze.
With melancholy mien and smother'd breath
Mournful they watch'd the slow approach of death;
When dark, and dimly by that light reveal'd,
A stately form half entered, half conceal'd:
And Pia raised her look, and (as her eye
Turn'd on that shape majestic) with a cry
So piercing, that it seem'd to rend her heart,
Uprose erect with stiff and sudden start.
In that dread agony on her bosom prest
She held the mournful scroll, love's last request:
And fell, death-smitten in that fearful throe,
Pale, cold, and lifeless, on her couch of woe.

It was himself, that wretched man of blood;
Like a dark spectre Della Pietra stood
At his wife's feet: the beautiful, the meek,
Lay lapt in death, no more to move or speak.
Came he with deadly views? The work was done,
The race of innocence was past and won.
Came he repentant, doubtful of his end?
Too fond for murder, and too proud to bend?
It matters little, whether thoughts he bore
Darkling with hate, or whether he forbore
His face was muffled; and they, could not spy
The feelings which there strove for mastery;
The wan, the desolate, and ghastly look:
But they could see how fierce the passion shook
His limbs, (as if the fever's shivering fit
Convuls'd them,) and the strange wild gleam that lit
His fixt eye gazing on that lovely shape,
Whose spirit from his wrath had made escape.
The scroll was by her hand; with doubtful dread,
Trembling he tore its covering, and read.

We think that few poetical readers will be deficient in a desire to prolong their acquaintance with so pathetic a tale, told with so much simplicity of manner. Some of the lines, however, have that peculiar sort of quaintness which one or two popular moderns, with an equal share of good success and bad taste, have revived from their extravagantly admired progenitors in English poetry.

—In thy vale,
Maremma, there was neither mirth nor "wail."

We meet repeatedly also with that vile word "spy," which disfigures so many passages of recent verse:

She held less converse with things long gone by,
With voiceless forms of those she ne'er might spy.

Both these lines are very careless, and good for nothing. Mr. Herbert displays much of the elegance and some of the energy of a poet: he is a scholar also; and he should aid in purifying and refining, rather than, by any one example, in corrupting and roughening his native language.

Now for Hedin.

As in his tale of Pia Della Pietra Mr. Herbert breathed the softness of Italian love and beauty, mixed with the ferocity of Italian revenge, so has he in "Hedin, or, The Spectre of the Tomb," exhibited the wild courage of the north, united with its ardent tenderness of affection. In this story, Mr. H. has returned to his earlier sources of poetical inspiration; and, though we hear no more sounds from the Hammer of Thor, yet is the heroine on the present occasion one whose "name is found amongst the Valkyzier, or Maids of Slaughter."

Certainly, a very sufficient obscurity for all purposes of the sublime hangs over the Runic rhyme, speaks in the mysterious allusions of the Scalds, and indeed characterizes the muse of Scandinavia. Hedin inherits a portion of the family darkness; and therefore this is one of the few poems to which the notes should be consulted previously to a perusal of the text. Thus prepared, the reader will perceive many very spirited passages in the tale itself, and, moreover, will have a reasonable glimpse of their meaning.

A father-in-law and a son-in-law, both of equally respectable connections, have fallen in a deadly duel, the first onset of which is described as of a truly northern nature: viz. each party stands still to receive a violent blow from the other!! This sort of alternate thwacking, with a pause between, presents to our imaginations something as laughable as it is tremendous. Fearfully close, indeed, are the confines of the sublime and the ludicrous; and in this instance the "thin partition," we think, is broken down. Hilda, the wife of one combatant and the daughter of the other, is an enchantress; and proceedings, after their fall, are thus exhibited:

The night was calm and murky; the soft gale
Seem'd to diffuse fair peace o'er hill and vale;
But Hilda slept not, whom the strong desire
Of her lost Hedin gnaw'd with secret fire.
To the still grave she bent her fearless way,
While her dark thoughts with nature's gloom conspire;
Awhile she seem'd in anguish to survey
The monumental pile that wrapp'd his mouldering clay.

But not to mourn she sought that mansion lone,
Or weep unseen upon the dreary stone,
And in her sorrow there was nothing meek;
Gloomy her eye, and lowering seem'd to speak
A soul by deep and struggling cares distraught;
And the bright hectic flush upon her cheek
Told the mind's fever, and the darkling thought
With haughty high designs and stedfast passion fraught.

Strange signs upon the tomb her hands did trace;
Then to strong spells she did herself address,
And in slow measure breathed that fatal strain,
Whose awful harmony can wake the slain,
Rive the cold grave, and work the charmer's will.
Thrice, as she call'd on Hedin, rang the plain;
Thrice echo'd the dread name from hill to hill;
Thrice the dark wold sent back the sound, and all was still.

Then shook the ground as by an earthquake rent,
And the deep bowels of the tomb upsent
A voice, a shriek, a terror; sounds that seem'd
Like those wild fancies by a sinner dream'd;
A clang of deadly weapons, and a shout:
With living strength the heaving granite teem'd,
Inward convulsion, and a fearful rout,
As if fiends fought with fiends, and hell was bursting out.

And then strange mirth broke frantic on her ear,
As if the evil one was lurking near;
While spectres wan, with visage pale and stark,
Peep'd ghastly through the curtain of the dark,
With such dire laugh as Phrensy doth bewray.
It needs a gifted hand, with skill to mark
Hilda's proud features, which no dread betray,
Calm amid lonesome deeds and visions of dismay.

"A lonesome deed" is new: we doubt not that it is good also. We are not quite so sure that our readers will abstain from a smile, when they read that Hilda was so extremely resolute that

Had the keen sabre smote her lovely face,
She ne'er had shrunk, or wink'd, unworthy of her race.

Joan of Arc was nothing to Hilda; and even the soldiers of the north, (see the note,) who never wink'd though hit in the eyes, must yield to her ladyship.

In stanza forty-eighth we have a very noble specimen of the bombastic:

A pride of grief, when earthly hopes are past,

That mounts above the storm, and soars upon the blast.

For such a terrible high-flying haughtiness as this, we should certainly recommend a dose of "intellectual hellebore." — An instance of the bathos may be happily contrasted with the above:

With eyes that love and gratitude declare,

To smile, to seek, to view — the sire and husband — where?

"Gentle shepherd, tell me where?"