1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bryan Waller Procter

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 232-38.



The poetry of Barry Cornwall is of a much less ambitious, but far more genial character than that of Shelley; it clings only to what is loveable in our nature, and hence approximates by at least one-half nearer to that of Hunt and Keats. But, like every true poet, however he may be influenced by the lights from without reflected on him, he has a path of his own; and his verse is characterised by definite and distinctive features. His chief models in thought and in tone of feeling, as well as in viewing and describing objects, seem to have been the early Italian writers, more especially Boccaccio with his naive narrative simplicity; and our older dramatists, Fletcher, Massinger, and Ben Jonson, in their tender and gentler moods, and in their lyrical measures quaintly natural, or fantastically pathetic. Nor are indications of the impressions made on him by his contemporaries, Wordsworth, Byron, and Coleridge, quite undiscoverable. For the recondite variations and the exquisite melody of his rhymes and metres, Barry Cornwall has been seldom equalled. We are carried away as it were by the song of the Syrens, or of old Timotheus; and hence it is, that he is one of the very few authors who, by adapting his tone to the chronology and nature of his subjects, reconciles us, "by the consecration and the poet's dream," to the substitution of pictures, Elysian in their softness and harmony, for actual representations of human life. Wood, water, sky, and ocean, all are invested with the glowing colours of romance; and human life, under his touch, becomes but a panoramic pageantry of love and beauty, of heroism and gentleness; of sympathetic sorrow and angelic resignation. Almost all his delineations relate either to the mythological eras, or to the chivalrous and romantic; and in him a taint of mannerism and quaintness seems not only pardonable, but graceful and becoming; being to his themes as congenial as the wild flavour of heather to mountain honey.

The Dramatic Scenes, his earliest, is in several respects still his best work; for they were evident overflowings from his feelings and fancy, and are written con amore. Besides this, they had the charm of novelty, and bewitched all finer sensibilities by being so thoroughly tinctured with "Elysian beauty, melancholy grace." Rich and ornate — nay, almost arabesque — as the language of these dialogues may be said to be, we somehow or other tacitly acquiesce in its dramatic fitness; and, although aware of being lulled into a kind of half-dream, would rather not be awakened out of it. The three finest are The Way to Conquer, The Two Dreams, and far before either of these, The Broken Heart, which combines all the richness of an autumnal moonlight with all the softness of a morning reverie; and which, in tender pathos, was never excelled even by Massinger himself.

Nor far behind The Dramatic Scenes, in the characteristics of gentle but passionate earnestness, of refined sentiment, of picturesque situation, and exquisite harmony of style, are the Sicilian Story, Marcian Collonna, and the serious portion of Diego de Montilla; for wit and humour, whatever he may himself think, lie not in our author's way. It is thus that he outlines the sequestration of a bereaved lover—

He lived in solitude,
And scarcely quitted his ancestral home.
Though many a friend, and many a lady woo'd,
Of birth and beauty, yet he would not roam
Beyond the neighbouring hamlet's churchyard rude;
And there the stranger still on one low tomb
May read "Aurora;" whether the name he drew
From mere conceit of grief, or not, none knew.

Perhaps 'twas a mere memorial of the past;
Such Love and Sorrow fashion, and deceive
Themselves with words, until they grow at last
Content with mocks alone, and cease to grieve;
Such madness in its wiser mood will cast,
Making its fond credulity believe
Things unsubstantial. 'Twas — no matter what—
Something to hallow that lone burial spot.

He grew familiar with the bird, the brute
Knew well its benefactor; and he'd feed
And make acquaintance with the fishes mute;
And, like the Thracian Shepherd, as we read,
Drew with the music of his stringed lute
Behind him winged things, and many a tread
And tramp of animal; and, in his ball,
He was a Lord indeed, beloved by all.

In a high solitary turret, where
None were admitted, would he muse, when first
The young day broke; perhaps because he there
Had in his early infancy been nursed,
Or that he felt more pure the morning air,
Or loved to see the Great Apollo burst
From out his cloudy bondage, and the night
Hurry away before the conquering light.

But oftener to a gentle lake, that lay
Cradled within a forest's bosom, he
Would, shunning kind reproaches, steal away;
And, when the inland breeze was fresh and free,
There would he loiter all the livelong day,
Tossing upon the waters listlessly.
The swallow dashed beside him, and the deer
Drank by his boat, and eyed him without fear.

It was a soothing place: the summer hours
Passed there in quiet beauty, and at night
The moon ran searching by the woodbine bowers,
And shook o'er all the leaves her kisses bright,
O'er lemon blossoms and faint myrtle flowers;
And there the west wind often took its flight,
While heaven's clear eye was closing; while above,
Pale Hesper rose, the evening light of love....

'Twas solitude he loved where'er he strayed,—
No danger daunted, and no pastime drew,
And ever on that fair heart-broken maid,
(Aurora,) who unto the angels flew
Away so early, with grief unallayed
He thought; and in the sky's eternal blue
Would look for shapes, till at times before him she
Rose like a beautiful reality.

Having given from Shelley a landscape sketch of secluded grandeur and magnificence, as indicative of that poet's habits of thought and peculiar manner, I add the following by Barry Cornwall — not by way of contrast, but as a companion picture. The place described had been a scene of murder.

It was a spot like those romancers paint,
Or painted, when of dusky knights they told,
Wandering about in forests old,
When the last purple colour was waxing faint,
And day was dying in the west; the trees
(Dark pine, and chestnut, and the dwarfed oak,
And cedar,) shook their branches, till the shade
Looked like a spirit, and living, as it played,
Seemed holding dim communion with the breeze:
Below, a tumbling river rolled along,
(Its course by lava rocks and branches broke,)
Singing for aye its fierce and noisy song.

Nor can I resist quoting the three following exquisite stanzas as a specimen of Barry Cornwall's very best manner — they are from his poem of Gyges.

It is a chilling thing to see, as I
Have seen — a man go down into the grave
Without a tear, or even an altered eye:
Oh sadder far than when fond women rave,
Or children weep, or aged parents sigh,
O'er one whom art and love doth strive to save
In vain: man's heart is soothed by every tone
Of pity, saying, "he's not quite alone."

I saw a pauper once, when I was young,
Borne to his shallow grave: the bearers trod
Smiling to where the death-bell heavily rung
And soon his bones were laid beneath the sod;
On the rough boards the earth was gaily flung;
Methought the prayer which gave him to his God
Was coldly said; — then all, passing away,
Left the scarce coffined wretch to quick decay.

It was an autumn evening, and the rain
Had ceased awhile, but the loud winds did shriek,
And called the deluging tempest back again;
The flag-staff on the churchyard tower did creak,
And through the black clouds ran a lightning vein.
And then the flapping raven came to seek
Its home: its flight was heavy, and its wing
Seemed weary with a long day's wandering.

During the last quarter of a century — (alas! for Mr. Proctor, and parchments, writs, and affidavits!) — Barry Cornwall has only come before the public in short snatches of song — "Sybilline Leaves," scattered through many tomes, where they have wooed and won their way to the thoughtful hearts of many a wintry hearth; and some of them wed to music, as The Sea, King Death, and The Stormy Petrel, have attained a popular acceptance scarcely excelled by Moore and Haynes Bayley. Yet, confessedly fine as many of these latter lyrical effusions are, they have for the most part an air of unnatural buoyancy and fantastic jauntiness about them, scarcely quite pleasing or satisfactory, and do not appear to me entitled to rank in excellence with The Dream, with Marcelia, The Sleeping Figure of Modena, and many other of the same author's earlier productions.

The precis of this poet's character by Lord Jeffrey I regard as so just and perfect, that I cannot resist quoting it; more especially as, of late years, there seems to have arisen some unaccountable but futile tendency to underrate him, for the sake of the glorification of others, unquestionably not more deserving.

"If it be the peculiar province of poetry to give delight," says that eloquent critic, "this author should rank very high among our poets; and in spite of his neglect of the terrible passions, he does rank very high in our estimation. He has a beautiful fancy and a beautiful diction, and a fine ear for the music of verse, and great tenderness and delicacy of feeling. He seems moreover, to be altogether free from any tincture of bitterness, rancour, or jealousy; and never shocks us with atrocity, or stiffens us with horror, or confounds us with the dreadful sublimities of demoniacal energy. His soul, on the contrary, seems filled to overflowing with images of love and beauty, and gentle sorrows, and tender pity, and mild and holy resignation. The character of his poetry is to soothe and melt and delight; to make us kind and thoughtful and imaginative; to purge away the dregs of our earthly passions by the refining fires of a pure imagination; and to lap us up from the eating cares of life, in visions so soft and bright as to sink like morning dreams on our senses, and at the same time so distinct, and truly fashioned upon the eternal patterns of nature, as to hold their place before our eyes long after they have again been opened on the dimmer scenes of the world."

To this I would only add, that if one of the surest tests of fine poetry — and I know no better — be that of impressing the heart and fancy, Barry Cornwall must rank high; for there are few to whose pages the young and ardent reader would more frequently and fondly recur, or which so tenderly impress themselves on the tablets of memory.