1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gibson Lockhart

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 298-300.



In 1823, John Gibson Lockhart, previously distinguished as the author of Valerius, Adam Blair, Reginald Dalton, and Matthew Wald, published his translations from the ancient Spanish; and although most of these mediaeval ballads were wonderfully fine in themselves, they certainly lost nothing — as the shield of Martinus Scriblerus is said to have done — from being subjected to the tact and skill of modern furbishing. On the contrary, what was tame lie inspired; what was lofty gained additional grandeur; and even the tender — as in the lay of Count Alarcos — grew still more pathetic beneath his touch. The translations consisted of three classes — the Historical, the Romantic, and the Moorish; and among the most striking are The Avenging Childe, The Seven Heads, the Bull-fight of Granada, Zara's Ear-rings, and, beyond all, Count Alarcos and the Infanta Soliza, than which, as rendered by Mr. Lockhart, no finer ballad of its kind — more gushingly natural, or more profoundly pathetic — probably exists in the poetry of any nation.

These translations derive, as I have said, not a little of their excellence from Mr. Lockhart's being himself a poet of fine genius — clear in his conceptions, and masculine in execution. His pictures have all the distinctness of an autumn landscape, outlined on the horizon by an unclouded morning sun. What he might have done had he continued scaling the heights of Parnassus, there could have been little difficulty in predicating; and most assuredly the poetical literature of our age lost much by his desertion of the lyre, who might have been one of its great masters — whether he had chosen to tread in the steps of "Dan Chaucer" or of "Glorious John;" for he could wield at will the graphic brush of the painter of Palamon and Arcite, as well as etch with the needle that outlined Absalom and Achitophel. Many of Lockhart's scattered verses are exquisitely fine, and range from the genially humorous of Captain Paten's Lament, to the majestically solemn of his Napoleon — which latter alone would have forever stamped their author a poet of a high order:—

The mighty sun had just gone down
Into the chambers of the deep;
The ocean birds had upward flown,
Each in his cave to sleep;
And silent was the island shore,
And breathless all the broad red sea,
And motionless beside the door
Our solitary tree.
Our only tree, our ancient palm,
Whose shadow sleeps our door beside,
Partook the universal calm
When Buonaparte died.
An ancient man, a stately man,
Came forth beneath the spreading tree,
His silent thoughts I could not scan,
His tears I needs must see.
A trembling hand had partly covered
The old man's weeping countenance,
Yet something o'er his sorrow hovered,
That spake of war and France;
Something that spake of other days,
When trumpets pierced the kindling air,
And the keen eye could firmly gaze
Through battle's crimson glare.
Said I, "Perchance this faded band,
When life beat high, and hope was young,
By Lodi's wave, or Syria's sand,
The bolt of death hath flung.
Young Buonaparte's battle-cry
Perchance hath kindled this old cheek;
It is no shame that be should sigh—
His heart is like to break!
He hath been with him young and old:
He climbed with him the Alpine snow;
He heard the cannon when they rolled
Along the river Po.
His soul was as a sword, to leap
At his accustomed leader's word;
I love to see the old man weep—
He knew no other lord.
As if it were but yesternight,
This man remembers dark Eylau;
His dreams are of the eagle's flight
Victorious long ago.
The memories of worser time
Are all as shadows unto him;
Fresh stands the picture of his prime—
The later trace is dim."
I entered, and I saw him lie
Within the chamber all alone;
I drew near very solemnly
To dead Napoleon.
He was not shrouded in a shroud—
He lay not like the vulgar dead—
Yet all of haughty, stern, and proud,
From his pale brow was fled.
He had put harness on to die,
The eagle star shone on his breast,
His sword lay bare his pillow nigh,
The sword he liked the best.
But calm, most calm, was all his face,
A solemn smile was on his lips,
His eyes were closed in pensive grace—
A most serene eclipse!
Ye would have said, some sainted sprite
Had left its passionless abode—
Some man, whose prayer at morn and night,
Had duly risen to God.
What thoughts had calmed his dying breast
(For calm he died) cannot be known;
Nor would I wound a warrior's rest,—
Farewell, Napoleon!