Duncan Campbell Scott
Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews
Review of John Stuart Thomson, A Day’s Song
To all lovers of true poetry the announcement of a new book by John Stuart Thomson will be very welcome. For some years Mr. Thomson has been a constant contributor to periodicals noted for the exceptional quality of the poetry they select, and his first volume, Estabelle and Other Verse, published in 1897, proved that verse admirable in its separate and individual examples was also admirable in the mass. In his latest volume Mr. Thomson has deepened the impression created by Estabelle. In A Day’s Song he has gained complete control of his voice, so to speak, and in many respects has improved in the technique of his art. In an age when young poets are too apt to strain after effect, and borrow any simile that may startle and shock, when the barbarisms of Kipling have come to be the stale stock-in-trade of many who write to catch the popular ear, it is refreshing to find a poet whose nature prompts him to seek inspiration from men who never will grow old, who are everlastingly youthful both in their methods and the ideas they convey. Mr. Thomson has fellowship of ideals with Robert Bridges in our day, and they both are akin to the masters of song who charmed Elizabeth’s time—to Carew and Campion, to Fletcher and Johnson [sic]—that is to say that in Mr. Thomson’s verse one is charmed by beauty of movement, by naive turns of expression, and by purity of diction. In the ideas expressed, allowing always for the modern standpoint, there is the same joy in the freshness of objective nature; the later poems have the idyllic outlook that we find when we turn the pages of these old masters of the lyric. He is forever haunted by the idea of the purity of nature, her dewy charm and exquisite beauty. His style is happily calculated to convey such impressions in clear and limpid images and cadences. [page 45]
Mr. Thomson is moreover an observer of nature upon his own responsibility; not taking for granted the epithets and phrases which have been used by others, he applies frequently a new criticism of his own to the familiar aspects. In the section of his book that he entitles “Spring,” many of his most felicitous verses will be found. In “A Spring Song” and “April Groves” the effect he produces and sustains is fresh and unhackneyed. A verse from the latter poem may be selected in proof:
What rare employment hath the vernal wind,
Blowing to yellow flames the daffodil,
How spends the spring the riches of her mind
To form and dye another blossom still,
A wild bud rarer than the lotus bloom,
Touched with a tint of pink unknown before,
And petals polished smooth as Kashmire’s rose,
Woven on finer loom
Than those that knit the veils the Tyrians wore,
Lucent as stream that over marble flows.
This stanza is a favourite form with Mr. Thomson, and he brings out its power of sustained melody with an unerring hand. The long poem “Autumn,” with its rich colouring and quiet tone, and “A Winter Village,” with its pleasant homely pictures are written in this form, well chosen for the subjects. The latter poem is an excellent example of Mr. Thomson’s skill in arousing new interest in well-worn familiar scenes, and if space would permit it might be quoted at length. The section devoted to philosophical poems, the one which transcribes the stoical philosophy, has a fine refrain:
Denial asks such favours small;
Yea, greater is my dignity:
So rich am I, I give up all;
Longings nor hopes now conquer me.
Possessing nothing, I give o’er
The wish for joy, so am supreme.
The two sonnets in the same section, “The Glamor,” and “The Months,” are solid and well-executed; the last has many lines of great beauty, and the movement of the sonnet itself is excellent. These two poems show the desire which Mr. Thomson has for perfection [page 46] of form. Of greater individuality, however, are his short lyrics. For example, “Even-time,” in which the poet has invented the mould into which he has poured his ideas. This short sixteen-line poem is so happily conceived that it must be quoted as a fair example of A Day’s Song.
In meadows deep with hay I see
The reapers’ steel flash sparklingly,
And bobolinks at play;
And in the iris-bordered coves
Frail lilies, shaded by the groves,
Moor all the golden day.
I watch a flicker rise on sun-lit wings
High where a pewee sings,
To the lone piper of the fir.
Where rolling western hills look like
Waves of aerial seas, the sunsets strike,
And, wrecking, dye the clouds with gold.
Moon-wheeled, Eve’s chariot is rolled
On through the high, star-spangled doors,
To Night’s dark murmurous shores.
The poem “Israfel” is worthy of special praise for its quiet beauty:
He touched the chords, he heard the sound
Spread like the moon at night;
He was an angel who had found
Unto himself he played, nor knew
What trembled on the strings;
As the uprising lark the dew
Shakes from his wings.
• • •
He saw the seraphs, like a flame,
Rise to the blinding throne;
Cherubs and angels, name on name,
And he alone [page 47]
Absent, the guardian wings descend,
To bear a mortal’s prayer,
Or save a man’s soul at the end
Of his despair.
But he was held by this content
Of helpless, thralling joy,
As fading petals close the scent
That they destroy.
He was no hero, yet the flow
Of those far echoes seemed
The plaudits that the victors know,
Or, sleeping, dreamed.
Like incense of a secret prayer,
Breathed from the holy night;
Like the warm auburn of his hair,
It soothed his sight.
He dreamed, and still he struck the harp,
And sprayed the crystal shower,
A burst of bird-notes, clear and sharp,
In a spring hour.
Recurrent melodies that blend,
As rainbow colours melt;
Notes glowing, self-consumed, that end
He was God’s angel innocent,
Called to no glorious strife:
Love’s pureness, that in its fragrance spent
Its beauteous life.
“Psyche in Tempe” is a lyrical treatment of a well-worn subject that wins an impression of modernity from a classical story. In Mr. Thomson’s first volume there were several ballads of striking quality, and the best, “The Vale of Estabelle,” is reprinted in the new book. It has a distinctive beauty, and it would be hard to find a ballad that has a more haunting cadence. Seemingly simple and artless, it has a thrilling power that recalls Edgar Allan Poe, and no one can read it without a memory of some little graveyard that will [page 48] always thereafter be linked to “the little time-stained headstones in the vale of Estabelle.” The volume itself is a very dainty example of the bookmakers’ art, in perfect taste throughout, a suitable gift for lovers of poetry and well-built books. Without, it is a harmony of green and gold; within, the abode of charming melodies and graceful pictures. [page 49]
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