Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


 

Edgar Fawcett.*


 

It is undeniable that in certain of the most distinguished of American poets exists a marked deficiency in the sense of form, in symmetry of construction, and in finish. Poe was master in all the magic of rhythm, a wizard conjuring potently with musical balance of words. Longfellow, in his riper work, displayed fine technical skill. Stedman and Aldrich have hardly a living superior in matters of pure technique, in the essentially artistic qualifications of a poet. But these stand out as exceptions. Sometimes it looks as if the idea were of supreme importance, and to be developed at all hazard, while the medium of expression is handled with a trace of impatience or contempt. In the minor poets much more than this is apparent. One feels too often that their reverence for their art is scanty, that they have a disdain of careful and devoted labor, perhaps no perception whatever of the need of recasting, of polishing, of perfecting. An idea, an emotion, an incident, or a romance is forced into ill-fitting garments of crudely-constructed verse. All deficiencies in the manner, should such be acknowledged to exist, must be compensated for by the value and beauty of the matter; which value and beauty themselves may chance to be all but non-existent. And at best, how rarely is it realized that in so subtle a creation as song half the matter, indeed, is the manner? Body and soul are by no means so thoroughly made one as are language and thought in poetry; by no means so potently do they act and re-act upon each other as do the word and the idea in song. It would be genius sublime, indeed, that could afford to display itself always in slovenly verse. But the fact is that in slovenly verse sublime genius is hidden, not displayed. Great poets, it is true, have written slovenly verse; it was just then their genius was at fault.

A young poet, therefore, who is essentially an artist, reverencing deeply his art, and master of all its technicalities, should attract our most earnest regard. Such a poet is Mr. Edgar Fawcett. Never falling into the snare of sound for sweet sound’s sake only, his pregnant lines are nevertheless harmonious as though his sole aim were harmony. Like Keats, he is enamored of fine phrases. His phrases, too, like those of Keats and unlike those of many verbal gymnasts, are really fine, ring true, have a solid substance to them. The fine phrases that Keats loved, full of sweetness and color, and perfume and music, are scarcely even akin to those sonorous collocations of works which one of the greatest of living poets delights sometimes to string for us, which not seldom seem to us

"Like a tale of little meaning, though the words are strong."

Mr. Fawcett’s phrases are moulded with nicest skill; he makes them rich and delicious, fit to be rolled under the tongue; but each has a reason for being, each is vitalized with an idea. Such lines as the following, taken at random, captivate sense and thought alike:

"The great grapes droop their dusty globes of wine."

      "And Italy, which is summer’s softer name."

"The pale temples and the limpid skies,
  The storied shores and haunted groves of Greece."

Or this, in another key—

"The low persistent requiem of the rain."

Observe the consummate art displayed in the first of these quotations. The epithet "dusty," peculiarly apt as picturing the rich grape-clusters exposed in the dry and sunny autumn weather, calls up on the tongue a sensation of thirst, most intensely expectant of the gust of exquisite coolness when the "globes of wine" shall be crushed against the palate. How the suggestion of fresh and liquid deliciousness is breathed under the sultriness of the words. These, and other phrases equally with them, allure, as Keats does, in such expressions as

"With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
        And purple-stainéd mouth;"

wherein the fulness of sensuous delight is focussed, as it were, upon the sense, is realized with a keenness of perception not before possible; while at the same time the imagination is incited to a further reach, by the hint of some ecstasy beyond.

All through Mr. Fawcett’s volume published in 1878 under the name of "Fantasy and Passion," is perceptible this high technical skill, this mastery of words, and above all, this subtle essence of poetry. Certain lines bring a feeling of velvety richness on the lips repeating them. For example:

"Within her vaporous robe and one dim hand
  Much asphodel and lotus doth she bear,"

Of which the last line is one that the tongue is reluctant to let cease.

But the sonnet containing these lines must be quoted in full. It is entitled "Sleep," and written for a picture. Perhaps it is not too much to say that it has but one superior in the whole range of English pictorial sonnets. It has greater unity, is less exclamatory, than that marvelous one by Rossetti, "For a Venetian Pastoral," which is surely the most perfect sonnet-music in the language:—


SLEEP

(FOR A PICTURE.)

A yellow sunset, soft and dreamy of dye,
    Met sharply by black, fluctuant lines of grass;
    A river glimmering like illumined glass,
And narrowing till it ends in distant sky;
Pale, scattered pools of luminous rain, that lie
    In shadowy amplitudes of green morass;
    A crescent that the old moon, as moments pass,
Has turned to a silver acorn hung on high!

Now, through this melancholy and silent land
    Sleep walks, diaphanous-vestured, vaguely fair.
Within her vaporous robe and one dim hand
    Much asphodel and lotus doth she bear,
Going lovely and low-lidded, with a band
    Of dull-red poppies amid her dull-gold hair!

This poem will serve to display very many of Mr. Fawcett’s characteristics. Herein are well instanced the artistic perfection of rhythm, the well-linked music of language, that he knows how to create. As a colorist, also, his faculty shows itself. He has a clear appreciation of values; his quietest and most subdued tone is instinct with the glow of vitality. Here, too, we perceive the definiteness and reach of his imagination; the clearness of his vision and of his rendering of the vision; his excellent sense of proportion.

To my mind no others of the sonnets quite attain the perfection of this one, though all are worthy of praise, whether for grace, masterly workmanship, ingenuity of thought, or imaginative insight. With this poem the critic has nothing to do but applaud, nevertheless, a censure may be based upon a tendency herein observable. I refer to the redundant syllable employed in the pentameter line. As used here, and indeed wherever used sparingly and judiciously, the effect is excellent, adding richness, flexibility, and compass to the verse. But its use is easily carried to excess, when it degenerates into a mannerism and becomes very cloying to the ear. It may be hypercriticism to suggest that a peculiar word, such as "amplitudes," having been once used here with such newness, precision, and beauty of effect, might almost be consecrated to this office. Certain it is that for me this word, being a striking and unusual one, wears inseparably the color and aroma of all this sonnet, and when met with anywhere else seems out of place. It is a favorite word with Mr. Fawcett, and possibly he uses it too often.

Not alone in the sonnets, but in that charming group of songs entitled "Minor-chords," is Mr. Fawcett’s symmetry of design displayed to advantage. Each of these poems, however brief, is complete, rounded and justly developed. Most of them being the outcome of close and loving study of this or that of the surrounding objects of nature, dramatic intensity is not herein to be looked for; but intensity and keenness of search—these are well evident. Nor is it here we should expect the utterance of passionate thought; though one or two of these small master-pieces are aglow with heat of passion held in check. They are filled, too, with the charm of suggestiveness; scarcely a poem but brings some new thought; some strange analogy, to gaunt the brain after reading it. Instance the following stanza from "A Tuberose:"—

"Or did the moon, through some sweet night long dead,
       Her splendor shed
  On some rich tomb, while silence held its breath,
  Till one pure sculptured blossom thrilled and grew
       Strangely to you,
  Cold child of moonbeams, marble and white death!"

Or the following beautiful fancy:—

"Down in the dim swamp, firefly throngs
     A brilliant, soundless revel keep,
  As though beneath their radiant rain
     Another Danaë slept her sleep!"

It would be easy to go on multiplying quotations of like excellence, but this from the lines "To an Oriole" is finer still:—

"Or did some orange tulip, flaked with black,
  In some forgotten garden, ages back,
  Yearning toward heaven until its wish was heard,
  Desire unspeakably to be a bird?"

Again, how many times in verse has the hummingbird been assailed? Yet I think the spirit of this swift atom of a bird was never truly captured till Mr. Fawcett addressed himself to the effort. From these verses let his success be judged:—

"When the mild gold stars flow’r out,
     As the summer gloaming goes,
  A dim shape quivers about
     Some sweet rich heart of a rose.

  If your watch its fluttering poise,
     From palpitant wings will steal
  A hum like the eerie noise
     Of an elfin spinning-wheel!

  And then, from the shape’s vague sheen,
     Quick lustres of blue will float,
  That melt in luminous green
     Round a glimmer of ruby throat!

*          *          *

  Then you, by thoughts of it stirred,
     Will dreamily question them:
  Is it a gem, half-bird,
     Or is it a bird, half-gem?"

This must be ranked with the best that has ever been written of a bird. The quick, throbbing, darting, measure; the changeful iridescence of the coloring; the faithfulness of every touch to the individuality of the bird; the delicate suggestion of that mystery, which, save for the driest investigator, must ever haunt about these living jewels—all combine to set this poem apart as an authorized utterance of nature’s most radiant mood. This is subtle and accurate interpretation; and the volume abounds in such interpretations—of external nature, of emotion, and of thought.

But for proofs that Mr. Fawcett can interpret, not only external nature even in his subtlest manifestations, but also the palimpsest of human passion and thought, we must turn to that division of his work entitled "Voices and Visions." Here we are concerned with the emotions of "the deep heart of man." Here we find ourselves straightway searching weightier problems. We are in a stronger and more vitalizing atmosphere. We touch humanity, and our circle of sympathy and knowledge is enlarged. But the artist is master of his art, and of himself. The fiercest emotion must find utterance in obedience to law and reason.

"The House on the Hill," the initial poem of this division, is a form of song in which success is difficult. It is an episode of passion and heart-ruin under the common light of the present day and life. In form and subject not unlike some work of the younger Lytton, it is as much superior to that clever writer’s productions as sincerity, simplicity and strength might be expected to make it. There is never a cynical touch to make one ashamed of his emotion, or the hollow ring to remind one that his breathless sympathy is all for the fiction of a poet’s idle brain. There is no raving, no attitudinizing; but the story is briefly told, with vigor and directness, and its pathos of governed pain is deep and enduring.

— And let him keep my hand, as I said
"The truth is better. Good-night! Good-bye!"

What seem to be so far Mr. Fawcett’s most ambitious efforts are "Jael" and "Violante," in blank verse. These are eminently strong and impressive dramatic poems, worthy of most attentive study. Perhaps somewhat more impressive than pleasing—save that penetrative imagination and forcible utterance of necessity give pleasure to the intellect; they stimulate thought and conjecture, to a high degree. "Violante" reminds one somewhat of Rossetti’s splendid poem, "The Last Confession." "Jael" is grandly conceived, disturbing and then satisfying the imagination. It represents a sumptuous development of woman, inexorably self-held in stern restraint. The sinewy verse, admirably adapted to the subject-matter, is slightly marred, however, by the prevalence of redundant syllables, giving the lines a restless and tumultuous character:

                                                           — "close
  I have drawn the curtains of my tent and shut
  Heaven’s vague supremities and the twilight moon,
  Palm-gilding, from mine eyes. I would that doors
  Of massive metal dulled your grateful songs
  To me, lying prone, veiled with my loosened hair
  An agony in my thoughts, and loathing life."

*          *          *

"Thou knowest of how the quick pulse ruled my heart
  When Sisera was near, yet how I have made
  Face, form, and gesture one cold courtesy
  Of decorous matronhood severely pure,
  Acting until the last my virtuous lie,
  Feeling the insolent animal in my veins
  Gnaw at its bonds with fiery teeth. . . "

*          *          *

                                                              "Sing on,
  Barak and Deborah, bless the Kenite’s wife,
  Who thrust the deadly nail in Sisera’s brow,
  Who strove to free not Israel, but herself;
  Who failed . . . "

But the poem, in some respects the most remarkable of the whole collection, is a short lyric entitled "Behind History." The unrestricted praise which is so often applied to Browning’s "My Last Duchess" may with justice be applied to this. It is in a high degree forcible, keen in analysis, intensely dramatic, polished ad unguem, pure from all obscurity in spite of its exquisite compactness; and, indeed, for so many excellences quite so excellently combined, one may make long search elsewhere:

"I am the Queen they hold so pure,
  They will carve my tomb one day, be sure,
  With marble praise that shall endure."

In this Queen the flood of a fierce and tyrannous passion rises against the rock of her indomitable pride. The flood, as is usual with floods of this sort, prevails against the rock, overwhelms and covers it. But the tide ebbs more swiftly than it rose; and the rock, taking pitiless vengeance, stands apparently inviolable, as before. There is contained in this poem what most writers would require a volume to render. By masterly suggestiveness and lucidity of expression Mr. Fawcett has included everything; he has taken in the whole world of a surging and destructive passion. Yet the marvelous condensation is accomplished apparently with perfect ease, with no trace of the "labor to be brief."

To mention merely a few more poems representing the variety of Mr. Fawcett’s powers, let me call attention to the grim weirdness of "D’outre Mort"—desire surviving death; the cruel gorgeousness and stealthy tropic heat of "Tiger to Tigress;" above all, the tender human pitifulness, the long-drawn lamenting music, the inexpressible loneliness of the lovely "Cradle-song:"

"Windily over the rocking sea, and windily over the
            damp dim grasses,
  Hark how the lowering Autumn night sweeps down
            on the lonely world!"

*          *          *

"Go to sleep, darling; go to sleep, dear one;
     Heed not the tempest gathering o’er thee!
  Slumber well, though the night be a drear one,
     Wild and drear to the mother that bore thee!"

A "Barcarolle," though somewhat artificial, has a delightful lilt. "A Souvenir" is delicious slow music; and "One May Night" is brimming with richness and soft passion and warm color. In this poem, as in one of two others, we are reminded that Mr. Fawcett has studied systematically the genius of Mr. Aldrich. But the poetry of Mr. Aldrich, truly exquisite and jewel-like at its best, is occasionally, I think, refined to the verge of finicalness. This perilous verge Mr. Fawcett shuns with care.

The forgoing extracts and comments have shown Mr. Fawcett crowned already with brilliant and solid achievement, the author of work endowed with strength, subtlety, and sensuousness. Possessed also of the singing voice, the artist’s intolerance of slovenly workmanship, and an unerring sense of proportion, Mr. Fawcett should fulfill the most sanguine expectations. His defects have not been dwelt upon here, because, unlike his excellences, they are distinctly of the minor sort. A few of his lyrics lack their full share of inspiration, having been written perhaps more as a metrical exercise than under strong compulsion of creative desire. Here and there, also, a pet word gets more than its share of attention. But matter for blame, on the whole, is conspicuous chiefly by its absence.

 


"Edgar Fawcett," The Week 1:30, 26 June 1884, 437-38; The Current 1, 28 June 1884, 437-38 [back]