Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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


 

Modern Instances *


 

If she who said "O Liberty, how many crimes are committed in thy name!" had addressed herself rather to Conscience than to Liberty, the shaft of her satire would have gained a wider range and carried a yet more pungent point. Ever since the world became possessed by the malicious modern spirit of analysis, the divine right of conscience, no less than that of kings, has been subjected to an almost sacrilegious scrutiny. In regard to kings, it soon became accepted by the world that the divine right was a quality inhering much more pertinaciously in some kings than in others. In regard to conscience, the collective term is beginning to prove inconvenient. Reluctantly we learn that, as there are kings and kings, there are also consciences and consciences. We are irresistibly impelled to acknowledge that the divine right of some consciences is much more defensible than others. If I had not the fear of Democracy before my eyes, I would hazard the conclusion that the common kind of conscience is richer in heart than in brains. In intention admirable, it is apt in solving only the simplest problems of conduct, and in the face of any complex predicament it falls into a spasm of nervous distress. It makes haste to shift its responsibilities upon the shoulders of some one of those maxims which ignorance has crystallized out of the floating folly of ages. From such a reflection we are led, not logically but alluringly, to the conclusion that all consciences save our own are lamentably liable to err, and that, apart from our own influence, there is hardly to be found a safe guide for our neighbour’s conduct.

Granting—as doubtless no one will be persuaded to do,—that the common kind of conscience is virtuous but dull, there are, of course, many varieties in the species conscience, which would require as many separate characterizations. My present concern is with one variety only, the Literary Conscience. The literary conscience dare not be dull, and cares not to be virtuous. This statement may not be true, but it is epigrammatical; and where is the truth that has not learned to sacrifice itself to an epigram? Whether true or not, there are one or two observed facts which may be recorded here for the use of those distrustful of my deductions. Of all consciences the literary conscience makes, perhaps, the most obtrusive claim to virtue. It has been heard to say didactically—"praise the man who praises you!" And when, not for argument but for information, I reverently question why, it answers, "because he has given the most convincing proof of his wisdom and his benevolence, and they who speak with wisdom and benevolence are the only ones the world should listen to." Another man ignores me or abuses me, and instinctively I turn to my literary conscience to learn what I shall do in such a case. "Annihilate him, not in vulgar spite, but in sorrow," says my conscience. "Of course," I assent, most cordially, "but why?" and conscience says—"because he has proved himself, in the way you can best appreciate, to be either informed,—in not knowing you; or incapable,—in not recognizing your genius; or malevolent,—in striving to obscure your fame and deprive the world of the benefit to be gained by coming more closely in contact with your influence. Again I have heard the literary conscience admonishing very earnestly—"Write what the people will buy; write wisely if they prefer wisdom; but if they prefer folly, write foolishly." Here there came, for the first time, a note of surprise in my voice, as again I questioned "Why" And my conscience answered—"Because so only will you keep yourself alive, and able to be of use to your fellow-men. So only will you earn an honest independence, from which, if you have not by that time forgotten how, you may write to improve the world; and where, at the same time, you may be safe from the scorn and enmity which will surely soon assail your quixotic enterprise."

These mandates of the literary conscience are in some respects bewildering. Perhaps they need not be considered binding on all writers. Some there have been found so bold as to repudiate them each and all, and so fortunate as to achieve success in spite of this defiance of precedent. Such a consideration encourages me to resolve that, in these and successive "Modern Instances," I will strive to bring myself under the guidance of the common kind of conscience. It shall be my effort to be virtuous,—which in literature means to be honest, even as in literature also honesty means virtue; and as for the other characteristic, I will be only so dull as Nature hath preordained.

THE SHELLEY CENTENARY.

Had the literary conscience of the early portion of this century been less brilliant and effective in the promulgation of its errors, and had the common kind of conscience at that day been less obtuse and more discriminating, the fact that this year is the centenary of Shelley’s birth would be a matter of more general interest than it is. Almost from the beginning, Shelley has commanded the passionate reverence of those who are able to apprehend at first hand the excellence of beauty and sincerity and love. But for that far larger number who, while apprehending beauty and sincerity and love, do so, not immediately, but through precedent, and under the guidance of inherited prejudice, Shelley has a more vital message than was borne by any of his great contemporaries. To this message, however, the ears of those most in need of it have been deaf. They heard echoes from the tuning of the instrument, and, taking this for the orchestration of Shelley’s genius, were forever offended. They read, without the exculpating context, the one error of Shelley’s life, and flung up hands of horror as they turned away. And their need, though they know it not, is—Shelley! It is not Wordsworth, not Keats, not Byron, not Coleridge, but Shelley, who will pander least to their self-righteousness, sting them most with noble shame, spur them with the loftiest and freshest impulse, and show them the whitest radiance of sincerity. How grotesque and pitiful a figure is the Shelley of popular imagination! How unlike that Shelley whose honesty knew not the savage grace of compromise, whose keenest sufferings came of his taking thought for others, whose mistakes were all the fruit of too much faith in his fellow-men, whose charity was a passion, whose sincerity burned through those poor but pardonable shams wherewith men shield themselves from the pangs of truth, and won him hate where he sought for love. Yet this is the real Shelley; and for one who observes with reverence this first centenary of his birth, one hundred will do honour to the second. Wordsworth seemed to eclipse him; because he taught the peace of Nature to curtain strong and restless spirits, who thereupon proclaimed their lesson to the world. Byron has seemed to eclipse him; because in him an age found candid and convincing utterance. Keats has seemed to eclipse him; because he offered men the joy of a divinely simple worship, the worship of pure Beauty. Yet with these three great poets we can hardly doubt that the ultimate criticism will place Shelley as something more than peer. To some such result the criticism of France, more impersonal than our own, is already pointing. The further we get from the influence of those personal considerations that warp our judgment, the loftier looms this figure which we are now contemplating. The most altruistic of poets, the most lyrical of English lyrists, the most spiritual of our imaginative creators, the most intellectual of that brotherhood of giants who brought back Romanticism to England,—and falling short of the greatest in one point only, his insufficient knowledge of the heart of man. This limitation is to be remembered always. It is to be remembered that we must not go to Shelley to find Shakespeare. But to Shelley we may go when in danger of forgetting the essential elements of poetry. To Shelley we may turn when Mr. Howells is persuading us that there is no such thing as genius. To Shelley we may escape from the blind tyranny of fact, and in our emancipation realize that it is not facts, but the relations of facts that signify. Not the deed, but the idea, is eternal.

ELTON HAZLEWOOD.

Let him who would write wisely not write of his contemporaries. In the department of criticism, at least, I Believe this to be a safe rule. The personal element enters so insidiously, and assumes so many a discreet disguise. There are so many different points of view to be considered; and an entire clarity of candour is so all but unattainable. It is not strange, then, if I touch with diffidence on the subject of the Rev. Frederick George Scott’s new book "Elton Hazlewood." I only refer to it here because I wish to a great many people the same opportunity that I have myself enjoyed, of forming erroneous opinions about its value.

"Elton Hazlewood" is a short psychological romance, written in vigorous, coloured, sometimes lyrical prose. The work of a priest of the Anglican Communion, it succeeds in the difficult task of displaying unmistakably the stamp of its origin, and at the same time avoiding every trace of dogmatism or intolerance. It has the loftiest of ideals, it has virility, it has imagination in no small measure, it has that direct sincerity which seems to distinguish even the crudest efforts of this literature which is beginning to take shape in Canada. It betrays, however, in no other way the least hint of its Canadian parentage, being uncompromisingly English in every conceivable regard. Everything we write in Canada must be judged in two categories. We must consider how it stands in relation to Canadian literature, and then we must consider, with vastly greater care, how it stands in relation to that literature of our race in which American, Canadian, and Australian literature form but more or less important subdivisions. This is the point of ultimate consequence. Canadian literature may be written in either French or English; but for its final rating, that which is written in French must be judged in its relation to the literature of France.

As a contribution to Canadian literature, it seems to me unquestionable that "Elton Hazlewood" should be ranked with the very few—three or four at most—distinctly creditable things which Canadian literature has to show in the department of imaginative prose. As a contribution to English literature in general it has to face the application of more exacting standards. Its importance and its significance begin to shrink amazingly;—but they do not vanish. They remain, though diminished, yet not to be ignored. The book seems in some ways to challenge comparison with such work as the "The Countess Eve," of Shorthouse, and suffers by a certain want of completeness, of rounded fullness, of all that suggests leisurely and inevitable development. Here and there one feels a touch of crudity, suggesting that the writer has not yet attained the full mastery of his powers. The romance of Shorthouse is no less brief and tenuous, but it is wrought to a far more satisfying symmetry, a more crystalline and enduring perfection. In the "Countess Eve," and in all that Shorthouse writes, we feel the lack of a broad knowledge of the human heart. This lack, already noted in that incomparably loftier idealist of whose centenary I have just been speaking, constitutes the most serious defect in the beautiful compositions of Shorthouse. Such defect, as it appears to me, is still more perceptible in "Elton Hazlewood." Mr. Scott’s conception of human nature is a noble one, and his creations are good to associate with. But his knowledge of man is hardly to be called comprehensive. He sees not wide, but with a measure of true insight in a few directions. As for the conscience,—much manifested alike in his verse and in the work before me,—it seems to combine in happy agreement the brilliancy of the literary conscience with the virtuous intention of the common kind. This is promising, and leads me to think, in contemplating Mr. Scott’s work, of the faithful saying of Vauvenargues—"Great thoughts come from the heart."

THE PLEASANT PASTIME OF DEFINING POETRY.

The perennial source of poetry is Thought fused in emotion. In fact, if I dare rush in where angels have feared to tread,—or at least have failed to tread with consummate effect,—I would hazard an attempt at a definition of poetry. It would, perhaps, be something after this fashion:—Poetry is a metrical expression of Thought fused in emotion. Then I would make haste to deprecate the rebukes that such an attempt would call down upon me, by protesting that my definition was not intended to define; but only to suggest limitations and scientific frontiers.

It is rather a fascinating enterprise, this one of definition; and as the shifting of the boundaries goes on continually, the fascination of it is not likely to be soon exhausted. But it is at the same time indubitably perilous; for every new definition must run the gauntlet of a host of critical half-bricks. Critics appear to be of one mind in the opinion that they who have attempted to define poetry have come to grief with a very fair degree of regularity. Too often it has been rashly expected that a definition should define. In other cases a mere designation of certain prominent, though not distinguishing characters, has been unjustly taken for an attempt at definition. When Aristotle said that poetry was "imitation by words," he may or may not have intended the phrase to be definitive; but when Arnold said that poetry was a "criticism of life," he was merely indicating what should be a function of all high verse,—as, indeed, in a greater or less degree and in a more or less indirect manner, of all sound and earnest art. When a contemporary flouts the doctrine (held by Aristotle and his followers among the ancients, by Dryden and many more among the moderns,) that in poetry the chief element is "invention," he does so by enunciating that "metre is the first and only condition absolutely demanded by poetry." This may fairly be understood as an intentional and deliberate attempt to define; and it forms an agreeable target for the shafts of any one that likes an easy shot. So sweeping a universal needs but the establishment of a very small particular negative to overthrow it. When it is declared that "poetry is the beautiful representation of the beautiful, given in words," we feel justified in reminding the definer that his definition fails to exclude a vast deal of prose. But when Carrière says that "poetry speaks out the thought that lies in things," it is plain that nothing is further from his mind than to be guilty of a definition. It is another matter when Ruskin says that "poetry is the presentment, in musical form, to the imagination of noble grounds for the noble emotions," for here it is evidently intended to be both exclusive and final. This is a definition; and it is a legitimate object for attack, though it may be hard to come at its vulnerable heel. On the other hand, when Emerson says that "poetry is spirit, not a form," he is no more open to the accusation of attempting to define than if he had said that the Japanese were the ancient Hittites,—in which he might or might not be wrong. This applies to the somewhat more intensive dictum of Mr. Stedman, that "poetry is a spirit taking form." And when Mr. Joaquin Miller avers that "a poem must be a picture," he has no more intentionally definitive than if he had said "a man must be tall and fair haired." If I agree with Milton in desiring that poetry be "simple, sensuous, impassioned," I by no means pledge myself to be content with poetry that has nothing but these qualities to boast of. When all is said we may rest comfortably assured that poverty will manage to transcend the limits of any definition we may devise. This, however, need not furnish us an excuse for railing at definitions. Every serious attempt to define or characterize an art so complex as poetry, is more than likely to add something to our appreciation of that art, to direct our eyes to the gleam of some before unnoticed facet of the splendid crystal. It may prove a pleasant exercise to gather together the various vagrant definitions of poetry, to sift out the worthless ones, and endeavour to reconcile the rest. From the exercise one will almost certainly emerge with the conviction that in poetry, as, indeed, in all authentic art, half the matter is the manner.

MR. GILDER’S "TWO WORLDS."

Of the volumes of verse that in these days roll forth so abundantly from the press, we are constrained to acknowledge that nearly all are to be commended for creditable workmanship. But for the most part they are

      "Like a talk of little meaning,
                                           tho’ the words are strong."

We find ourselves mourning as we read "vox et praeteria nihil." Metre has seemed, perhaps, to the constructors of this verse, "the first and only condition absolutely demanded by poetry." Form is there, but the spirit has neglected to take it. In other cases the singer has been so transported on finding himself possessed of an idea, a vital motion for his song, that he has rushed upon the public with a metrical abortion, crying "poetry is a spirit, not a form;"—whereupon we promptly perceive that his is neither. In yet other cases, it would appear, the thought of the singer has been fused in such ill-regulated and spasmodic emotion that it has fallen away and left no residue but slag. Amid all these regrettable omissions and commissions, however, one is now and again restored to benignity by a meeting with some volume whose note is unmistakably authentic. We encounter a little body of verse whose thought is not only just but impassioned, whose form is not only exact but enchanting. To an appreciable degree it performs its part as a criticism of life; it does not fail in the effort to present us with noble grounds for the noble emotions; and it appeals to our perceptions as a beautiful representation of the beautiful. Such titles to distinction may be claimed, it seems to me, by no considerable portion of the body of verse which Mr. Gilder has given us. They are all to be found, some more abundantly than others, in the small volume which he has just issued under the title of "Two Worlds, and other Poems."

The volume takes its name from a pair of contrasted quatrains,— the one characterizing the Venus of Milo, the other interpreting, rather than characterizing, Michael Angelo’s Slave. These are admirable in form, grave and significant in thought; but they wear somehow the air of having been chiselled, like the marbles they celebrate, out of an unyielding material. They are artistic and adequate, but they partake somewhat of the nature of a tour de force. Not in them shall we seek for the distinctive quality of Mr. Gilder’s genius. His poetic individuality is well marked, though subtle; and it possesses several phrases, each of which is exemplified in the present volume.

Mr. Gilder’s love-lyrics are passionate without being what amorous has come to mean; they are both virile and tender; they sing themselves with an exquisite and spontaneous music. Such a lyric is "I care not if the skies are white." His patriotic songs are full of strong movement, solidity, vitality. These qualities are combined with a perfectly satisfying, every-way adequate craftsmanship, in the resonant lyric on "Sherman." They are found, not less unmistakably, but perhaps in less perfect fusion, in the restrained and stately "Sheridan" ode, with its faint reminiscence of Marvell; and in the fervent, large-moulded, but somewhat uneven "Pro Patria." Both the love poems and the patriotic poems, however, are distinguished from those of other accredited singers by what I may call a devotional quality, a peculiar spirituality, a pervading mood of mingled reverence and enthusiasm. This mood,—or this quality, whichever it may be termed—finds its most complete expression in a number of meditative poems, which, though they do not seem to have caught, as yet, the full attention of men, constitute, I think, Mr. Gilder’s sufficient and enduring claim to mastership in song. The key-note to these poems I am disposed to find in a line from the "Ode," read before the Society of the Phi Beta Kappa of Harvard:

"Divine! divine! Oh, breathe no earthlier
       word!"

To say this may seem like fanciful and far-fetched criticism; but I cannot help feeling that the suggestion will be not without lucidity for some readers. The note is one of contemplative thought warmed by emotional ecstacy. The combination is perfect; and its effect is to differentiate Mr. Gilder’s mood clearly from the meditative vision of Wordsworth and the ecstatic vision of Shelley—to both of which it is somewhat akin. Such poems as "Sanctum Sanctorum," "A Midsummer Meditation," "Non Sine Dolore," "To-night the Music Doth a Burden Bear," and the superb Phi Beta Kappa "Ode," already referred to, are sufficient to establish a poet’s reputation; and reinforced as they are by a number of equally noble, significant and distinctive poems in earlier volumes,—"An Autumn Meditation," for instance, and "Beyond the Branches of the Pine," "I am the Spirit of the Morning Lea," with those imperishable sonnets, "The Celestial Passion" and "Undying Light,"—they constitute a body of song which is not only true art, but, in a measure, great art.

There is much of Mr. Gilder’s work not included in this hasty classification—and it is purposely omitted as being, in my opinion, less plainly stamped with Mr. Gilder’s private seal than are the three classes of poems above referred to. There are poems of striking beauty, such as "Great Nature is an Army Gay," which owe not a little of their charm to the influence of Emerson. There are pieces of vigorous and suggestive analysis, such as "The Prisoner’s Thought," which irresistibly recall the method of Browning. All such poems, with those earlier ones which savor of Keats or Rosetti, though too beautiful in themselves to be ignored, do not seem to call for special notice. They are what other poets might have written. They lack Mr. Gilder’s essential quality. What that quality is may best be gathered from the following sonnet:—

"O, white and midnight sky, O starry bath,
       Wash me in thy pure, heavenly, crystal flood;
Cleanse me, ye stars, from earthy soil and scath—
      Let not one taint remain in spirit of blood!
Receive my soul, ye burning, awful deeps;
      Touch and baptize me with the mighty power
That in ye thrills, while the dark planet sleeps;
       Make me all yours for one blest, secret hour!
O glittering host, O high angelic choir,
       Silence each tone that with thy music jars;
Fill me even as an urn with thy white fire
       Till all I am is kindred to the stars!
Make me thy child, thou infinite, holy night,
So shall my days be full of heavenly light."

THE SAVOUR OF THE SOIL.

It is patriotic and altogether seemly that we should expect Canadian literature to savour of the soil from which it springs. But there is peril in formulating the expectation, which may be to the Jews of uncompromising localism a stumbling block, and to the Greeks of highly superior cosmopolitanism foolishness. Yet the demand is nothing more than a demand for sincerity and sympathy. It means that we desire our literature to be genuine and original, not artificial and imitative. It is not desirable, as some would have it to be, that Canadian literature should concern itself exclusively with scenes and themes Canadian; yet this is the interpretation sure to be put upon the demand, both by the advocates of a narrow localism, who read into it much more than it is intended to claim, and by those on the other hand who affect so cosmopolitan a breadth of view as to be superior to the emotions of patriotism. It is an ignorant folly that would restrict a writer to his own surroundings in his choice of scene and theme. It is an emasculated folly that fancies patriotism obsolete, or reckons on dispensing with the native spirit. Of the two follies the later is the more urbane, but the former is the more easily condoned, being the nearer akin to wisdom.

For the purposes of artistic creation, one may be counted native to that soil which has nourished his childhood and youth. Without doubt some obscure but inexorable laws of heredity will determine the cast of spirit in which a man will receive the impressions of soil and clime, landscape, legend and human example, which throng in upon him during his formative years. Without doubt, too, prenated influences will make themselves obeyed. But whether a man be born in the Orkneys or the Channel Islands, by the Liffey, by the Loire, or by the Rhine, he may be considered native to that soil which feeds and fosters his growth. It is in the morning of life that our senses are most alert, and ceaselessly diligent. Upon the impressions which our senses gather in during childhood our imagination nourishes itself. It takes the colour of that it feeds on. At the same time it is hoarding up a store of material on which to exercise, later, the more conscious and deliberate faculties.

In imaginative creation, whether dealing with words or with colours, the impulse comes from present emotion, but the material, chiefly, from emotion remembered. The impressions we receive in childhood are remembered with the most living freshness and force. The memoirs of youth seem to lie in a perpetual stream of white light. They stand out with their edges sharp. Though the poet,—and here I use the word in its widest significance,—though the poet range creation for his subject, he is bound by the terms of his endowment, if it be an authentic endowment, to come home for the vital material with which to body forth his subject. He may restrict himself rigidly to native themes, and attain supreme excellence; but the native savour is not dependent upon the autochthonous character of the theme. On the other hand, supreme excellence is hardly to be attained, however broad one be in choice of subject, if finished work be found wanting in this native savour. If the native savour be not there, it is because sincerity or sympathy is lacking,— and either lack is fatal to the highest excellence. Though one seek his theme in heaven or in hell, he cannot escape the tincture of his own individuality; and that individuality is much the product of the soil upon which it took shape. If he have no individuality, of course it is quite another matter; but in such a case his work is hardly to be considered in a discussion of serious art. To bring the point home, our writers may take subjects from Canadian story, and scenes from Canadian landscape, yet miss, for reasons inherent in themselves, the savour of the soil, which is the salt to keep one’s product from decay. Others, again, may concern themselves little about the birthplace of their theme, yet breathe in every line the flavour of Canadian fields. Their atmosphere, their colouring, their undertone, their reminiscence,—all this is native, though, perhaps, unconsciously so. It is, perhaps, what one does unconsciously, while busied in conscious performance, that most truly declares his personality and counts most in the final estimate of his worth. Being Canadians, we may be considered to have a preference, other things being equal, for Canadian themes; but being artists, it may be expected of us not to narrow our art by too rigid a localism in choice of subject. Dante is not less Italian, Milton not less English, because the themes and scenes of their greatest works are somewhat remote from Italy and England. Wheresoever their imaginations wander, they carry with them the savour of the soil. And

"What these strong masters wrote at large in miles,
We follow in small copy in our acre."

PHILLIPS STEWART.

In 1887 there appeared in London a slender volume entitled "Poems, by Phillips Stewart." Being the maiden effort of a very young colonial, it passed almost unnoticed in England; and having been both issued and ignored in England, it attracted but scant attention in Canada. A few here welcomed the unobtrusive volume, for love of its author; a few, also, because they were discriminating enough to see that in its pages spoke a rare and exquisite talent. But the young poet—he was only twenty-three—had little skill in putting himself before the public. The public knew not, and the press cared not, and no great periodical took his reputation into its keeping. His friends, even, appeared content to enjoy their admiration in quiet, and never roused themselves to anything like a proselytizing zeal. Hence it came that during these last half-dozen years, when there has been on all sides amongst us much talk of Canadian literature, there has been heard but seldom the name of Phillips Stewart. Yet the name is one of our distinctions.

It is possible that the neglect in which his volume was suffered to lie was not a matter of great regret to the poet. He was keenly alive to its defects. His taste was pure, and the standard of excellence which he set himself was not easy of attainment. His ambitions aimed high. After the appearance of this volume he devoted himself to study and self-culture, and diligently prepared himself for stronger and more sustained enterprise. But now we are precluded from considering the promise of the slender volume of first-fruits, because it has become his final achievement. On the second day of February last,—just two days before the going of that other whose death I cannot but count my country‘s loss as well as my own,—died Phillips Stewart, in Toronto, at the age of twenty-seven.

It goes without saying that a book like the one before us must be expected to show much that is crude, much that is imitative. It is not hard to trace at times, the influence of Keats, of Wordsworth, of Matthew Arnold. But when reasonable deduction is made for the defects of immaturity, of a genius yet in process of ferment, there remains a body of work of enduring quality and of bulk enough, I think, to withstand the shocks of time. This may seem like saying a great deal, but I do not think it is an overstatement. Whensoever Phillips Stewart found adequate expression, the result is what is known as poets’ poetry. It is the stuff that the few will always love, though it is little likely to excite a widespread interest.

The dominant note of Phillips Stewart‘s work is one of profound but equable sadness. The contemplation of death supplies him with his most creative impulse. There is a certain affectation of gloom, a grimly fantastic melancholy, common enough in the work of very young poets. This sort is easily recognized; but not of this sort is the melancholy of Phillips Stewart. In the mood in which he looked on death there is nothing firm or fantastic. The mood is one of absolute sincerity. The treatment is transparent, restrained, deliberate and simple. The plangent undertone of personal sorrow is held rigidly subservient to the requirements of conscientious art. Such an attitude in one barely beyond his teens would be inexplicable did we not know how Death had made him his familiar. There is little room for affectation in the grief of an only son who loses both father and mother at an age when he is best able to feel the anguish and the loss. In the severe form, direct fidelity of expression, and temperate use of detail, of the poem called "Alone," the pathos of the situation is conveyed with poignant effect. The wonder is that song deriving from so bitter sources should flow in so sweet and clear a stream, so little soiled by the taint of morbid emotion.

A purely personal sorrow, it seems to me, has rarely been given a more imaginative expansion than in the following lines:—

"I suffer now
"As did dead worlds in ages long ago,
"And souls that peopled many a fabled land—
"All felt the heart-ache, fear and woe,
"And dreary thoughts of a strange destiny.—"

A poet does not often, in his first volume, succeed in saying many memorable things; but the book before us if full of such striking utterances as:—

"Life is a pallid student at his books

"Who falls asleep beside the midnight lamp"

and—

"Time is the reverent gaze on marble eyes."

and—

"Death is the power of life without the pain."

and—

                                                   "O God, how little do
We cling to what we have, how much to dreams!"

and this of melancholy—

"How precious all things grow beneath thy smile!
"   *   *   *   The lotus and the poppy have
"Thee in their dreamy veins, thine image dwells
"For ever in the jewelled wine; thou art
"The hungry beauty of Love‘s crescent eyes,
"The tremour of white hands;    *   *   *   "

But the supreme excellence of Phillips Stewart is his style. Here and there he attained that indescribable and intangible charm of speech by which the ear is perpetually enamoured. How simple and unstrained is this, how perfectly wedded to the lucid and clean-cut conception! And there is a subtle cadence in it that forbids the ear to let it go.

                                         "I hear the wondrous lyre
"Of the blind bard, and see the Grecian throng
"About Troy’s lofty walls, and Hector slain,
"The white, stained face and blackened crest,
"And great Achilles crumbling on his pyre.
"Then comes Ulysses sighing for his home
"Afar, leaving the ruins of old Troy
"For Ithaca, where oft, a glad-faced boy,
"He played amid the ripening vines, and heard
"His father‘s voice ere he began to roam
"The weary waves. His heart is stirred
"With thoughts of home, and son, and wife,
"And ever Circe holds him in her arms."

This is genuinely classical, not by reason of its subject, but by reason of the clear objectivity of its handling. Purity and precision like this, with so vital a lyric impulse behind it, is rare, indeed, in our literature. Unlike in every way, save in the possession of that incommunicable quality which so evades analysis, is the following bit of gothic fantasy:—

"In shadowy calm the boat
  Sleeps by the dreaming oar;
The green hills are afloat
  Beside the silver shore.

Youth hoists the white-winged sail,
  Love takes the longing oar—
The oft-told fairy tale
  Beside the silver shore.

Soft lip to lip, and heart
  To heart, and hand to hand,
And wistful eyes, depart
  Unto another strand.

And lovely as a star
  They tremble o’er the wave,
With eager wings afar
  Unto the joys they crave.

In a sweet trance they fare
  Unto the wind and rain,
With wind-tossed waves of hair,
  And ne’er return again.

And at the drifting side
  Changed faces in the deep
They see, and changing tide,
  Like phantoms in a sleep.

Slow hands furl the torn sail
  Without one silver gleam,
And sad, and wan and pale,
  They gaze into a dream."

Unquestionably this is far from obvious. It is anything but precise. It is daringly romantic. Its outlines shift so loosely that to many readers it will doubtless seem quite meaningless,—to many readers whose love for poetry is not only warm but wise. To others, however, of a somewhat different temperament, it will appeal irresistibly,—in some fashion as Morris‘s poem of "The Blue Closet" appeals. It has a perfect unity of impression; and its indescribable magic of suggestion and of cadence makes it one of those poems which are the ceaseless despair and delight of other poets. In a success of this kind there is surely a select and very enviable immortality.

 


"Modern Instances," Dominion Illustrated NS 1:1, February 1892, 54-56; NS 1:3, April 1892, 190-92; NS 1:4, May 1892, 251-53 [back]