Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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


 

THE WORLD OF BOOKS: The Poems of Graham B Tomson*


 

The Bird Bride, by Graham B. Tomson.  London and New York: Longmans, Green & Co.

 

Some years ago, when to the casual eye it may have seemed that English poetry was dwindling to a more melodious jingle of intricate measures, Matthew Arnold declared that "The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay.  There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve.  Our religion has materialized itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it.  But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion.  Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact.  The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry."

In view of the slightness of so much of our modern verse, its lack of high seriousness, its childish satisfaction in verbal gymnastics and nimble conceits, its repudiation of all claim to lofty functions or sufficing ideals, it is not strange that Arnold's dictum has been rather generally accounted a hard saying.  Too many of our poets, when we have gone to them for bread, have languidly tendered us a triolet, or at best some ingenious but irrelevant transcript of a tale thrice told; whereupon we have begun with shame to betake ourselves to the seat of the Ibsenites.  Notwithstanding the deep truth which is more or less concealed in the shibboleth of "Art for Art's sake," there is no other cry that has proved more effective in reducing creative art to mere formalism and alienating from it the sympathies of men.

In the poetry of our immediate contemporaries, however, there is a new and encouraging note,—the note sounded by the leaders of what may be called the Romantic Revival.  Of these Mr. William Sharp is the accredited chief.  Prominent among the very few who are doing work of a like significance and seriousness, is the lady who writes under the pseudonym of Graham R. Tomson.  The work before me is her first collected volume.  Though small in bulk, it is large in import, both intrinsically and as a typical expression of the movement to which it belongs.  The typical character of the collection is greatly heightened by the fact that in these very pages may be traced the transition from dilettantism to romantic seriousness.  At the end of the volume there are a few experiments in French forms,—ballades, villanelles, triolets—most of them slight enough though delicate and charming in their workmanship; but here and there in these airy trifles we catch a hint of the stronger spirit whose impulse dominates the rest of the singer's utterance.

In a brief note like this one cannot attempt to trace out the lines of development on which the Romantic Revival may be expected to proceed.  My present object is merely to call the attention of readers to the movement, and incidentally to certain of its characteristics as exemplified in the volume before me.  Prominent among these is a sensitiveness to spiritual influences, a consciousness of what we rather loosely call the supernatural.  This is evinced in a fondness for handling weird themes built, in a fashion of subtle suggestiveness, from old superstitions and folk-myths.  Admirable examples from the present volume are the impressive ballads of "Pentyre Town," "The Bird-Bride," (recalling Arnold's "Forsaken Merman,") "Deid Folks Ferry," "The Fairies' Cobbler."  These poems are fresh with a breath from the Juventus Mundi, when we were all children, and wonder-eyed.

A second characteristic, of profounder importance than the first, is what I may term the human note—well instanced in the following lines of exquisite and abiding beauty:

A WAYSIDE CALVARY.

The carven Christ hangs gaunt and grim
     Beneath his blue Picardian skies,
And piteous, perchance, to him
     Seems every man that lives and dies.
     Here, hid from hate of alien eyes,
Two hundred Prussians sleep, they say,
     Beneath the cross whose shadow lies
Athwart the road to Catelet.

'Mid foes they slumber unafraid,
     Made whole by Death, the cunning leech,
Anear the long white roadway laid
     By his cold arms, beyond all reach
     Of [text illegible] pangs or stranger's speech:
Of curse of blessing naught reck they,
     Of snows that hide or suns that bleach
The dusty road to Catelet.

Of garlands laid or blossoms spread
     The Prussians' sun-scorched mound lies bare;
But thin grass creeps above the dead,
     And pallid poppies flutter fair,
     And fling their drowsy treasures there
Beneath the symbol, stark and grey,
     That hath the strangers in its care
Beside the road to Catelet.

The third characteristic to which I would call attention is a note of pessimism—a note not sounded universally in the new poetry, yet unquestionably present in some of the very best of it.  But it is not the cynical, self-satisfied, deadly pessimism of satiety or exhaustion, but the fruitful pessimism which so often marks a long advance in the striving after an adequately based Ideal.  It is a pessimism groping on the verge of the highest insight, even when its gloom may seem most void of light.  The high endurance without hope, the patience of the Stoics, is in the majestic lines entitled "The Smile of All Wisdom."  Yet more pregnant is the pessimism of the "Hymn of Labour," of which I quote a few lines:

Strive for the strife's sake only, smite not foeman nor friend—
Strive for the strife's sake only, set no shrine for an end;
Set no goal for the winning, no bright bourne for the scope;
Ask no guardian of praise, and hope thou nothing from Hope,
If, after in the sunrise, white wings flash and are fled,
Lift not thy hand from the toiling, turn not aside thine head.

The skepticism which, baffled in its quest, turns its passionate sincerity to action and self-sacrificing devotion, is not far from the apprehension of an Ideal.  So true is it that Laborare est orare.

 


"The World of Books: The Poems of Graham B Tomson," Progress 2:88 (Saint John, N.B.), 4 January 1890, 6 [back]