In a fair and far-off country, hidden to none, though visited by few, dwell a little band of lovely ladies, to whose youth and radiance the poets have added the crowning gift of immortality. There they live, with faint alluring smiles that never fade; and at their head is Helen of Troy, white-bosomed, azure-eyed, to whom men forgave all things for her beauty's sake. There, too, is Lesbia, fair and false, laughing at a broken heart, but holding close and tenderly the dead sparrow
"That, living, never strayed from her sweet breast."
She kisses its ruffled wings and weeps, she who had no tears to spare when Catullus sung and sued. And there is Myrto, beloved by Theocritus, her naked feet gleaming like pearls, a bunch of Coan rushes pressed in her rosy fingers; and the nameless girl who held in check Anacreon's wandering heart with the magic of dimples, and parted lips, and thin purple floating garments. With these are later beauties: Fiammetta the ruddy-haired, whom death snatched from Boccaccio's arms, and the gentle Catarina, raising those heavy-lidded eyes that Camoens loved and lost; Petrarch's Laura, robed in pale green spotted with violets, one golden curl escaping wantonly beneath her veil; the fair blue-stocking, Leonora d'Este, pale as a rain-washed rose, her dress in sweet disorder; and Beatrice, with the stillness of eternity in her brooding eyes. If we listen, we hear the shrill laughter of Mignonne, a child of fifteen summers, mocking at Ronsard's wooing; or we catch the gentler murmur of Highland Mary's song. She blushes a little, the low-born lass, and sinks her graceful head, as though abashed by the fame her peasant lover brought her. Barefooted, yellow-haired, she passes swiftly by; and with her, hand in hand, walks Scotland's queen, sad Jane Beaufort, "the fairest younge floure" that ever won the heart of royal captive and suffered the martyrdom of love. England sends to that far land Stella, with eyes like stars, and a veil of gossamer hiding her delicate beauty, and Celia, and false Lucasta, and Castara, tantalizingly discreet, in whose dimples Cupid is fain to linger sighing, exiled, poor frozen god, from the
"Chaste nunnery of her breasts."
Sacharissa, too, stands near, with a shade of listlessness in her sweet eyes, as though she wearied a little of Master Waller's courtly strains. A withered rose droops from her white fingers, preaching its mute sermon, and preaching it all in vain; for rose and lady live forever, linked to each other's fame. And by her side, casting her fragile loveliness in the shade, is one of different mould, a sumptuous, smiling woman, on whom Sacharissa's blue eyes fall with a soft disdain. We know this indolent beauty by the brave vibration of her tempestuous silken robe, by the ruby carcanet that clasps her throat, the rainbow ribbon around her slender waist, the jewels wedged knuckle-deep on every tapering finger, and even—oh, vanity of vanities!—on one small rosy thumb. We know her by the scented beads upon her arm, and by the sweet and subtle odors of storax and spikenard and galbanum that breathe softly forth from her brocaded bodice, and from her hair's dark meshes caught in a golden net. It is she to whom the glow-worms lent their eyes, and the elves their wings, and the stars their shooting fires, as she wandered through the dewy woods to meet her lover's steps. It is Herrick's Julia whom we see so clearly through the mist of centuries, that cannot veil nor dim the brightness of her presence.
To ask how many of these fair dames have gone through the formality of living, and how many exist only by the might of a poet's breath, is but a thankless question. All share alike in that true being which may not be blown out like the flame of a taper; in that true entity which Cæsar and Hamlet hold in common, and which reveals them side by side. Mr. Gosse, for example, assures us that Julia really walked the earth, and even gives us some details of her mundane pilgrimage; other critics smile, and shake their heads, and doubt. It matters not; she lives, and she will continue to live when we who dispute the matter lie voiceless in our graves. The essence of her personality lingers on every page where Herrick sings of her. His verse is heavy with her spicy perfumes, glittering with her many-colored jewels, lustrous with the shimmer of her silken petticoats. Her very shadow, he sighs, distills sweet odors on the air, and draws him after her, faint with their amorous languor. How lavish she is with her charms, this woman who neither thinks nor suffers; who prays, indeed, sometimes, with great serenity, and dips her snowy finger in the font of blessed water, but whose spiritual humors pale before the calm vigor of her earthly nature! How kindly, how tranquil, how unmoved, she is; listening with the same slow smile to her lover's fantastic word-play, to the fervid conceits with which he beguiles the summer idleness, and to the frank and sudden passion with which he conjures her, "dearest of thousands," to close his eyes when death shall summon him, to shed some true tears above the sod, to clasp forever the book in which he writes her name! How gently she would have fulfilled these last sad duties had the discriminating fates called her to his bier; how fragrant the sighs she would have wafted in that darkened chamber; how sincere the temperate sorrow for a remediable loss! And then, out into the glowing sunlight, where life is sweet, and the world exults, and the warm blood tingles in our veins, and, underneath the scattered primrose blossoms, the frozen dead lie forgotten in their graves.
What gives to the old love-songs their peculiar felicity, their undecaying brightness, is this constant sounding of a personal note; this artless candor with which we are taken by the hand and led straight into the lady's presence, are bidden to admire her beauty and her wit, are freely reminded of her faults and her caprices, and are taught, with many a sigh and tear, and laughter bubbling throughout all, what a delicious and unprofitable pastime is the love-making of a poet.
"I lose but what was never mine,"
sings Carew with gay philosophy, contemplating the perfidious withdrawal of Celia's kindness; and after worshiping hotly at her shrine, and calling on all the winds of heaven to witness his desires, he accepts his defeat with undimmed brow, and with melodious frankness returns the false one her disdain:—
"No tears, Celia, now shall win
My resolved heart to return;
I have searched thy soul within,
And find naught but pride and scorn.
I have learned thy arts, and now
Can disdain as much as thou."
From which heroic altitude we see him presently descending to protest with smiling lips that love shall part with his arrows and the doves of Venus with their pretty wings, that the sun shall fade and the stars fall blinking from the skies, that heaven shall lose its delights and hell its torments, that the very fish shall burn in the cool waters of the ocean, if he forsakes or neglects his Celia's embraces.
It was Carew, indeed, who first sounded these "courtly amorous strains" throughout the English land; who first taught his fellow-poets that to sing of love was not the occasional pastime, but the serious occupation of their lives. Yet what an easy, indolent suitor he is! What lazy raptures over Celia's eyes and lips! What finely poised compliments, delicate as rose leaves, and well fitted for the inconstant beauty who listened, with faint blushes and transient interest, to the song! "He loved wine and roses," says Mr. Gosse, "and fair florid women, to whom he could indite joyous or pensive poems about their comeliness, adoring it while it lasted, regretting it when it faded. He has not the same intimate love of detail as Herrick; we miss in his poetry those realistic touches that give such wonderful freshness to the verses of the younger poet; but the habit of the two men's minds was very similar. Both were pagans, and given up to an innocent hedonism; neither was concerned with much beyond the eternal commonplaces of bodily existence, the attraction of beauty, the mutability of life, the brevity and sweetness of enjoyment."
These things are quite enough, however, to make exceedingly good poets, Mrs. Browning to the contrary, notwithstanding. "I never mistook pleasure for the final cause of poetry, nor leisure for the hour of the poet," wrote the authoress of "Aurora Leigh," and we quail before the deadly earnestness of the avowal. But pleasure and leisure between them have begotten work far more complete and artistic than anything Mrs. Browning ever gave to an admiring world. Pleasure and leisure are responsible for "L' Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," for "Kubla Khan" and "The Eve of St. Agnes," for "Tam O'Shanter," and "A Dream of Fair Women," and "The Bells." There is so much talk about Herrick's paganism that it has become one of the things we credit without inquiry; shrugging our shoulders over Corinna and her May blossoms, and passing by that devout prayer of thanksgiving for the simple blessings of life, for the loaf and the cup, the winter hearthstone and the summer sun. There is such a widely diffused belief in the necessity for a serious and urgent motive in art that we have grown to think less of the outward construction of a poem than of the dominant impulse which evoked it. Mrs. Browning, with all her noble idealism and her profound sense of responsibility, was most depressingly indifferent about form, and was quite a law to herself in the matter of rhymes. Carew, whose avowed object was to flatter Celia and Celia's fair rivals, proved himself "enamored of perfection," and wrought with infinite care and delicacy upon his fragile little verses. If he only played at love-making, he was serious enough as a poet; and, amid the careless exuberance of his time, he came to be regarded, like Flaubert some generations later, as a veritable martyr to style. He brought forth his lyrical children, complained Sir John Suckling, with trouble and pain, instead of with that light-hearted spontaneity which distinguished his contemporaries, and which made their poetry so deliciously easy to write, and so generally unprofitable to read. Suckling himself, and Lovelace, and the host of courtly writers who toyed so gracefully and so joyously with their art, ignored for the most part all severity of workmanship, and made it their especial pride to compose with gentlemanly ease. The result may be seen in a mass of half-forgotten rubbish, and in a few incomparable songs, which are as fresh and lovely to-day as when they first rang the praises of Lucasta, or the fair Althea, or Chloris, the favorite daughter of wanton Aphrodite. They are the models for all love-songs and for all time, and, in their delicate beauty, they endure like fragile pieces of porcelain, to prove how light a thing can bear the weight of immortality. We cannot surpass them, we cannot steal their vivacious grace, we cannot feel ourselves first in a field where such delicious and unapproachable things have been already whispered.
"Ah! frustrés par les anciens hommes,
Nous sentons le regret jaloux,
Qu'ils aient été ce que nous sommes,
Qu'ils aient eu nos cœurs avant nous."
The best love-poems of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries amply fulfill the requirements suggested by Southey: their sentiment is always "necessary, and voluptuous, and right." They are no "made-dishes at the Muses' banquet," but each one appears as the embodiment of a passing emotion. In those three faultless little verses "Going to the Wars," a single thought is presented us,—regretful love made heroic by the loyal farewell of the soldier suitor:
"Tell me not, sweet, I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I flee.
"True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field,
And, with a stronger faith, embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.
"Yet this inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore,—
I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not honour more."
In the still more beautiful lines, "To Althea from Prison," passion, made dignified by suffering, rewards with lavish hand the captive, happy with his chains:—
"If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty."
In both poems there is a tempered delicacy, revealing the finer grain of that impetuous soul which wrecked itself so harshly in the stormy waters of life. Whether we think of Lovelace as the spoiled darling of a voluptuous court, or as dying of want in a cellar; whether we picture him as sighing at the feet of beauty, or as fighting stoutly for his country and his king; whether he is winning all hearts by the resistless charms of voice and presence, or returning broken from battle to suffer the bitterness of poverty and desertion, we know that in his two famous lyrics we possess the real and perfect fruit, the golden harvest, of that troubled and many-sided existence. A still smaller gleaning comes to us from Sir Charles Sedley, who, for two hundred years, has been preserved from oblivion by a little wanton verse about Phillis, full of such good-natured contentment and disbelief that we grow young and cheerful again in contemplating it. Should any long-suffering reader desire to taste the sweets of sudden contrast and of sharp reaction, let him turn from the strenuous, analytic, half-caustic, and wholly discomforting love-poem of the nineteenth century—Mr. Browning's word-picture of "A Pretty Woman," for example—back to those swinging and jocund lines where Phillis,
"Faithless as the winds or seas,"
smiles furtively upon her suitor, whose clear-sightedness avails him nothing, and who plays the game merrily to the end:—
What need lovers wish for more?"
We who read are very far from wishing for anything more. With the Ettrick Shepherd, we are fain to remember that old tunes, and old songs, and well-worn fancies are best fitted for so simple and so ancient a theme:—
"A' the world has been in love at ae time or ither o' its life, and kens best hoo to express its ain passion. What see you ever in love-sangs that 's at a' new? Never ae single word. It 's just the same thing over again, like a vernal shower patterin' amang the buddin' words. But let the lines come sweetly, and saftly, and a wee wildly too, frae the lips of Genius, and they shall delight a' mankind, and womankind too, without ever wearyin' them, whether they be said or sung. But try to be original, to keep aff a' that ever has been said afore, for fear o' plagiarism, or in ambition o' originality, and your poem 'ill be like a bit o' ice that you hae taken into your mouth unawares for a lump o' white sugar."
Burns's unrivaled songs come the nearest, perhaps, to realizing this charming bit of description; and the Shepherd, anticipating Schopenhauer's philosophy of love, is quite as prompt as Burns to declare its promise sweeter than its fulfillment:—
"Love is a soft, bright, balmy, tender, triumphant, and glorious lie, in place of which nature offers us in mockery, during a' the rest o' our lives, the puir, paltry, pitiful, fusionless, faded, cauldrified, and chittering substitute, Truth!"
This is not precisely the way in which we suffer ourselves nowadays to talk about truth, but a few generations back, people still cherished a healthy predilection for the comfortable delusions of life. Mingling with the music of the sweet old love-songs, lurking amid their passionate protestations, there is always a subtle sense of insecurity, a good-humored desire to enjoy the present, and not peer too closely into the perilous uncertainties of the future. Their very exaggerations, the quaint and extravagant conceits which offend our more exacting taste, are part of this general determination to be wisely blind to the ill-bred obtrusiveness of facts. Accordingly there is no staying the hand of an Elizabethan poet, or of his successor under the Restoration, when either undertakes to sing his lady's praises. Sun, moon, and skies bend down to do her homage, and to acknowledge their own comparative dimness.
"Stars, indeed, fair creatures be,"
admits Wither indulgently, and pearls and rubies are not without their merits; but when the beauty of Arete dawns upon him, all things else seem dull and vapid by her side. Nay, his poetry, even, is born of her complaisance, his talents are fostered by her smiles, he gains distinction only as her favor may permit.
"I no skill in numbers had,
More than every shepherd's lad,
Till she taught me strains that were
Pleasing to her gentle ear.
Her fair splendour and her worth
From obscureness drew me forth.
And, because I had no muse,
She herself deigned to infuse
All the skill by which I climb
To these praises in my rhyme."
Donne, the most ardent of lovers and the most crabbed of poets, who united a great devotion to his fond and faithful wife with a remarkably poor opinion of her sex in general, pushed his adulations to the extreme verge of absurdity. We find him writing to a lady sick of a fever that she cannot die because all creation would perish with her,—
"The whole world vapours in thy breath."
After which ebullition, it is hardly a matter of surprise to know that he considered females in the light of creatures whom it had pleased Providence to make fools.
"Hope not for mind in women!"
is his warning cry; at their best, a little sweetness and a little wit form all their earthly portion. Yet the note of true passion struck by Donne in those glowing addresses, those dejected farewells to his wife, echoes like a cry of rapture and of pain out of the stillness of the past. Her sorrow at the parting rends his heart; if she but sighs, she sighs his soul away.
"When thou weep'st, unkindly kind,
My life's blood doth decay.
It cannot be
That thou lov'st me, as thou say'st,
If in thine my life thou waste;
Thou art the life of me."
Again, in that strange poem "A Valediction of Weeping," he finds her tears more than he can endure; and, with the fond exaggeration of a lover, he entreats forbearance in her grief:—
"O more than moon,
Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere;
Weep me not dead in thine arms, but forbear
To teach the sea what it may do too soon.
Let not the wind example find
To do me more harm than it purposeth;
Since thou and I sigh one another's breath,
Whoe'er sighs most is cruellest, and hastes the other's death."
There is a lingering sweetness in these lines, for all their manifest unwisdom, that is surpassed only by a pathetic sonnet of Drayton's, where the pain of parting, bravely borne at first, grows suddenly too sharp for sufferance, and the lover's pride breaks and melts into the passion of a last appeal:—
"Since there 's no helpe,—come, let us kisse and parte.
Nay, I have done,—you get no more of me;
And I am glad,—yea, glad with all my hearte,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands forever!—cancel all our vows;
And when we meet at any time againe,
Be it not seene in either of our brows,
That we one jot of former love retaine.
"Now—at the last gaspe of Love's latest breath—
When, his pulse failing, passion speechless lies;
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes,
Now! if thou would'st—when all have given him over—
From death to life thou might'st him yet recover."
Here, at least, we have grace of sentiment and beauty of form combined to make a perfect whole. It seems strange indeed that Mr. Saintsbury, who gives such generous praise to Drayton's patriotic poems, his legends, his epistles, even his prose prefaces, should have no single word to spare for this most tender and musical of leave-takings.
As for the capricious humors and overwrought imagery which disfigure so many of the early love-songs, they have received their full allotment of censure, and have provoked the scornful mirth of critics too staid or too sensitive to be tolerant. We hear more of them, sometimes, than of the merits which should win them forgiveness. Lodge, dazzled by Rosalynde's beauty, is ill disposed to pass lightly over the catalogue of her charms. Her lips are compared to budded roses, her teeth to ranks of lilies; her eyes are
"sapphires set in snow,
Refining heaven by every wink,"
her cheeks are blushing clouds, and her neck is a stately tower where the god of love lies captive. All things in nature contribute to her excellence:—
"With Orient pearl, with ruby red,
With marble white, with sapphire blue,
Her body every way is fed,
Yet soft to touch, and sweet in view."
But when this fair representative of all flowers and gems, "smiling to herself to think of her new entertained passion," lifts up the music of her voice in that enchanting madrigal,—
"Love in my bosom, like a bee,
Doth suck his sweet;
Now with his wings he plays with me,
Now with his feet,"—
we know her at once for the kinswoman and precursor of another and dearer Rosalind, who, with boyish swagger and tell-tale grace,
"like a ripe sister,"
gathers from the trees of Arden the first fruits of Orlando's love. It was Lodge who pointed the way to that enchanted forest, where exiles and rustics waste the jocund hours, where toil and care are alike forgotten, where amorous verse-making represents the serious occupation of life, and where the thrice fortunate Jaques can afford to dally with melancholy for lack of any cankering sorrow at his heart.
William Habbington, who sings to us with such monotonous sweetness of Castara's innocent joys, surpasses Lodge alike in the charm of his descriptions and in the extravagance of his follies. In reading him we are sharply reminded of Klopstock's warning, that "a man should speak of his wife as seldom and with as much modesty as of himself;" for Habbington, who glories in the fairness and the chastity of his spouse, becomes unduly boastful now and then in vaunting these perfections to the world. He, at least, being safely married to Castara, feels none of that haunting insecurity which disturbs his fellow-poets.
"All her vows religious be,
And her love she vows to me,"
he says complacently, and then stops to assure us in plain prose that she is "so unvitiated by conversation with the world that the subtle-minded of her sex would deem it ignorance." Even to her husband-lover she is "thrifty of a kiss," and in the marble coldness and purity of her breast his glowing roses find a chilly sepulchre. Cupid, perishing, it would seem, from a mere description of her merits, or, as Habbington singularly expresses it,—
"But if you, when this you hear,
Fall down murdered through your ear,"
is, by way of compensation, decently interred in the dimpled cheek which has so often been his lurking-place. Lilies and roses and violets exhale their odors around him, a beauteous sheet of lawn is drawn up over his cold little body, and all who see the "perfumed hearse"—presumably the dimple—envy the dead god, blest in his repose. This is as bad in its way as Lovelace's famous lines on "Ellinda's Glove," where that modest article of dress is compelled to represent in turn a snow-white farm with five tenements, whose fair mistress has deserted them, an ermine cabinet too small and delicate for any occupant but its own, and a fiddle-case without its fine-tuned instrument. Dr. Thomas Campion, who, after rhyming delightfully all his life, was pleased to write a treatise against that "vulgar and artificial custom," compares his lady's face, in one musical little song, to a fertile garden, and her lips to ripe cherries, which none may buy or steal because her eyes, like twin angels, have them in keeping, and her brows, like bended bows, defend such treasures from the crowd.
"Those cherries fairly do enclose
Of Orient pearl a double row,
Which, when her lovely laughter shows,
They look like rose-buds filled with snow;
Yet them nor peer nor prince can buy,
Till 'Cherry ripe' themselves do cry."
This dazzling array of mixed metaphors with which the early poets love to bewilder us, and the whimsical conceits which must have cost them many laborious hours, have at least one redeeming merit: they are for the most part illustrative of the lady's graces, and not of the writer's lacerated heart. They tell us, seldom indeed with Herrick's intimate realism, but with many quaint and suspicious exaggerations, whether the fair one was false or fond, light or dark, serious or flippant, gentle or high-spirited; what fashion of clothes she wore, what jewels and flowers were her adornment: and these are the things we take pleasure in knowing. It is Mr. Gosse's especial grievance against Waller that he does not enlighten us on such points. "We can form," he complains, "but a very vague idea of Lady Dorothy Sidney from the Sacharissa poems; she is everywhere overshadowed by the poet himself. We are told that she can sleep when she pleases, and this inspires a copy of verses; but later on we are told that she can do anything but sleep when she pleases, and this leads to another copy of verses, which leave us exactly where we were when we started." Indeed, those who express surprise at Sacharissa's coldness have perhaps failed to notice the graceful chill of her lover's poems. "Cupid might have clapped him on the shoulder, but we could warrant him heart-whole." For seven years he carried on his languid and courtly suit without once warming to the passion point; and when Lady Dorothy at last made up her mind to marry somebody else, he expressed his cordial acquiescence in her views in a most charming and playful letter to her young sister, Lady Lucy Sidney,—a letter containing just enough well-bred regret to temper its wit and gayety. He had fulfilled his part in singing the praises of his mistress, in preaching to her sweetly through the soft petals of a rose, and in sighing with gentle complacency over the happy girdle which bound her slender waist.
"A narrow compass, and yet there
Dwelt all that 's good, and all that 's fair; Give me but this ribbon bound
Take all the rest the sun goes round."
Here we have the prototype of that other and more familiar cincture which clasped the Miller's Daughter; and it must be admitted that Lord Tennyson's maiden, with her curls, and her jeweled ear-rings, and the necklace rising and falling all day long upon her "balmy bosom," is more suggestive of a court beauty, like the fair Sacharissa, than of a buxom village girl.
The most impersonal, however, of all the poet-lovers is Sir Philip Sidney, who, in the hundred and eight sonnets dedicated to Stella, has managed to tell us absolutely nothing about her. The atmosphere of haunting individuality which gives these sonnets their half-bitter flavor, and which made them a living power in the stormy days of Elizabethan poetry, reveals to us, not Stella, but Astrophel; not Penelope Devereux, but Sidney himself, bruised by regrets and resentful of his fate. They are not by any means passionate love-songs; they are not even sanguine enough to be persuasive; they are steeped throughout in a pungent melancholy, too restless for resignation, too gentle for anger, too manly for vain self-indulgence. In their delicacy and their languor we read the story of that lingering suit which lacked the elation of success and the heart-break of failure. Indeed, Sidney seems never to have been a very ardent lover until the lady was taken away from him and married to Lord Rich, when he bewailed her musically for a couple of years, and then consoled himself with Frances Walsingham, who must have found the sonnets to her rival pleasant reading for her leisure hours. This is the bald history of that poetic passion which made the names of Stella and Astrophel famous in English song, and which stirred the disgust of Horace Walpole, whose appreciation of such tender themes was of a painfully restricted nature. In their thoughtful, introspective, and self-revealing character, Sidney's love-poems bear a closer likeness to the genius of the nineteenth than to that of the sixteenth century. If we want to see the same spirit at work, we have but to take up the fifty sonnets by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, called "The House of Life," wherein the writer's soul is clearly reflected, but no glimpse is vouchsafed us of the woman who has disturbed its depth. Their vague, sweet pathos, their brooding melancholy, their reluctant acceptance of a joyless mood, are all familiar features in the earlier poet. Such verses as those beginning,—
"Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been;
I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell,"
are of the self-same mintage as Sidney's golden coins, only more modern, and perhaps more perfect in form, and a trifle more shadowy in substance. If Sidney shows us but little of Stella, and if that little is, judged by the light of her subsequent career, not very accurately represented, Rossetti far surpasses him in unconscious reticence. He is not unwilling to analyze,—few recent poets are,—but his analysis lays bare only the tumult of his own heart, the lights and shades of his own delicate and sensitive nature.
It was Sidney, however, who first pointed out to women, with clear insistence, the advantage of having poets for lovers, and the promise of immortality thus conferred on them. He entreats them to listen kindly to those who can sing their praises to the world. "For so doing you shall be most fair, most wise, most rich, most everything! You shall feed upon superlatives." Carew, adopting the same tone, and less gallant than Wither, who refers even his own fame to Arete's kindling glances, tells the flaunting Celia very plainly that she owes her dazzling prominence to him alone.
"Know, Celia! since thou art so proud,
'T was I that gave thee thy renown;
Thou hadst in the forgotten crowd
Of common beauties lived unknown,
Had not my verse exhaled thy name,
And with it impt the wings of fame."
What wonder that, under such conditions and with such reminders, a passion for being be-rhymed seized upon all women, from the highest to the lowest, from the marchioness at court to the orange-girl smiling in the theatre!—a passion which ended its fluttering existence in our great-grandmothers' albums. Yet nothing is clearer, when we study these poetic suits, than their very discouraging results. The pleasure that a woman takes in being courted publicly in verse is a very distinct sensation from the pleasure that she expects to take when being courted privately in prose. She is quick to revere genius, but in her secret soul she seldom loves it. Genius, as Hazlitt scornfully remarks, "says such things," and the average woman distrusts "such things," and wonders why the poet will not learn to talk and behave like ordinary people. It hardly needed the crusty shrewdness of Christopher North to point out to us the arrant ill-success with which the Muse has always gone a-wooing. "Making love and making love-verses," he explains, "are two of the most different things in the world, and I doubt if both accomplishments were ever found highly united in the same gifted individual. Inspiration is of little avail either to gods or men in the most interesting affairs of life, those of the earth. The pretty maid who seems to listen kindly
'Kisses the cup, and passes it to the rest,'
and next morning, perhaps, is off before breakfast in a chaise-and-four to Gretna Green, with an aid-de-camp of Wellington, as destitute of imagination as his master." It is the cheerful equanimity with which the older poets anticipated and endured some such finale as this which gives them their precise advantage over their more exacting and self-centred successors.
For what is the distinctive characteristic of the early love-songs, and to what do they owe their profound and penetrating charm? It is that quality of youth which Heine so subtly recognized in Rossini's music, and which, to his world-worn ears, made it sweeter than more reflective and heavily burdened strains. Love was young when Herrick and Carew and Suckling went a-wooing; he has grown now to man's estate, and the burdens of manhood have kept pace with his growing powers. It is no longer, as at the feast of Apollo, a contest for the deftest kiss, but a life-and-death struggle in that grim arena where passion and pain and sorrow contend for mastery.
"Ah! how sweet it is to love!
Ah! how gay is young desire!"
sang Dryden, who, in truth, was neither sweet nor gay in his amorous outpourings, but who merely echoed the familiar sentiments of his youth. That sweetness and gayety of the past still linger, indeed, in some half-forgotten and wholly neglected verses which we have grown too careless or too cultivated to recall. We harden our hearts against such delicious trifling as
"The young May moon is beaming, love,
The glow-worm's lamp is gleaming, love."
We will have none of its pleasant moral,—
"'T is never too late for delight, my dear,"
and we will not even listen when Mr. Saintsbury tells us with sharp impatience that, in turning our backs so coldly upon the poet who enraptured our grandfathers, we are losing a great deal that we can ill afford to spare. The quality of youth is still more distinctly discernible in some of Thomas Beddoes's dazzling little songs, stolen straight from the heart of the sixteenth century, and lustrous with that golden light which set so long ago. It is not in spirit only, nor in sentiment, that this resemblance exists; the words, the imagery, the swaying music, the teeming fancies of the younger poet, mark him as one strayed from another age, and wandering companionless under alien skies. Some two hundred years before Beddoes's birth, Drummond of Hawthornden, he who sang so tenderly the praises of his sweet mistress, dead on her wedding-day, wrote these quaint and pretty lines entreating for her favor:—
"I die, dear life, unless to me be given
As many kisses as the Spring hath flowers,
Or there be silver drops in Iris' showers,
Or stars there be in all-embracing heaven.
And if displeased, you of the match remain,
You shall have leave to take them back again."
In Beddoes's unfinished drama of "Torresmond," we find Veronica's maidens singing her to sleep with just such bright conceits and soft caressing words, and their song rings like an echo from some dim old room where Lesbia, or Althea, or Celia lies a-dreaming:—
"How many times do I love thee, dear?
Tell me how many thoughts there be
In the atmosphere
Of a new-fall'n year,
Whose white and sable hours appear
The latest flake of Eternity:
So many times do I love thee, dear.
"How many times do I love again?
Tell me how many beads there are
In a silver chain
Of evening rain,
Unraveled from the tumbling main,
And threading the eye of a yellow star:
So many times do I love again."
It is not in this fairy fashion that the truly modern poet declares his passion; it is not thus that Wordsworth sings to us of Lucy, the most alluring and shadowy figure in English poetry,—Lucy, richly dowered with a few short verses of unapproachable beauty. To the lover of Wordsworth her death is a lasting hurt. We cannot endure to think of her as he thinks of her,—
"Rolled round in earth's diurnal course
With rocks, and stones, and trees."
We cannot endure that anything so fine and rare should slip forever from the sunshine, and that the secret stars should look down upon her maidenhood no more. Browning, too, who has been termed the poet of love, who has revealed to us every changeful mood, every stifled secret, every light and shade of human emotion,—how has he dealt with his engrossing theme? Beneath his unsparing touch, at once burning and subtle, the soul lies bare, and its passions rend it like hounds. All that is noble, generous, suffering, shameful, finds in him its ablest exponent. Those strange, fantastic sentences in which Mr. Pater has analyzed the inscrutable sorcery of Mona Lisa, beneath whose weary eyelids "the thoughts and experiences of the world lie shadowed," might also fitly portray the image of Love, as Browning has unveiled him to our sight. He too is older than the rocks, and the secrets of the grave and of the deep seas are in his keeping. He too expresses all that man has come to desire in the ways of a thousand years, and his is the beauty "into which the soul with its maladies has passed." The slumbering centuries lie coiled beneath his feet, their hidden meaning is his to grasp, their huge and restless impulses have nourished him, their best results are his inheritance. But he is not glad, for the maladies of the soul have stilled his laughter, and the brightness of youth has fled.