Essays in idleness/The Children's Poets
THE CHILDREN'S POETS.
Now and then I hear it affirmed by sad-voiced pessimists, whispering in the gloom, that people do not read as much poetry in our day as they did in our grandfathers', that this is distinctly the era of prose, and that the poet is no longer, as Shelley claimed, the unacknowledged legislator of the world. Perhaps these cheerless statements are true, though it would be more agreeable not to believe them. Perhaps, with the exception of Browning, whom we study because he is difficult to understand, and of Shakespeare, whom we read because it is hard to content our souls without him, the poets have slipped away from our crowded lives, and are best known to us through the medium of their reviewers. We are always wandering from the paths of pleasure, and this may be one of our deviations. Yet what matters it, after all, while around us, on every side, in schoolrooms and nurseries, in quiet corners and by cheerful fires, the children are reading poetry?—reading it with a joyous enthusiasm and an absolute surrendering of spirit which we can all remember, but can never feel again. Well might Sainte-Beuve speak bravely of the clear, fine penetration peculiar to childhood. Well might he recall, with wistful sighs, "that instinctive knowledge which afterwards ripens into judgment, but of which the fresh lucidity remains forever unapproached." He knew, as all critics have known, that it is only the child who responds swiftly, pliantly, and unreservedly to the allurements of the imagination. He knew that, when poetry is in question, it is better to feel than to think; and that with the growth of a guarded and disciplined intelligence, straining after the enjoyment which perfection in literary art can give, the first careless rapture of youth fades into a half-remembered dream.
If we are disposed to doubt the love that children bear to poetry, a love concerning which they exhibit a good deal of reticence, let us consider only the alacrity with which they study, for their own delight, the poems that please them best. How should we fare, I wonder, if tried by a similar test? How should we like to sit down and commit to memory Tennyson's "Œnone," or "Locksley Hall," or Byron's apostrophe to the Ocean, or the battle scene in "Marmion"? Yet I have known children to whom every word of these and many other poems was as familiar as the alphabet; and a great deal more familiar—thank Heaven!—than the multiplication table, or the capitals of the United States. A rightly constituted child may find the paths of knowledge hopelessly barred by a single page of geography, or by a single sum in fractions; but he will range at pleasure through the paths of poetry, having the open sesame to every door. Sir Walter Scott, who was essentially a rightly constituted child, did not even wait for a formal introduction to his letters, but managed to learn the ballad of Hardyknute before he knew how to read, and went shouting it around the house, warming his baby blood to fighting-point, and training himself in very infancy to voice the splendors of his manhood. He remembered this ballad, too, and loved it all his life, reciting it once with vast enthusiasm to Lord Byron, whose own unhappy childhood had been softened and vivified by the same innocent delights.
In truth, the most charming thing about youth is the tenacity of its impressions. If we had the time and courage to study a dozen verses to-day, we should probably forget eleven of them in a fortnight; but the poetry we learned as children remains, for the most part, indelibly fixed in our memories, and constitutes a little Golden Treasury of our own, more dear and valuable to us than any other collection, because it contains only our chosen favorites, and is always within the reach of reference. Once, when I was very young, I asked a girl companion—well known now in the world of literature—if she did not grow weary waiting for trains, which were always late, at the suburban station where she went to school. "Oh, no," was the cheerful reply. "If I have no book, and there is no one here to talk with, I walk up and down the platform and think over the poetry that I know." Admirable occupation for an idle minute! Even the tedium of railway traveling loses half its horrors if one can withdraw at pleasure into the society of the poets and, soothed by their gentle and harmonious voices, forget the irksome recurrence of familiar things.
It has been often demonstrated, and as often forgotten, that children do not need to have poetry written down to their intellectual level, and do not love to see the stately Muse ostentatiously bending to their ear. In the matter of prose, it seems necessary for them to have a literature of their own, over which they linger willingly for a little while, as though in the sunny antechamber of a king. But in the golden palace of the poets there is no period of probation, there is no enforced attendance upon petty things. The clear-eyed children go straight to the heart of the mystery, and recognize in the music of words, in the enduring charm of metrical quality, an element of never-ending delight. When to this simple sensuous pleasure is added the enchantment of poetic images, lovely and veiled and dimly understood, then the delight grows sweeter and keener, the child's soul flowers into a conscious love of poetry, and one lifelong source of happiness is gained. But it is never through infantine or juvenile verses that the end is reached. There is no poet dearer to the young than Tennyson, and it was not the least of his joys to know that all over the English-speaking world children were tuning their hearts to the music of his lines, were dreaming vaguely and rapturously over the beauty he revealed. Therefore the insult seemed greater and more wanton when this beloved idol of our nurseries deliberately offered to his eager audience such anxiously babyish verses as those about Minnie and Winnie, and the little city maiden who goes straying among the flowers. Is there in Christendom a child who wants to be told by one of the greatest of poets that
"Minnie and Winnie
Slept in a shell;"
that the shell was pink within and silver without; and that
"Sounds of the great sea
"Two bright stars
Peep'd into the shell.
'What are they dreaming of?
Who can tell?'
"Started a green linnet
Out of the croft;
'Wake, little ladies,
The sun is aloft.'"
It is not in these tones that poetry speaks to the childish soul, though it is too often in this fashion that the poet strives to adjust himself to what he thinks is the childish standard. He lowers his sublime head from the stars, and pipes with painstaking flatness on a little reed, while the children wander far away, and listen breathlessly to older and dreamier strains.
"She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro' the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot,
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
'The curse is come upon me,' cried
The Lady of Shalott."
Here is the mystic note that childhood loves, and here, too, is the sweet constraint of linked rhymes that makes music for its ears. How many of us can remember well our early joy in this poem, which was but as another and more exquisite fairy tale, ranking fitly with Andersen's "Little Mermaid," and "Undine," and all sad stories of unhappy lives! And who shall forget the sombre passion of "Oriana," of those wailing verses that rang through our little hearts like the shrill sobbing of winter storms, of that strange tragedy that oppressed us more with fear than pity!
"When the long dun wolds are ribb'd with snow,
And loud the Norland whirlwinds blow,
Alone I wander to and fro,
If any one be inclined to think that children must understand poetry in order to appreciate and enjoy it, that one enchanted line,—
"When the long dun wolds are ribb'd with snow,"—
should be sufficient to undeceive him forever. The spell of those finely chosen words lies in the shadowy and half-seen picture they convey,—a picture with indistinct outlines, as of an unknown land, where the desolate spirit wanders moaning in the gloom. The whole poem is inexpressibly alluring to an imaginative child, and its atmosphere of bleak despondency darkens suddenly into horror at the breaking off of the last line from visions of the grave and of peaceful death,—
"I hear the roaring of the sea,
The same grace of indistinctness, though linked with a gentler mood and with a softer music, makes the lullaby in "The Princess" a lasting delight to children, while the pretty cradle-song in "Sea Dreams," beginning,—
"What does little birdie say
In her nest at peep of day?"
has never won their hearts. Its motive is too apparent, its nursery flavor too pronounced. It has none of the condescension of "Minnie and Winnie," and grown people can read it with pleasure; but a simple statement of obvious truths, or a simple line of obvious reasoning, however dexterously narrated in prose or verse, has not the art to hold a youthful sold in thrall.
If it be a matter of interest to know what poets are most dear to the children around us, to the ordinary "apple-eating" little boys and girls for whom we are hardly brave enough to predict a shining future, it is delightful to be told by favorite authors and by well-loved men of letters what poets first bewitched their ardent infant minds. It is especially pleasant to have Mr. Andrew Lang admit us a little way into his confidence, and confess to us that he disliked "Tam O'Shanter" when his father read it aloud to him; preferring, very sensibly, "to take my warlocks and bogies with great seriousness." Of course he did, and the sympathies of all children are with him in his choice. The ghastly details of that witches' Sabbath are far beyond a child's limited knowledge of demonology and the Scotch dialect. Tam's escape and Maggie's final catastrophe seem like insults offered to the powers of darkness; only the humor of the situation is apparent, and humor is seldom, to the childish mind, a desirable element of poetry. Not all the spirit of Caldecott's illustrations can make "John Gilpin" a real favorite in our nurseries, while "The Jackdaw of Rheims" is popular simply because children, being proof against cynicism, accept the story as it is told, with much misplaced sympathy for the thievish bird, and many secret rejoicings over his restoration to grace and feathers. As for "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," its humor is swallowed up in tragedy, and the terror of what is to come helps little readers over such sad stumbling-blocks as
"So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon,
Breakfast, dinner, supper, luncheon!"
lines which are every whit as painful to their ears as to ours. I have often wondered how the infant Southeys and Coleridges, that bright-eyed group of alert and charming children, all afire with romantic impulses, received "The Cataract of Lodore," when papa Southey condescended to read it in the schoolroom. What well-bred efforts to appear pleased and grateful! What secret repulsion to a senseless clatter of words, as remote from the silvery sweetness, the cadenced music of falling waters, as from the unalterable requirements of poetic art!
"And moreover he tasked me
To tell him in rhyme."
Ah! unwise little son, to whose rash request generations of children have owed the presence, in readers and elocution-books and volumes of "Select Lyrics for the Nursery," of those hated and hateful verses.
"Poetry came to me with Sir Walter Scott," says Mr. Lang; with "Marmion," and the "Last Minstrel," and "The Lady of the Lake," read "for the twentieth time," and ever with fresh delight. Poetry came to Scott with Shakespeare, studied rapturously by firelight in his mother's dressing-room, when all the household thought him fast asleep, and with Pope's translation of the Iliad, that royal road over which the Muse has stepped, smiling, into many a boyish heart. Poetry came to Pope—poor little lame lad—with Spenser's "Faerie Queene;" with the brave adventures of strong, valiant knights, who go forth, unblemished and unfrighted, to do battle with dragons and "Paynims cruel." And so the links of the magic chain are woven, and child hands down to child the spell that holds the centuries together. I cannot bear to hear the unkind things which even the most tolerant of critics are wont to say about Pope's "Iliad," remembering as I do how many boys have received from its pages their first poetic stimulus, their first awakening to noble things. What a charming picture we have of Coleridge, a feeble, petulant child tossing with fever on his little bed, and of his brother Francis stealing up, in defiance of all orders, to sit by his side and read him Pope's translation of Homer. The bond that drew these boys together was forged in such breathless moments and in such mutual pleasures; for Francis, the handsome, spirited sailor lad, who climbed trees, and robbed orchards, and led all dangerous sports, had little in common with his small, silent, precocious brother. "Frank had a violent love of beating me," muses Coleridge, in a tone of mild complaint (and no wonder, we think, for a more beatable child than Samuel Taylor it would have been hard to find). "But whenever that was superseded by any humor or circumstance, he was very fond of me, and used to regard me with a strange mixture of admiration and contempt." More contempt than admiration, probably; yet was all resentment forgotten, and all unkindness at an end, while one boy read to the other the story of Hector and Patroclus, and of great Ajax, with sorrow in his heart, pacing round his dead comrade, as a tawny lioness paces round her young when she sees the hunters coming through the woods. As a companion picture to this we have little Dante Gabriel Rossetti playing Othello in the nursery, and so carried away by the passionate impulse of these lines,—
"In Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus,"—
that he struck himself fiercely on the breast with an iron chisel, and fainted under the blow. We can hardly believe that Shakespeare is beyond the mental grasp of childhood, when Scott, at seven, crept out of bed on winter nights to read "King Henry IV.," and Rossetti, at nine, was overwhelmed by the agony of Othello's remorse.
On the other hand, there are writers, and very brilliant writers, too, whose early lives appear to have been undisturbed by such keenly imaginative pastimes, and for whom there are no well-loved and familiar figures illumined forever in "that bright, clear, undying light that borders the edge of the oblivion of infancy." Count Tolstoi confesses himself to have been half hurt, half puzzled, by his fellow-students at the University of Moscow, who seemed to him so coarse and inelegant, and yet who had read and enjoyed so much. "Pushkin and Zhukovsky were literature to them," he says wistfully, "and not, as to me, little books in yellow bindings which I had studied as a child." But how, one wonders, could Pushkin have remained merely a "little book in yellow binding" to any boy who had had the happiness of studying him as a child? Pushkin is the Russian Byron, and embodies in his poems the same spirit of restless discontent, of dejected languor, of passionate revolt; not revolt against the Tsar, which is a limited and individual judgment, but revolt against the bitter penalties of life, which is a sentiment common to the youth of all nations and of every age. Yet there are Englishmen who have no word save that of scorn for Byron, and I feel uncertain whether such critics ever enjoyed the privilege of being boys at all. If to George Meredith's composed and complacent mind there strays any wanton recollection of young, impetuous days, how can he write with pen of gall these worse than churlish lines on Manfred?—
"Projected from the bilious Childe,
This clatterjaw his foot could set
On Alps, without a breast beguiled
To glow in shedding rascal sweat.
Somewhere about his grinder teeth
He mouthed of thoughts that grilled beneath,
And summoned Nature to her feud
With bile and buskin attitude."
There is more of this pretty poem, but I have quoted as much as my own irascibility can bear, I, at least, have been a child, and have spent some of my childhood's happiest hours with Manfred on the Alps; and have with him beheld
"the tall pines dwindled as to shrubs
In dizziness of distance,"
and have believed with all a child's sincerity in his remorseful gloom:—
"for I have ceased
To justify my deeds unto myself—
The last infirmity of evil."
Every line is inexpressibly dear to me now, recalling, as it does, the time "when I was in my father's house, and my path ran down with butter and honey." Once more I see the big, bare, old-fashioned parlor, to dust which was my daily task, my dear mother having striven long and vainly to teach my idle little hands some useful housewifely accomplishment. In one corner stood a console-table, with chilly Parian ornaments on top, and underneath a pile of heavy books; Wordsworth, Moore, the poems of Frances Sargent Osgood,—no lack of variety here,—"The Lady of the Lake," and Byron in an embossed brown binding, with closely printed double columns, well calculated to dim the keenest sight in Christendom. Not that mysterious and malignant mountain which rose frowning from the sea, and drew all ships shattered to its feet, was more irresistible in its attraction than this brown, bulky Byron. I could not pass it by! My dusting never got beyond the table where it lay; but sitting crumpled on the floor, with the enchanted volume on my lap, I speedily forgot everything in the world save only the wandering Childe,
or "The Corsair," or "Mazeppa," or "Manfred," best loved of that dark group. Perhaps Byron is not considered wholesome reading for little girls in these careful days when expurgated editions of "The Vicar of Wakefield" and "Paul and Virginia" find favor in our nurseries. On this score I have no defense to offer, and I am not proposing the poet as a safe text-book for early youth; but having never been told that there was such a thing as forbidden fruit in literature, I was spared at least that alert curiosity concerning it which is one of the most unpleasant results of our present guarded system. Moreover, we have Goethe's word for it that Byron is not as immoral as the newspapers, and certainly he is more agreeable reading. I do sincerely believe that if part of his attraction for the young lies in what Mr. Pater calls "the grieved dejection, the endless regret," which to the undisciplined soul sounds like the true murmur of life, a better part lies in his large grasp of nature,—not nature in her minute and lovely detail, but in her vast outlines, her salient features, her solemn majesty and strength. Crags and misty mountain tops, storm-swept skies and the blue bosom of the restless deep,—these are the aspects of nature that childhood prizes, and loves to hear described in vigorous verse. The pink-tipped daisy, the yellow primrose, and the freckled nest-eggs
"Hatching in the hawthorn-tree"
belong to a late stage of development. Eugénie de Guérin, who recognized as clearly as Sainte-Beuve the "fine penetration" peculiar to children, and who regarded them ever with half-wistful, half-wondering delight, has written some very charming suggestions about the kind of poetry, "pure, fresh, joyous, and delicate," which she considered proper food for these highly idealized little people,—"angels upon earth." The only discouraging part of her pretty pleading is her frank admission that—in French literature, at least—there is no such poetry as she describes, which shows how hard it is to conciliate an exclusive theory of excellence. She endeavored sincerely, in her "Infantines," to remedy this defect, to "speak to childhood in its own language;" and her verses on "Joujou, the Angel of the Playthings," are quaintly conceived and full of gentle fancies. No child is strongly moved, or taught the enduring delight of song, by such lines as these, but most children will take a genuine pleasure in the baby angel who played with little Abel under the myrtle-trees, who made the first doll and blew the first bubble, and who finds a friend in every tiny boy and girl born into this big gray world. Strange to say, he has his English counterpart in Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson's "Unseen Playmate," that shadowy companion whose home is the cave dug by childish hands, and who is ready to share all games in the most engaging spirit of accommodation.
"'Tis he, when you play with your soldiers of tin,
That sides with the Frenchmen, and never can win;"
a touch of combative veracity which brings us down at once from Mademoiselle de Guérin's fancy flights to the real playground, where real children, very faintly resembling "angels upon earth," are busy with mimic warfare. Mr. Stevenson is one of the few poets whose verses, written especially for the nursery, have found their way straight into little hearts. His charming style, his quick, keen sympathy, and the ease with which he enters into that brilliant world of imagination wherein children habitually dwell, make him their natural friend and minstrel. If some of the rhymes in "A Child's Garden of Verses" seem a trifle bald and babyish, even these are guiltless of condescension; while others, like "Travel," "Shadow March," and "The Land of Story-Books," are instinct with poetic life. I can only regret that a picture so faultless in detail as "Shadow March," where we see the crawling darkness peer through the window pane, and hear the beating of the little boy's heart as he creeps fearfully up the stair, should be marred at its close by a single line of false imagery:—
"All the wicked shadows coming, tramp, tramp, tramp,
With the black night overhead."
So fine an artist as Mr. Stevenson must know that shadows do not tramp, and that the recurrence of a short, vigorous word which tells so admirably in Scott's "William and Helen," and wherever the effect of sound combined with motion is to be conveyed, is sadly out of place in describing the ghostly things that glide with horrible noiselessness at the feet of the frightened lad. Children, moreover, are keenly alive to the value and the suggestiveness of terms. A little eight-year-old girl of my acquaintance, who was reciting "Lord Ullin's Daughter," stopped short at these lines,—
"Adown the glen rode armed men,
Their trampling sounded nearer,"—
and called out excitedly, "Don't you hear the horses?" She, at least, heard them as if with the swift apprehension of fear, heard them loud above the sounds of winds and waters, and rendered her unconscious tribute of praise to the sympathetic selection of words.
There is, as we know, a great deal of poetry written every year for childish readers. Some of it makes its appearance in Christmas books, which are so beautifully bound and illustrated that the little foolish, feeble verses are forgiven, and in fact forgotten, ignored altogether amid more important accessories. Better poems than these are published in children's periodicals, where they form a notable feature, and are, I dare say, read by the young people whose tastes are catered to in this fashion. Those of us who are familiar with these periodicals—either weeklies or monthlies—are well aware that the verses they offer may be easily divided into three classes. First, mere rhymes and jingles, intended for very little readers, and with which it would be simple churlishness to quarrel. They do not aspire to be poetry, they are sometimes very amusing, and they have an easy swing that is pleasant alike to young ears and old. It must be a hard heart that does not sympathize with the unlucky and ill-mated gnome who was
"full of fun and frolic,
But his wife was melancholic;"
or with the small damsel in pigtail and pinafore who comforts herself at the piano with this engaging but dubious maxim:—
"Practicing is good for a good little girl;
It makes her nose straight, and it makes her hair curl."
The second kind of verse appears to be written solely for the sake of the accompanying illustration, and is often the work of the illustrator, who is more at home with his pencil than his pen. Occasionally it is comic, occasionally sentimental or descriptive; for the most part it is something in this style:—
THE ELF AND THE BUMBLE BEE
"Oh, bumble bee!
Don't fly so near!
Or you will tumble me
Over, I fear."
"Oh, funny elf!
Don't be alarmed!
I am looking for honey, elf;
You sha'n't be harmed."
Oh, tarry, bee!
Fill up your sack;
And carry, oh, carry me
Home on your back."
Now what child will read more than once these empty little verses (very prettily illustrated) when it is in his power to turn back to other sprites that sing in different strains,—to the fairy who wanders
"Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough briar,"
seeking pearl eardrops for the cowslips' ears; or to that softer shape, the music of whose song, once heard, haunts us forever:—
"Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange."
These are the sweet, mysterious echoes of true fairyland, where Shakespeare and little children wander at their will.
Poems of the third class are intended for growing girls and boys, and aspire to be considered literature. They are well written, as a rule, with a smooth fluency that seems to be the distinguishing gift of our minor verse-makers, who, even when they have least to say, say it with unbroken sweetness and grace. This pretty, easy insignificance is much better adapted to adult readers, who demand little of poets beyond brevity, than to children, who love large issues, real passions, fine emotions, and an heroic attitude in life. Pleasant thoughts couched in pleasant language, trivial details, and photographic bits of description make no lasting appeal to the expansive imagination of a child. Analysis is wasted upon him altogether, because he sees things swiftly, and sees them as a whole. He may disregard fine shading and minute merits, but there are no boundaries to his wandering vision. "Small sciences are the labors of our manhood, but the round universe is the play-thing of the boy."
The painful lack of distinction in most of the poetry prepared especially for him chills his fine ardor and dulls his imagination. Subtle verses about moods and tempers, calculated to make healthy little readers emulate Miss Martineau's peevish self-sympathy; melancholy verses about young children who suffer poverty and disaster; weird and unintelligible verses, with all Poe's indistinctness and none of his music; commonplace verses about bootblacks and newsboys; descriptive verses about snowstorms and April showers; pious verses about infant prigs;—verses of every kind, all on the same level of agreeable mediocrity, and all warranted to be so harmless that a baby could hear them without blushing. Why, the child who reads "Young Lochinvar" is richer in that one good and gallant poem than the child who has all these modern substitutes heaped yearly at his foolish feet.
For the question at issue is not what kind of poetry is wholesome for children, but what kind of poetry do children love. In nineteen cases out of twenty, that which they love is good for them, and they can guide themselves a great deal better than we can hope to guide them. I once asked a friend who had spent many years in teaching little girls and boys whether her small pupils, when left to their own discretion, ever chose any of the pretty, trivial verses out of new books and magazines for study and recitation. She answered, Never. They turned instinctively to the same old favorites she had been listening to so long; to the same familiar poems that their fathers and mothers had probably studied and recited before them. "Hohenlinden," "Glenara," "Lord Ullin's Daughter," "Young Lochinvar," "Rosabelle," "To Lucasta, on going to the Wars," the lullaby from "The Princess," "Lady Clara Vere de Vere," "Annabel Lee," Longfellow's translation of "The Castle by the Sea," and "The Skeleton in Armor,"—these are the themes of which children never weary; these are the songs that are sung forever in their secret Paradise of Delights. The little volumes containing such tried and proven friends grow shabby with much handling; and I have seen them marked all over with mysterious crosses and dots and stars, each of which denoted the exact degree of affection which the child bore to the poem thus honored and approved. I can fancy Mr. Lang's "Blue Poetry Book" fairly covered with such badges of distinction; for never before has any selection of poems appealed so clearly and insistently to childish tastes and hearts. When I turn over its pages, I feel as if the children of England must have brought their favorite songs to Mr. Lang, and prayed, each one, that his own darling might be admitted,—as if they must have forced his choice into their chosen channels. Its only rival in the field, Palgrave's "Children's Treasury of English Song," is edited with such nice discrimination, such critical reserve, that it is well-nigh flawless,—a triumph of delicacy and good taste. But much that childhood loves is necessarily excluded from a volume so small and so carefully considered. The older poets, it is true, are generously treated,—Herrick, especially, makes a braver show than he does in Mr. Lang's collection; and there are plenty of beautiful ballads, some of which, like "The Lass of Lochroyan," we miss sorely from the pages of the "Blue Poetry Book." On the other hand, where, in Mr. Palgrave's "Treasury," are those lovely snatches of song familiar to our earliest years, and which we welcome individually with a thrill of pleasure, as Mr. Lang shows them to us once more?—"Rose Aylmer," "County Guy," "Proud Maisie," "How Sleep the Brave," "Nora's Vow,"—the delight of my own childhood,—the pathetic "Farewell,"—
"It was a' for our rightfu' King,
We left fair Scotland's strand;
It was a' for our rightfu' King,
We e'er saw Irish land,"—
and Hood's silvery little verses beginning,—
"A lake and a fairy boat
To sail in the moonlight clear,—
And merrily we would float
From the dragons that watch us here!"
All these and many more are gathered safely into this charming volume. Nothing we long to see appears to be left out, except, indeed, Waller's "Go, Lovely Rose," and Herrick's "Night Piece," both of them very serious omissions. It seems strange to find seven of Edgar Poe's poems in a collection which excludes the "Night Piece," so true a favorite with all girl children, and a favorite that, once rightfully established, can never be thrust from our affections. As for Praed's "Red Fisherman," Mr. Lang has somewhere recorded his liking for this "sombre" tale, which, I think, embodies everything that a child ought not to love. It is the only poem in the book that I wish elsewhere; but perhaps this is a perverse prejudice on my part. There may be little readers to whom its savage cynicism and gloom carry a pleasing terror, like that which oppressed my infant soul as I lingered with Goodman Brown in the awful witch-haunted forest where Hawthorne has shown us the triumph of evil things. "It is his excursions into the unknown world which the child enjoys," says Mr. Lang; and how shall we set a limit to his wanderings! He journeys far with careless, secure footsteps; and for him the stars sing in their spheres, and fairies dance in the moonlight, and the hoarse clashing of arms rings bravely from hard-won fields, and lovers fly together under the stormy skies. He rides with Lochinvar, and sails with Sir Patrick Spens into the northern seas, and chases the red deer with Allen-a-Dale, and stands by Marmion's side in the thick of the ghastly fray. He has given his heart to Helen of Troy, and to the Maid of Saragossa, and to the pale child who met her death on the cruel Gordon spears, and to the lady with yellow hair who knelt moaning by Barthram's bier. His friends are bold Robin Hood, and Lancelot du Lac, and the white-plumed Henry of Navarre, and the princely scapegrace who robbed the robbers to make "laughter for a month, and a good jest forever." A lordly company these, and seldom to be found in the gray walks of middle age. Robin Hood dwells not on the Stock Exchange, and Prince Hal dare not show his laughing face before societies for leveling thrones and reorganizing the universe. We adults pass our days, alas, in the Town of Stupidity,—abhorred of Bunyan's soul,—and our companions are Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and Mr. Despondency, and Mr. Want-wit, still scrubbing his Ethiopian, and Mr. Feeble-mind, and the "deplorable young woman named Dull." But it is better to be young, and to see the golden light of romance in the skies, and to kiss the white feet of Helen, as she stands like a star on the battlements. It is better to follow Hector to the fight, and Guinevere to the sad cloisters of Almesbury, and the Ancient Mariner to that silent sea where the death-fires gleam by night. Even to us who have made these magic voyages in our childhood there comes straying, at times, a pale reflection of that early radiance, a faint, sweet echo of that early song. Then the streets of the Town of Stupidity grow soft to tread, and Falstaff's great laugh frightens Mr. Despondency into a shadow. Then Madeline smiles on us under the wintry moonlight, and Porphyro steals by with strange sweets heaped in baskets of wreathed silver. Then we know that with the poets there is perpetual youth, and that for us, as for the child dreaming in the firelight, the shining casements open upon fairyland.
- Oliver Herford in St. Nicholas.