A happy half-century and other essays/On the Slopes of Parnassus


ON THE SLOPES OF PARNASSUS


Perhaps no man ever thought a line superfluous when he wrote it. We are seldom tiresome to ourselves.—Dr. Johnson.

It is commonly believed that the extinction of verse—of verse in the bulk, which is the way in which our great-grandfathers consumed it—is due to the vitality of the novel. People, we are told, read rhyme and metre with docility, only because they wanted to hear a story, only because there was no other way in which they could get plenty of sentiment and romance. As soon as the novel supplied them with all the sentiment they wanted, as soon as it told them the story in plain prose, they turned their backs upon poetry forever.

There is a transparent inadequacy in this solution of a problem which still confronts the patient reader of buried masterpieces. Novels were plenty when Mr. William Hayley's "Triumphs of Temper" went through twelve editions, and when Dr. Darwin's "Botanic Garden" was received with deferential delight. But could any dearth of fiction persuade us now to read the "Botanic Garden"? Were we shipwrecked in company with the "Triumphs of Temper," would we ever finish the first canto? Novels stood on every English book-shelf when Fox read "Madoc" aloud at night to his friends, and they stayed up, so he says, an hour after their bedtime to hear it. Could that miracle be worked to-day? Sir Walter Scott, with indestructible amiability, reread "Madoc" to please Miss Seward, who, having "steeped" her own eyes "in transports of tears and sympathy," wrote to him that it carried "a master-key to every bosom which common good sense and anything resembling a human heart inhabit." Scott, unwilling to resign all pretensions to a human heart, tried hard to share the Swan's emotions, and failed. "I cannot feel quite the interest I would like to do," he patiently confessed.

If Southey's poems were not read as Scott's and Moore's and Byron's were read (give us another Byron, and we will read him with forty thousand novels knocking at our doors!); if they were not paid for out of the miraculous depths of Murray's Fortunatus's purse, they nevertheless enjoyed a solid reputation of their own. They are mentioned in all the letters of the period (save and except Lord Byron's ribald pages) with carefully measured praise, and they enabled their author to accept the laureateship on self-respecting terms. They are at least, as Sir Leslie Stephen reminds us, more readable than Glover's "Leonidas," or Wilkie's "Epigoniad," and they are shorter, too. Yet the "Leonidas," an epic in nine books, went through four editions; whereupon its elate author expanded it into twelve books; and the public, undaunted, kept on buying it for years. The "Epigoniad" is also in nine books. It is on record that Hume, who seldom dallied with the poets, read all nine, and praised them warmly. Mr. Wilkie was christened the "Scottish Homer," and he bore that modest title until his death. It was the golden age of epics. The ultimatum of the modern publisher, "No poet need apply!" had not yet blighted the hopes and dimmed the lustre of genius. "Everybody thinks he can write verse," observed Sir Walter mournfully, when called upon for the hundredth time to help a budding aspirant to fame.

With so many competitors in the field, it was uncommonly astute in Mr. Hayley to address himself exclusively to that sex which poets and orators call "fair." There is a formal playfulness, a ponderous vivacity about the "Triumphs of Temper," which made it especially welcome to women. In the preface of the first edition the author gallantly laid his laurels at their feet, observing modestly that it was his desire, however "ineffectual," "to unite the sportive wildness of Ariosto and the more serious sublime painting of Dante with some portion of the enchanting elegance, the refined imagination, and the moral graces of Pope; and to do this, if possible, without violating those rules of propriety which Mr. Cambridge has illustrated, by example as well as by precept, in the 'Scribleriad,' and in his sensible preface to that elegant and learned poem."

Accustomed as we are to the confusions of literary perspective, this grouping of Dante, Ariosto, and Mr. Cambridge does seem a trifle foreshortened. But our ancestors had none of that sensitive shrinking from comparisons which is so characteristic of our timid and thin-skinned generation. They did not edge off from the immortals, afraid to breathe their names lest it be held lèse-majesté; they used them as the common currency of criticism. Why should not Mr. Hayley have challenged a contrast with Dante and Ariosto, when Miss Seward assured her little world—which was also Mr. Hayley's world—that he had the "wit and ease" of Prior, a "more varied versification" than Pope, and "the fire and the invention of Dryden, without any of Dryden's absurdity"? Why should he have questioned her judgment, when she wrote to him that Cowper's "Task" would "please and instruct the race of common readers," who could not rise to the beauties of Akenside, or Mason, or Milton, or of his (Mr. Hayley's) "exquisite 'Triumphs of Temper'"? There was a time, indeed, when she sorrowed lest his "inventive, classical, and elegant muse" should be "deplorably infected" by the growing influence of Wordsworth; but, that peril past, he rose again, the bright particular star of a wide feminine horizon.

Mr. Hayley's didacticism is admirably adapted to his readers. The men of the eighteenth century were not expected to keep their tempers; it was the sweet prerogative of wives and daughters to smooth the roughened current of family life. Accordingly the heroine of the "Triumphs," being bullied by her father, a fine old gentleman of the Squire Western type, maintains a superhuman cheerfulness, gives up the ball for which she is already dressed, wreathes her countenance in smiles, and

with sportive ease,
Prest her Piano-forte's favourite keys.

The men of the eighteenth century were all hard drinkers. Therefore Mr. Hayley conjures the "gentle fair" to avoid even the mild debauchery of siruped fruits,—

For the sly fiend, of every art possest,
Steals on th' affection of her female guest;
And, by her soft address, seducing each,
Eager she plies them with a brandy peach.
They with keen lip the luscious fruit devour,
But swiftly feel its peace-destroying power.
Quick through each vein new tides of frenzy roll,
All evil passions kindle in the soul;
Drive from each feature every cheerful grace,
And glare ferocious in the sallow face;
The wounded nerves in furious conflict tear,
Then sink in blank dejection and despair.

All this combustle, to use Gray's favourite word, about a brandy peach! But women have ever loved to hear their little errors magnified. In the matter of poets, preachers and confessors, they are sure to choose the denunciatory.

Dr. Darwin, as became a scientist and a sceptic, addressed his ponderous "Botanic Garden" to male readers. It is true that he offers much good advice to women, urging upon them especially those duties and devotions from which he, as a man, was exempt. It is true also that when he first contemplated writing his epic, he asked Miss Seward—so, at least, she said—to be his collaborator; an honour which she modestly declined, as not "strictly proper for a female pen." But the peculiar solidity, the encyclopædic qualities of this masterpiece, fitted it for such grave students as Mr. Edgeworth, who loved to be amply instructed. It is a poem replete with information, and information of that disconnected order in which the Edgeworthian soul took true delight. We are told, not only about flowers and vegetables, but about electric fishes, and the salt mines of Poland; about Dr. Franklin's lightning rod, and Mrs. Damer's bust of the Duchess of Devonshire; about the treatment of paralytics, and the mechanism of the common pump. We pass from the death of General Wolfe at Quebec to the equally lamented demise of a lady botanist at Derby. We turn from the contemplation of Hannibal crossing the Alps to consider the charities of a benevolent young woman named Jones.

Sound, Nymphs of Helicon! the trump of Fame,
And teach Hibernian echoes Jones's name;
Bind round her polished brow the civic bay,
And drag the fair Philanthropist to day.

Pagan divinities disport themselves on one page, and Christian saints on another. St. Anthony preaches, not to the little fishes of the brooks and streams, but to the monsters of the deep,—sharks, porpoises, whales, seals and dolphins, that assemble in a sort of aquatic camp-meeting on the shores of the Adriatic, and "get religion" in the true revivalist spirit.

The listening shoals the quick contagion feel,
Pant on the floods, inebriate with their zeal;
Ope their wide jaws, and bow their slimy heads,
And dash with frantic fins their foamy beds.

For a freethinker, Dr. Darwin is curiously literal in his treatment of hagiology and the Scriptures. His Nebuchadnezzar (introduced as an illustration of the "Loves of the Plants") is not a bestialized mortal, but a veritable beast, like one of Circe's swine, only less easily classified in natural history.

Long eagle plumes his arching neck invest,
Steal round his arms and clasp his sharpened breast;
Dark brindled hairs in bristling ranks behind,
Rise o'er his back and rustle in the wind;
Clothe his lank sides, his shrivelled limbs surround,
And human hands with talons print the ground.
Lolls his red tongue, and from the reedy side
Of slow Euphrates laps the muddy tide.
Silent, in shining troups, the Courtier throng
Pursue their monarch as he crawls along;
E'en Beauty pleads in vain with smiles and tears,
Not Flattery's self can pierce his pendant ears.

The picture of the embarrassed courtiers promenading slowly after this royal phenomenon, and of the lovely inconsiderates proffering their vain allurements, is so ludicrous as to be painful. Even Miss Seward, who held that the "Botanic Garden" combined "the sublimity of Michael Angelo, the correctness and elegance of Raphael, with the glow of Titian," was shocked by Nebuchadnezzar's pendant ears, and admitted that the passage was likely to provoke inconsiderate laughter.

The first part of Dr. Darwin's poem, "The Economy of Vegetation," was warmly praised by critics and reviewers. Its name alone secured for it esteem. A few steadfast souls, like Mrs. Schimmelpenninck, refused to accept even vegetation from a sceptic's hands; but it was generally conceded that the poet had "entwined the Parnassian laurel with the balm of Pharmacy" in a very creditable manner. The last four cantos, however,—indiscreetly entitled "The Loves of the Plants,"—awakened grave concern. They were held unfit for female youth, which, being then taught driblets of science in a guarded and muffled fashion, was not supposed to know that flowers had any sex, much less that they practised polygamy. The glaring indiscretion of their behaviour in the "Botanic Garden," their seraglios, their amorous embraces and involuntary libertinism, offended British decorum, and, what was worse, exposed the poem to Canning's pungent ridicule. When the "Loves of the Triangles" appeared in the "Anti-Jacobin," all England—except Whigs and patriots who never laughed at Canning's jokes—was moved to inextinguishable mirth. The mock seriousness of the introduction and argument, the "horrid industry" of the notes, the contrast between the pensiveness of the Cycloid and the innocent playfulness of the Pendulum, the solemn headshake over the licentious disposition of Optics, and the description of the three Curves that requite the passion of the Rectangle, all burlesque with unfeeling delight Dr. Darwin's ornate pedantry.

Let shrill Acoustics tune the tiny lyre,
With Euclid sage fair Algebra conspire;
Let Hydrostatics, simpering as they go,
Lead the light Naiads on fantastic toe.

The indignant poet, frigidly vain, and immaculately free from any taint of humour, was as much scandalized as hurt by this light-hearted mockery. Being a dictator in his own little circle at Derby, he was naturally disposed to consider the "Anti-Jacobin" a menace to genius and to patriotism. His criticisms and his prescriptions had hitherto been received with equal submission. When he told his friends that Akenside was a better poet than Milton,—"more polished, pure, and dignified," they listened with respect. When he told his patients to eat acid fruits with plenty of sugar and cream, they obeyed with alacrity. He had a taste for inventions, and first made Mr. Edgeworth's acquaintance by showing him an ingenious carriage of his own contrivance, which was designed to facilitate the movements of the horse, and enable it to turn with ease. The fact that Dr. Darwin was three times thrown from this vehicle, and that the third accident lamed him for life, in no way disconcerted the inventor or his friends, who loved mechanism for its own sake, and apart from any given results. Dr. Darwin defined a fool as one who never in his life tried an experiment. So did Mr. Day, of "Sandford and Merton" fame, who experimented in the training of animals, and was killed by an active young colt that had failed to grasp the system.

The "Botanic Garden" was translated into French, Italian, and Portuguese, to the great relief of Miss Seward, who hated to think that the immortality of such a work depended upon the preservation of a single tongue. "Should that tongue perish," she wrote proudly, "translations would at least retain all the host of beauties which do not depend upon felicities of verbal expression."

If the interminable epics which were so popular in these halcyon days had condescended to the telling of stories, we might believe that they were read, or at least occasionally read, as a substitute for prose fiction. But the truth is that most of them are solid treatises on morality, or agriculture, or therapeutics, cast into the blankest of blank verse, and valued, presumably, for the sake of the information they conveyed. Their very titles savour of statement rather than of inspiration. Nobody in search of romance would take up Dr. Grainger's "Sugar Cane," or Dyer's "Fleece," or the Rev. Richard Polwhele's "English Orator." Nobody desiring to be idly amused would read the "Vales of Weaver," or a long didactic poem on "The Influence of Local Attachment." It was not because he felt himself to be a poet that Dr. Grainger wrote the "Sugar Cane" in verse, but because that was the form most acceptable to the public. The ever famous line,

"Now Muse, let's sing of rats!"

which made merry Sir Joshua Reynolds and his friends, is indicative of the good doctor's struggles to employ an uncongenial medium. He wanted to tell his readers how to farm successfully in the West Indies; how to keep well in a treacherous climate; what food to eat, what drugs to take, how to look after the physical condition of negro servants, and guard them from prevalent maladies. These were matters on which the author was qualified to speak, and on which he does speak with all a physician's frankness; but they do not lend themselves to lofty strains. Whole pages of the "Sugar Cane" read like prescriptions and dietaries done into verse. It is as difficult to sing with dignity about a disordered stomach as about rats and cockroaches; and Dr. Grainger's determination to leave nothing untold leads him to dwell with much feeling, but little grace, on all the disadvantages of the tropics.

Musquitoes, sand-flies, seek the sheltered roof,
And with fell rage the stranger guest assail,
Nor spare the sportive child; from their retreats
Cockroaches crawl displeasingly abroad.

The truthfulness and sobriety of this last line deserve commendation. Cockroaches in the open are displeasing to sensitive souls; and a footnote, half a page long, tells us everything we could possibly desire—or fear—to know about these insects. As an example of Dr. Grainger's thoroughness in the treatment of such themes, I quote with delight his approved method of poisoning alligators.

With Misnian arsenic, deleterious bane,
Pound up the ripe cassada's well-rasped root,
And form in pellets; these profusely spread
Hound the Cane-groves where skulk the vermin-breed.
They, greedy, and unweeting of the bait,
Crowd to the inviting cates, and swift devour
Their palatable Death; for soon they seek
The neighbouring spring; and drink, and swell, and die.

Then follow some very sensible remarks about the unwholesomeness of the water in which the dead alligators are decomposing,—remarks which Mr. Kipling has unconsciously parodied:—

But 'e gets into the drinking casks, and then o' course we dies.

The wonderful thing about the "Sugar-Cane" is that it was read;—nay, more, that it was read aloud at the house of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and though the audience laughed, it listened. Dodsley published the poem in handsome style; a second edition was called for; it was reprinted in Jamaica, and pirated (what were the pirates thinking about!) in 1766. Even Dr. Johnson wrote a friendly notice in the London "Chronicle," though he always maintained that the poet might just as well have sung the beauties of a parsley-bed or of a cabbage garden. He took the same high ground when Boswell called his attention to Dyer's "Fleece."—"The subject, Sir, cannot be made poetical. How can a man write poetically of serges and druggets?"

It was not for the sake of sentiment or story that the English public read "The Fleece." Nor could it have been for practical guidance; for farmers, even in 1757, must have had some musty almanacs, some plain prose manuals to advise them. They could never have waited to learn from an epic poem that

the coughing pest
From their green pastures sweeps whole flocks away,

or that

Sheep also pleurisies and dropsies know,

or that

The infectious scab, arising from extremes
Of want or surfeit, is by water cured
Of lime, or sodden stave-acre, or oil
Dispersive of Norwegian tar.

Did the British woolen-drapers of the period require to be told in verse about

Cheyney, and bayse, and serge, and alepine,
Tammy, and crape, and the long countless list
Of woolen webs.

Surely they knew more about their own dry-goods than did Mr. Dyer. Is it possible that British parsons read Mr. Polwhele's "English Orator" for the sake of his somewhat confused advice to preachers?—

Meantime thy Style familiar, that alludes
With pleasing Retrospect to recent Scenes
Or Incidents amidst thy Flock, fresh graved
On Memory, shall recall their scattered Thoughts,
And interest every Bosom. With the Voice
Of condescending Gentleness address
Thy kindred People.

It was Miss Seward's opinion that the neglect of Mr. Polwhele's "poetic writings" was a disgrace to literary England, from which we conclude that the reverend author outwore the patience of his readers. "Mature in dulness from his earliest years," he had wisely adopted a profession which gave his qualities room for expansion. What his congregation must have suffered when he addressed it with "condescending gentleness," we hardly like to think; but free-born Englishmen, who were so fortunate as not to hear him, refused to make good their loss by reading the "English Orator," even after it had been revised by a bishop. Miss Seward praised it highly; in return for which devotion she was hailed as a "Parnassian sister" in six benedictory stanzas.

Still gratitude her stores among,
Shall bid the plausive poet sing;
And, if the last of all the throng
That rise on the poetic wing,
Yet not regardless of his destined way,
If Seward's envied sanction stamps the lay.

The Swan, indeed, was never without admirers. Her "Louisa; a Poetical Novel in four Epistles," was favourably noticed; Dr. Johnson praised her ode on the death of Captain Cook; and no contributor to the Bath Easton vase received more myrtle wreaths than she did. "Warble" was the word commonly used by partial critics in extolling her verse. "Long may she continue to warble as heretofore, in such numbers as few even of our favourite bards would be shy to own." Scott sorrowfully admitted to Miss Baillie that he found these warblings—of which he was the reluctant editor—"execrable"; and that the despair which filled his soul on receiving Miss Seward's letters gave him a lifelong horror of sentiment; but for once it is impossible to sympathize with Sir Walter's sufferings. If he had never praised the verses, he would never have been called upon to edit them; and James Ballantyne would have been saved the printing of an unsalable book. There is no lie so little worth the telling as that which is spoken in pure kindness to spare a wholesome pang.

It was, however, the pleasant custom of the time to commend and encourage female poets, as we commend and encourage a child's unsteady footsteps. The generous Hayley welcomed with open arms these fair competitors for fame.

The bards of Britain with unjaundiced eyes
Will glory to behold such rivals rise.

He ardently flattered Miss Seward, and for Miss Hannah More his enthusiasm knew no bounds.

But with a magical control,
Thy spirit-moving strain
Dispels the languor of the soul,
Annihilating pain.

"Spirit-moving" seems the last epithet in the world to apply to Miss More's strains; but there is no doubt that the public believed her to be as good a poet as a preacher, and that it supported her high estimate of her own powers. After a visit to another lambent flame, Mrs. Barbauld, she writes with irresistible gravity:

"Mrs. B. and I have found out that we feel as little envy and malice towards each other, as though we had neither of us attempted to 'build the lofty rhyme'; although she says this is what the envious and the malicious can never be brought to believe."

Think of the author of "The Search after Happiness" and the author of "A Poetical Epistle to Mr. Wilberforce" loudly refusing to envy each other's eminence! There is nothing like it in the strife-laden annals of fame.

Finally there stepped into the arena that charming embodiment of the female muse, Mrs. Hemans; and the manly heart of Protestant England warmed into homage at her shrine. From the days she "first carolled forth her poetic talents under the animating influence of an affectionate and admiring circle," to the days when she faded gracefully out of life, her "half-etherealized spirit" rousing itself to dictate a last "Sabbath Sonnet," she was crowned and garlanded with bays. In the first place, she was fair to see,—Fletcher's bust shows real loveliness; and it was Christopher North's opinion that "no really ugly woman ever wrote a truly beautiful poem the length of her little finger." In the second place, she was sincerely pious; and the Ettrick Shepherd reflected the opinion of his day when he said that "without religion, a woman's just an even-down deevil." The appealing helplessness of Mrs. Hemans's gentle and affectionate nature, the narrowness of her sympathies, and the limitations of her art were all equally acceptable to critics like Gifford and Jeffrey, who held strict views as to the rounding of a woman's circle. Even Byron heartily approved of a pious and pretty woman writing pious and pretty poems. Even Wordsworth flung her lordly words of praise. Even Shelley wrote her letters so eager and ardent that her very sensible mamma, Mrs. Browne, requested him to cease. And as for Scott, though he confessed she was too poetical for his taste, he gave her always the honest friendship she deserved. It was to her he said, when some tourists left them hurriedly at Newark Tower: "Ah, Mrs. Hemans, they little know what two lions they are running away from." It was to her he said, when she was leaving Abbotsford: "There are some whom we meet, and should like ever after to claim as kith and kin; and you are of this number."

Who would not gladly have written "The Siege of Valencia" and "The Vespers of Palermo," to have heard Sir Walter say these words?