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March 1906] Vagabond Golden and Vagabond Gray.
IN VAGABOND GOLDEN AND VAGABOND GRAY.
The road of the vagabond's mottled and winding:
It runs through the hills and round by the sea,
Who follows the trail for the whole of his day,
It matters no whit that the long night be blinding-
The call of the road is sacredly binding-
His vagabond kin gleaned, yesterday,
In the face of the night they turn not to flee:
S. M. Harrington.
THE PASSING OF A POET.
HESE are decadent days, say the critics. Pure p poetry died with Tennyson, say the critics. And they turn to the younger writers, Stephen Phillips, John Davidson, to pray hopefully for a renaissance. They have no word to say of Algernon Charles Swinburne.
The critics of yesterday found little time to bemoan the glories of old times. Browning was living yesterday, Tennyson, Rossetti, and-Swinburne the poet. Browning did not outlive his genius, nor did Rossetti; Tennyson the poet died gloriously, with Tennyson the man. But Swinburne's fate is not so kind. He has seen the red glow of his genius grow grey and cold. We of this day and generation
have seen the passing of a true poet.
Swinburne came uglily into the literary world. The clamor that greeted some of his very earliest works awoke even before the most peculiarly effective volume—“Poem and Ballads”—was formally published, and the echoes of it have not yet died away. Years later this volume lost him the laureateship that was justly his, and there are many educated people of today who know of Swinburne solely through what was evil in his early work. He came suddenly, in all the hot intolerance of his youth, upon a world that was wholly unprepared for him, a staid and sober world, that had forgotten the indiscretions of Bryon. He came upon his world as a naked wine-stained Bacchus might came upon a Scotch-Presbyterian congregation on its way home from church. Old ladies fainted, sober deacons grew purplefaced in righteous indignation; never was such a commotion. The very ends of the world knew that Bacchus Swinburne was born. In a day he was famous; in that same day he was notorious. Good folk saw that he was naked, and wine-stained, and pagan; they covered their eyes in horror, and, for the moment, saw no more.
Naturally there were immediately Swinburne devotees, foul ones who would have classed his song with mere French
filth. But these may be immediately dismissed, their opinion is worse than useless, and Swinburne never intentionally catered to it. He sang only for the pure joy of song. Nor did he care what bigots thought, pious people who would expurgate Shakespeare. The only appreciation that he ever wanted, that any great man ever wants, was that of men and women that thought and felt. And it came to him. This audience saw in his pagan intolerance, feeling and thought, in the wine stains on his lips, a lyric mellowness, in his nakedness, the beauty and the freedom of primeval man. Above all they saw that he was a man, with something to say, something that no laws of propriety could keep silent. Superlatively in these earlier poems Swinburne showed the man. His indecencies, his profanities, are not deliberate; they are the extremities to which his hot intolerance occasionally carries him. There are certain passages of "Laus Veneris" that may not be freely quoted. But these passages merely voice the extreme pitch to which he works himself up in such sensuous stanzas as
"The broken little laugh that spoils a kiss,
The ache of purple pulses, and the bliss
Of blinded eyelids that expand again—
Love draws them open with those lips of his."
But perhaps "Dolores" shows the man Swinburne as does none other of his works. In other works he shows various influences, the Elizabethan dramatists, and the Greek, old Hebrew scribes, Shelley, Keats, have all influenced him. But here, untrammeled by any convention, he pours himself out in half incoherent, but impassioned and melodious stanzas. "Cold eyelids that hide like a jewel,
Hard eyes that grow soft for an hour;
Red mouth like a venomous flower.
When these are gone by in their glories,
What shall rest of thee then, what remain,
Our Lady of Pain?”
illustrates perfectly the genius that marks his early work, the lyric passion of man, self-sufficient unto himself.
This passion is never seen absolutely untrammeled again. In the second stage Bacchus has wrapped himself in a leopard's skin. Now the skin befits him, making him more understandable, perhaps even more beautiful, but it is a sad sign that the world has showed our Bacchus the false necessity of clothes, has taken away the self-sufficiency that was his divine gift. The leopard's skin in this instance happened to be the spirit of liberty that was sweeping the world. It fitted Swinburne well, giving free scope to the passion that the world had not yet killed. "Songs Before Sunrise," the most typical volume of this period, is considered his finest work. But here is shown the first touch of the external; it is the external, what the world thought about, that awakens song in him, the whole operation is no longer within.
"The trumpets of the four winds of the world
From the ends of the earth blow battle.
and Swinburne but echoes them. It is not that he is a mere mouthpiece, as yet. Indeed in a way this is the period of his greatest work. He has added substance, and polish, and has lost little if any of his old lyric passion, as “Mater Dolorosa," a tremendous hymn to down-trodden liberty, shows:
"Who is it that sits by the way, by the wild wayside,
In a rent stained garment, the robe of a cast-off bride,
But this was something of an artificial glory. The wealth of the world without, in enriching the genius of Swinburne, killed it.
In the third period Swinburne falls, crumblingly. The earlier days of this period show an occasional glimmer of the old genius, but the most of his latter-day work is the work of a simple scholar. He has learned the formalities of the world, and he takes upon him artificial forms to hide the fading of his genius of youth and beauty. He is again
the Bacchus; but Bacchus, obedient to the dictates of the world that killed the God in him, is wearing trousers. The scholar in Swinburne did not kill the poet. The world killed him, and the scholar cropped out to take his place. "Atalanta in Calydon" and "Erecthaus" are perfect forms of Greek drama. But in "Atalanta," one of the poet's earliest works, the form is entirely subservient to the spirit of the thing.. There is a youth and sparkle that the Archaic Greek form enhances through contrast. The later play, "Erecthaus," is a letter-perfect imitation of the old Greek, and nothing else. In these later days Swinburne wrote also many. rondels. Imagine "Laus Veneris" written in rondels! But he found this wholly artificial form a good one for the expression of the pretty but conventional ideas that were the remains of his glorious subject matter.
"No rosebud yet by dawn impearled
Match, even in loveliest lands,
The quiet conventionalism and conservatism of this are in almost absurd contrast with the wild fire of such as "Dolores." And as Dolores, and Faustine, and Fise, the mad phantasies of his God-given youth, have given way to babies' hands, so the radicalism of "Songs Before Sunrise" had faded to the dull conservatism of such commonplaces as this, of England:
"We find her, as our fathers found
Earth's lordliest commonweal."
Swinburne is not popular these days. The world is not fond of anticlimaxes, and his work had been one long series of them. The divine glow of his genius faded through all the phases of true feeling, and died out in form. All his present day work has been without a touch of it. Since the publication of "Astrophel" in 1893, he has written nothing that is in any way worthy of him. But dim posterity, that knows a man solely through his best work, will rank him again with Browning and his peers. A great poet has passed, and we will not soon see his like again.
J. N. Greely.