[From Manx Quarterly, #5 Nov 1908]
[From the " Daily Graphic," Aug. 4th.]
Poems of T. E. Brown," Selected and arranged with an introduction and notes by H. F. B. and H. G, D. (Macmillan's " Golden Treasury" Series). 2s 6d net.] (Reviewed by Alfred Noyes.)
To appraise the literary work of Thomas and Brown is hardly so easy a task as the late W. E. Henley and others thought it. Nothing is more baffling to criticism than the attempt to write verse for the special benefit of a little clan when the attempt is made in a big language like modern English a language with interests and relations reaching far out beyond the clan aforesaid, In such attempts there is very frequently a complication of dialects, concerning which it may be said that, as a general rule, work dependent on by-products of a language are regarded by posterity almost invariably as mere by-products of literature, The critic, moreover, eager sometimes for any escape from a wearisome orthography, has to guard himself against the false and sudden glamour of slight alterations in the spelling of: words: while to the poet himself tempting ways are open, on almost every side of evading his own artistic conscience without much fear of the indolent reviewer. The slang or dialect and the ordinary English may give the poet two vocabularies; but this fact ought not to make it easier for him to write in verse, The use of dialect may not only lead to artistic disaster of the painter who tried suggest a sea-shore by plastering sand upon the canvas; it may also sap the artistic conscience to such an extent that, even when dialect or sand is not being used, the poet or painter cannot trust himself to deal honestly with the simplest details of his work. It will not do, for instance, in a short lyric to write "says" or "saith" just as the rhyme dictates, and without any reason for the sudden older form. The poet, in such a case, is merely kicking off the cothurnus and thrusting his feet into those big carpet slippers, which, as Gautier remarked, anybody can wear. The particular instance of "says" and "saith" is not, perhaps, an important one; but it is a useful example of a dangerous tendency in Brown's poetry, Nothing, perhaps, has done more harm to the right appreciation of poetry in this country than that trite phrase of Philistia " poetic license." There is a popular idea that, in some way or other, poetry may take more liberties, of a schoolboyish kind, with language and grammar and spelling (liberties calculated to make it easier to write in rhyme) than would be permitted in prose; whereas one of the chief glories of poetry arises from the conquest of a rebellious medium verse, marble, onyx, as opposed to prose or clay, We are not speaking here of the kind of sublime liberties which a Shakespeare takes with language; for he takes them not to make his work easier. He would take them, and in fact does take them, even more frequently in prose just as Carlyle might take them. They are not to be found fretting against the " narrow convent-room " of the sonnets, But in the poetry of Brown there is a cortain tendency to the debasement of poetry which cannot be ignored.
THE GARDEN LYRIC.
Much of it is very false coinage and a fraud upon the reader. A garden may be a "lovesome thing," but it is really rather a pity that "God wotted it" ; and, as for the ending of that much-quoted lyric
Nay, but I have a sign;
'Tis very sure God walks in mine
that is no more answer to the " fool " who contends that " God is not " than Swinburne's parody of Browning "Overhead, too, there's always the sun,' The reader has a right to ask for at least some suggestion of the nature of Mr Brown's sign; and, as not the slightest glimmer of a suggestion is forthcoming, the reader is at liberty to think the lyric a mere piece of mystification, an artistic fraud, the sole effect of which can be to possess the credulous and innocent with a great envy of Mr Brown, From that point of view the lyric is perfect.
A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot !
The veriest school
Of peace; and yet the fool
Contends that God is not
Not God! in gardens ! when the eve is cool !
Nay, but I have a sign
'Tis very sure God walks in mine.
Compare that for a moment with the exquisite spontaneity of Browning's song in " Pippa Passes "
The year's at the spring,
The day's at the morn,
Morning's at seven,
The hillside's dew pearled,
The lark's on the wing,
The snail's on the thorn,
God's in His Heaven,
All's right with the world.
Does it not leap to light at once that the Garden poem, from the first complacent hand-wave of " God wot" to the " sign " which may have been merely to make a rhyme, is artificial through and through? There is something of the posturing of a schoolmaster in it.
The little lyric in which Brown confronts the devil is a very perfect commentary on this last fault of the better-known poem, and it is a far better piece of work, really alive with the humours and mysteries of nature, and without any archaisms or " signs " :
I bended unto me a bough of May,
That I might see and smell;
It bore it in a sort of way,
It bore it very well.
But, when I let it backward sway,
Then it were hard to tell
With what a toss, with what a swing,
The dainty thing
Resumed its proper level,
And sent me to the devil.
I know it did you doubt it?
I turned, and saw them whispering about it,
There is no doubt at all that when Brown was sent to the devil thus he was far nearer the divine than when God was wotting. He comes near, despite that false emphasis or Dutch courage of "swear words," which Henley was always mistaking for strength, to making one see May-boughs for the first time again; and he exercises the same kind of gift in one or two other poems which, for that reason seem to us to be far finer than those in which he merely imitates the tales of Wordsworth or muddles his head with elementary metaphysics and chatter about "God." Of these finer poems, "The Lily Pool" is perhaps the most quaint and successful :
What sees our mailie* in the lily pool,
What sees she with that large surprisel
What sees our mailie in the lily pool
With all the violet of her big eyes
Our mailie in the lily pool?
And does she gaze into the lily pool
As one that is enchanted?
Or does she try the cause to find,
How the reflection's slanted,
That sleeps within the lily pool?
Or does she take it all for granted,
With the sweet natural logic of her kind?
The lazy logic of the lily pool,
Our own bright, innocent, stupid lily pool !
She knows that it is nice our lily-pool
She likes the water-rings around her knees;
She likes the shadow of the trees
That droop above the lily-pool ;
She likes to scatter with a silly sneeze
The long-legged flies that skim the lily pool
The peaceful sleeping, baby lily-pool.
So may I look upon the lily-pool,
Nor ever in the slightest care
Why I am there;
Why upon land and sea
Is ever stamped the inevitable me;
But rather say with that most gentle fool
" How pleasant is this lily-pool !
" How nice and cool ! "
Be off, you long-legged flies ! O what a spree !
To drive the flies from off the lily-pool !
From off this most sufficient, absolute lily-pool.
The subject of this very original poem contributed to its success by making Brown's habit of somewhat stupid repetition singularly appropriate to the occasion. In the poem entitled " Sad! Sad !" for instance, where the word "sad" in six ejaculatory stanzas is repeated some thirty times, the additional repetition of other words like "not" is peculiarly irritating :
One world I know and see
It is not at his feet
Not, not ! Is this the sum ?
Not, not! the heaven is dumb
I bear His stigmata
Or not (etc. )
Brown himself was fully aware of the uneven quality of his work, and spoke of his poems jestingly as "mixed pickles" and " lucky-bags." Yet he was thoroughly assured of their soundness and value, ` It is odd," he wrote, "but, do you know, I have a perfectly serene confidence in their future, How it will come to pass I am not prepared to say, nor does it much matter." One thing we may say with certainty that if his poems have a futuro it will not be because of their artistic or poetic value, His confidence was possibly justified; but they will be read as we now read Izaak Walton, because we like spending an afternoon with the man, not because we think he is among the great poets. A better companion than Brown for a country stroll it would be difficult to suggest; but one line of Wordsworth or Browning would outweigh as poetry all at Brown in all his volumes has to tell about God or nature,
[From the Melbourne " Argus," July 4th. ]
A distinguished Australian visitor has handed to us the following extract from the "Melbourne Argus," the Free Trade paper. It shows what our cousins think of the great Manxman. The article is signed by Walter Murdoch.
The appearance of a selection from the poems of Thomas Edward Brown, in the well-known "Golden Treasury" series a series regarded with affection by every lover of good literature may serve as text for a few random words of appreciation by an admirer of many years' anding. I need make no apology for adopting the tone of a critic drawing attention to a new writer; strange as that tone may seem to those who know that some of Brown's best work was before the world in time to win the admiration of Robert Browning and of George Eliot. That writing of such rare excellence must ultimately win its way to wide fame, that sooner or later it will be known for what it is one of the very best things left by the nineteenth century to be prized by the twentieth no one who knows it well can for a moment doubt; but it has not yet won anything like real popularity. And this, in spite of the unwearying championship of it by men eminent in letters men like the late W, E. Henley, Mr Quiller-Couch, and others who came, either as fellow-teachers or as pupils at Clifton or elsewhere, under the spell of Brown's singularly engaging personality.
Still, he has always had his circle of readers, and this circle has been steadily, if slowly, widening ever since the appearance, in the early 'seventies, of his first book I think it was his first "Betsy Lee a Fo'c's'le Yarn," The editor of the new volume of selections remarks, in the course of an admirable introductory note, that " though Brown is not yet so widely known as he probably will be, it is nevertheless certain that he has a growing number of admirers both in England and the colonies." That is true; we may note in particular two facts which seem to indicate that after a quarter of a century of neglect, this great writer is at last coming to his own. The first fact is this appearance of a part, at least, of his work in an inexpensive form; in the form, moreover, of a popular classic. The second fact is the existence in Melbourne an outlandish place, remote indeed, as Matthew Arnold would have said, from "the centre " of a flourishing "Brown Society," which dedicates its collective energy to the study of the Manx poet.
I have had the privilege of attending one or two meetings of this small but vigorous society, and if I may be permitted to play the part of amateur reporter for the nonce of hearing Mr Deakin pay (in one of those inimitable speeches by which he unkindly reminds us, from time to time, of the heavy loss Australian literature has suffered by his immersion in politics) an eloquent tribute to Brown's genius. Especially striking and suggestive was the series of antithesis they would have delighted the heart of Macaulay! in which Mr Deakin summed up Brown's paradoxi cal character. Here, he said, was a born storyteller unable to tell a simple story without overlaying its incidents and personages with an inexhaustible profusion of digressions. Here was a devout Christian minister, apparently holding all the orthodox doctrines, but naively interpreting them in a cheerfully heterodox way. Here was a scholar, a true scholar, whose mouthpiece was an uncultured son of the sea. (Mr Deakin was referring to Tom Baynes, the imaginary narrator of the " Fo'c's'le Yarns.") Here was a devout classic by taste, reading, and theory, who was in practice an ultra-romantic a Hugo mania by his own confession, unable to appreciate the restraints and reticences of the true French masters, including Sainte-Beuve. Here was a pious clergy-man who revelled in Theophile Gautier on the Saturday as a preliminary to preaching two sound sermons on the Sunday. Suggestive, also, was Mr Deakin's comparison of Brown and Matthew Arnold, two men who are brought close to one another by classical learning and classical sympathies, but who, as poets, are as unlike one another as it is possible for two true poets to be. . . . I would gladly go on quoting, but must forbear; for Mr Deakin was speaking to those who knew Brown's work already, and my business, for the moment, is with those who have scarce heard his name. This is not the place, of course, for a critical estimate of his work; I do not propose to dwell upon his defects, which are obvious enough and grave enough; what I wish to do is merely to indicate, in a few words, the qualities which in spite of those defects combine to place Brown, for me at least, among the di majores of our literature.
His verse passes easily the first test of poetry; it is his own, It has an unmistakable savour of its own ; it is racy of the mind from which it sprang. It is, of course, impossible to describe this savour. It may be that, as Mr Swinburne says, the test of the highest poetry is that it eludes all tests. What is certain, at all events, is that the qualities which give individuality to a man's work elude all analysis, I sometimes think the peculiar piquancy of Brown's style may be due, in part, to the fact that he was a primitive child of Nature who took a double first at Oxford; a faun who elected to wear cap and gown. However that may be, the flavour is unmistakable. It is not, of course, to be perceived in the very first line of him that one reads; you must read on, you must get to know him, you must learn, as it were, his language, before you become sensitive to the singular and wayward charm which his crudest fragment possesses for those who are familiar with his work as a whole.
The first, and perhaps the most abiding, impression that one gets from his poetry is an impression of full and exuberant life, Here was a man, you feel, who lived and felt intensely. He did nothing by halves; he enjoyed greatly and he suffered greatly. He has been likened to a volcano, con stantly ineruption. He was a schoolmaster most of his life, and the atmosphere of the schoolroom never wildly exhilaratix4g must have been peculiarly depressing to such a nature. In the schoolroom, doubtless,
His cabin'd, ample spirit,
It fluttered and failed for breath,
not once, but continually. But it is hard to imagine any sphere in which he could have quenched his insatiable thirst for life. If, as a great critic has recently assured us, " life, and the will to live eagerly, are the breath and fire of poetry," assuredly the poetry of Brown is blown through and through with that breath and is everywhere ablaze with that fire, This abounding vitality of his finds its clearest and most powerful expression, I think, in the "Fo'c's'le Yarns," with their astonishing verve and swing, These stories rush along, with a kind of uproarious garrulity, in those loose, untrammelled measures in which his genius always moves most easily,
He was indeed a born storyteller ; which makes his unpopularity, in an age which worships fiction, the more inexplicable, He was the master of a pathos as poignant and tender as anything in ninethenth-century literature; and he was the master or, if you will, the slave of a. humour well-nigh Rabelaisian in its breadth and richness. (" There are nice Rabelaisians," says Brown in one of his letters, " and there are nasty, but the latter are not Rabelaisians.") He had, moveover, the keenest eye for character, and an unerring hand in the presentment thereof, Tom Baynes (" old salt, old rip, old friend !"), Parson Gale, and the Doctor to have become acquainted with these three excellent Manxmen is to have made three friends for life. In short, as a narrative poet Brown is very nearly in the front rank; quite in the front rank of nine-teenth century narrative poets.
My one quarrel with the editor of the new volume is that in it Brown the story-teller is very ill-represented. " Mary Quayle " and " Bella Gorry " each good in its way are not nearly so interesting as the stories written in the Manx dialect a dialect, I may remark in passing, which presents no difficulty whatever to the English-speaking reader, To make up for this (perhaps unavoidable) defect, the little volume contains the whole of Brown's published lyrical work; and in his lyrical work two of the qualities I have spoken of the humour and the pathos are abundantly in evidence. (Read, for the former, the rollicking " In the Coach " series; for the latter, " Mater Dolorosa," a little poem not fifty lines long, which would alone have sufficed to set its author among the great masters of pity.) Moreover, it is Brown's lyrical work that best reveals to us a quality of which I have not yet spoken. the man's passion for nature, a passion as burning and intense as Wordsworth's own, though he never managed to render it in terms of consummate beatify as Wordsworth did. His love of nature, like Wordsworth's and like Mr Meredith's, is allied with a profound optimism. He was a man in love with life, He had his philosophic side, of course; he had his doubts, and they found frequent and poignant expression in his verse in the agonised questionings of "Aber Stations" and, for a crowning instance, in the splendid audacities of " Dartmoor," But his doubts never touched, I think, the central core of his being; at heart he was not a reasoner, but like all great poets and all great optimists a mystic, He loved nature, and she rewarded , him as she rewarded Wordsworth, with a gift of unwavering faith and unfathomable tranquility. ' It was by and through his reverent passion for nature that he "had the ultimate vision"; and he found that vision surpassingly fair.
The limits of my allotted space are reached, and I have only begun to say what I wanted to say. But perhaps even these few inadequate words may suffice to win a new reader or two for one of the freshest, sanest, and joyfullest of modern poets.