[from Collected Works, T.E.Brown]
You are told that to many he was only a local poet, a party who rhymed in dialecta kind of beggar at Apollos gate ; and you are told by academic personsthings made after supper at the Muses table out of a melon rindthat he was one affected and unskilled in letters. You are told, too, that to a friend who feigned to condole with him for that his name was not found in a certain list of minor poets, " Perhaps," he said" perhaps I am among the majors." A major poet ? Tis a magnificent assumption, a Great Perhaps indeed ; yet to read this Complete Edition of his verse is to be with him in it heart and soul. I knew it all before ; and I have taken it all again ; and I will avow my conviction that when I wrote of it as " the fullest expression of life " we of these late years have been privileged to consider and enjoy, I stated a case so baldly and so niggardly that my statement clamours for enhancement. The Letters have shown what manner of man Brown was how personal, how many-sided ; how humorous and how passionate ; how rich in sentiment, yet how abounding in farce ; how brilliantly and variously lettered, and how in-alterably humane ; how strong in discipline, how quick with the defensive spirit, yet how riotously accidental, how beautifully unpedantic. Well, to state that that particular Brown unpacked his heart in words, and here they areto state this, I say, should be enough for all them that have the sense of character and the right delight in letters. Brown was ever so many things : scholar, talker, mimic, fctrceur, preacher, teacher, schoolmaster, musician, lover of nature, lover of man. Yet of his very essence, before all these differences, before the talker and the mimic even, there was the man of letters, there was the artist in style. To his father (so he tells you) style was like the instinct of personal cleanliness. To himself it was that and some-thing more : it was his best birthright, the master-jewel in his inheritance. To think of him beggared of any one or two of his many gifts is hard. To think of him without his literary faculty is impossible. And this hook of his is one long, triumphing proof of it.
The contents fall naturally into two parts. On the one hand are the verses in English : they are models of English verse. On the other are the poems in dialect ; and of them it is not too much to say that they are unique. The great exemplar is Burns, whose achievement is a culmination, and whose genius as it were focusses the vocal talent of a race. But I think it could be shown, and shown easily, that there is nothing to compare in Burns to the wealth of life and humour and fancy that is packed into these Focsle Yarns of Browns ; while in the matter of style, the sovran quality, the Manxman, with his immense vocabulary, his notable feeling for expression, his all-round training, his high and fine sense of literaturethe Manxman, I say, had nothing to learn of the Scot. Burns, however, has his tradition, and his tradition is over a century old ; while Brown is even of them that died o Wednesday, and his tradition, which he created, is all in front of him ; so that tis idle, on the face of it, to sketch comparisons between the two. But, to place a good thing, one cannot but approach the best ; and in Browns case, far more than in most others, none but the best will serve. For the rest, my appeal to Burns will, I doubt not, move many to laughter in these days, and many to wrath. That is in the nature of things. Fifty years hence the comparison will seem less arbitrary than now, and the conclusion will certainly be held not nearly so impavid as it reads to-day.
In any event here is a poet who is also a man, and who writes, whether in fine English or in the " asynartete octosyllables " of Tom Baynes, like a master : so that his work, whether in English or in Manx, should go straight to the brain and heart of everybody that loves good poetry. That it will do so at once I do not for one moment believe. The manner is too personal, the man too instant, too intent on himself and on what he has to say, too violent, and also too clean-spoken, too curiously set on having nothing dubitable in his utterance. At a first glance he has a kind of likeness to Browning. But come to intimacy, and the shadow flees, the likeness dislimns : you find that the one man does, where the other man has but feigned ; that books and life have been to the one what books alone were to the other ; that the one knew and postulated, while the other curious, eager, irrelevant for the most part, largely inarticulateonly groped and fumbled after knowledge, and was content to fumble and grope in speech as he had done before in idea. All the same, there remains a like-ness ; and, time and again, in reading Brown you come upon a fancy, an image, half-beautiful and half-grotesque, but realisedrealised to the last dowle on the feather, so to say :
This sea was Lazarus, all day
At Dives gate he lay,
And lapped the crumbs . .
The beggar dies:
Forthwith the Channel, coast to coast,
Is Abrahams bosom, and the beggar lies
A lovely ghost
till. you rub your eyes as you read, and think :" Hullo! heres Browning doing itbut doing it doing it as he never did it before ! " As to their gospel, it is substantially the same. But Browning preaches it, even "local-preaches" it : as in Rabbi Ben Ezra, and Cleon, and that Death in the Desert in which he seeksa strange ambition, surely to convert Straussor is it Renan ?to the turn of thought and the way of belief of good, fair-living, high-thinking Clapham. Browns, on the other hand, is blazoned or implied in all he does ; and in all he does the Teacher and the Poet are one. Tis a true mans optimism that bears him up and through and on : there is nothing servile about it, nothing parsonical, nor spasmic, nor pot-valiant. He lives and does and suffersah, how he suffers 2 But if there be wailing and gnashing of teeth, there is always the man behind ; and in the man there is always the optimist: and the lesson to be learned from both is constant and unchanging. As for Tennyson, he imitates that unrivalled writer of verses a little languidly, a little distantly, in Bella Gorry. But when, when can we imagine our unrivalled writer of verses telling such a story as Bella Gorrys? Having all his work before us, the answer is easy. Tennyson could never have told us such a story, because, in despite of Rizpah, he was never interestednot really interested in maternity, but only in the processes, charming or not, by which maternity becomes possible. Brown, however, has done the thing" Nursing the baby ! " So Parson Gale for all time ; and has done it in verse which in its languid intolerance of difficulties is, while entirely self-sufficing, by no means a bad criticism of Tennysons own. That for the larger lines, the big outward semblances. When it comes to comparisons, achievements, intricacies, I think there is scarce one alive (so besotted am I in my view of the reading Briton ! )I think there is scarce one alive who reads verse habitually, and knows the difference between truth and falsehood, that will prefer Browns Chalse a Killey before the old, thrice-laurelled Laureates May Queen. And yet and yet ! Tennyson makes a pretty, sentimental picture, and runs you on a May Queen that never could have been in any circumstances regnant on this globe. Brown, on the other hand, takes his Chalse, and carries him through all sorts of strange, ridiculous experiences :
And I did play upon a comb
and makes you love and pity him long or you are done with the verse in which he s celebrate. Surely in the presence of such a brave, pathetic reality the May Queen, with Robin, and the silver-haired parson, and the garden-tools (" upon the grannary floor "), even the matchless touches of dumb nature :
When from the dry dark wold the summer airs blow cool
On the oat-grass, and the sword-grass, and the bulirush in the pool
surely these are nothing ? I am speaking still of Browns English verses. But if I turn to dialect, and bring out the Mater Dolorosa, where, I ask, is Tennyson then? Tis but thirty to forty lines of half-Manx, half-English speech : the wail of a woman with her true time gone for nothing, and her weary womb, and her baffled breast clamantclamant ! Yet outside this book of Browns I look for its like in vain.
He loved to live. It was good to him to be alive, and to steep himself in life as it was revealed to him in the breathing, sentient, passionate environment of which he was the centre. There is scarce one of these English poems of his but is the cry of a living man. However strait and severe the form, the soul of it tingles and throbs with being ; and where the utterance is personalas in the Epistola, and Aber Stations, and the Sunset at Chagford the effect is perdurably and essentially poignant. There are moments, indeed, when that odd confession of his : " I am a born sobber " : recurs to the mind with an insistence that is not wholly agreeable : when you pause to wonder to what heights of self-revelation he might not have risen had he not been the artist, above all the humorist, he was. I believe that, in his heart of hearts, he was not averse from " wallowing naked in the pathetic " ; but I am sure that, if this were so, his inexhaustible humour, his fine sense of things as they are, that solemn and chastened joy in the Abstract Fool which he confesses that he had, his abounding humanity, his unending interest in the comedy of life these kept him straight. And thus it was that, if times there came when he let himself go, and made as if he heat out his heart against the wires of the cage in which, by Gods will (that was an essential in his theory of the world), he was cabined, he was never so lost to good literary manners that the glimpse of a landscape, or the conscious-ness of a character, could not, and did not, call him back to his greater and better self. Man and nature, nature and man, romantically and humorously considered : these were the two elements in the scene in which he exulted with a right sense of mastery. And it is to note that he selected neither, but took them both as they caine to him, like the faithful, all-accepting optimist he was. God had made things so, and therefore things were to be taken and treated as God made them : the rough with the smooth, storm with shine, the harlot with the maid, what ought to be but isnt with what neednt have been but is. Hence, I take it, his indefatigable interest, whether humorous or tragic, in the thing called character. He wanted it, anyhow and anywhere. But he preferred it as it is : not altogether good nor altogether bad. If he light on a kind of saintas in Parson Galehe does him all the honour he can ; but all the reverence he shows for Parson Gale, and all the delight he has in Parson Gale, do not for a moment prevent him from telling the squalid underside of the Parsons life with Mrs. Gale (Christmas Rose). It is just this blessed gift of seeing people as they are, and not as they ought to be, which makes Brown the man of men, and so the poet among poets, that he is. Take Peggys Wedding, for instance, and you will ee at once that it is imitated from Swift ; 3 but you will also see, if you have any taste of letters in you, that it is infinitely better art than Swifts, in that it gives you, with a touch of primal farce, but with not so much as the hint of a departure from the big lines of human nature, two characters whom you have never met before, but whom you will know to your dying day. And that sequence of portraitures called In The Coachis there anything like them elsewhere ? And is there any fault to find with them for what they are ? And the Mater Dolorosathe poor, half-articulate creature, with her frustrated instinct, and her aching bosom, and her reeling brainwho is there, as I said before, that has done the like for us ? Not Tennyson, or he had been an even greater poet than he was ; and not Browning, or he d have reeled you off some fifty pages of blank verse, with a cry or two here and there, and a dagger, or a bowl, to wind up withal. Societies would certainly have raged together over the discrepancy between what the heroine said and what her historian obviously intended to have it thought she meant ; and, about these high matters, we might, were the poet still alive,4 be fighting, fighting evermore. That, though, is not Browns way. He does not sit himself down to writeor, rather, half-writethe facts, and all the facts that develop from them, and all the developments from those developments, as nearly exhibited as an imperfect articulation, and a flux of words and fancies, and a partial under-standing of the central circumstance, and a puzzle-headed theory of art, will permit. Not a bit of it. Forty lines or so, and his effect is complete. He deals with nothing but essentials ; and his Mater Dolorosa is an achievement apart in our various and noble literature. That it is the result of " wallowing " as aforesaid may be cheerfully conceded. Stevenson did not so wallow : knowing his own talent as he knew itand he knew it as a runner knows his pace, or a cricketer his best hithe was certainly right. But Shakespeare did ; so did Dickens ; so did Scott. And I conceive that Brown, could we but come at him now, would far rather sin with theseScott, Dickens, Shakespearethan be saved with Stevenson.
The moral of this, however, is irrelevant : is only polemic, literary polemicpolemic, that is, which is found at the end to have its source, its roots, its " strong foundations " in the quality called taste, and is therefore a thing disputable by everybody who does not happen to see eye to eye, or rather to feel stomach and stomach, with the original opinionist. In the circumstances it is better to go on with the consideration of Brown the poet, and especially the poet of Focsle Yarns, the rough-and-ready verses,5 into which he expressed, not merely all the Manxman in him hut also, all his humour, all his passionate love of nature, all his unrivalled interest in character, all his theory of life and the World and Time, and therewith as much of the experience and the results, observed and apprehended, of his long and varied and peculiar life as the number of lines he wrote would hold. It is in some sort to their disadvantage that they are written in dialect ; for the public which reads verse is easily frightened from its purpose, and had far liefer read plain English than (let us say) good Scots : so that, other qualities apart, Burnseven Burns! can never capture nor control in any latitude south of his own midden a fortieth, even a five-hundredth, part of that publicmany-mooded, indiscriminating, fulsomewhich is as it were the natural inheritance of Byron, or Tennyson, or even Keats. And the worst is, that Brown being a convinced and resolute artist, the public gets no help from him. He does not write Manx as Barnes wrote Dorsetese: he does not, that is, write English verses with a local accent, but otherwise with " two gowns and everything handsome about them." On the contrary, his syntax and his prosody are the Islands own, and he will bate you no ace of her claim to be heard on her own peculiar conditions in her own especial terms. Barnes, I take it, wrote in English, and added the local accent (as, by the way, at times did Burns) ; so that, if you feel not equal to an encounter with his rustichis so-called rusticMuse, you have but to bid her change her shoes and stockings, and get out of those pinners, and the like, and she falls at once to her native tongue, which is clean Wordsworthian English. Browns Tom Baynes" Old salt, old rip, old friend ! "is not at all like this. In his use of ManxEnglish he is just as much Manx and just as little English as his author : who, indeed, invented him as a sort of escape-pipe for the mingled steam of English and Manx which was constantly generating in his own boiler. The effect is as remarkable as I know in verse ; and I see no earthly reason why that select and careful public, which is addicted to the reading of verse, should not put in its spoon and sup with the best of us. The dialect is, no doubt, an hindrance and an offence. But, after all, a dialect is soon mastered ; and once you realise that " priddhas " = potatoes, that " pin-jane " = curds and whey, that " arrim " and " gorrim " are only localisms for at him and got him, that " at " is a kind of preposition-of-all-work, and means at or by or about, exactly as the speaker wills, there is little indeed in Brown the Manxman to keep you at a halt. And there are such worlds to bring you on!
Open the Yarns where you will, it matters not : the book being the Yarns, you are ever assured of some matchless expression of somethinga bee in a flower, an easy pipe, a night in the cells, a sailors home, a fugue of Bachs, a man in drink, a woman in love, white witchcraft and black, the pool at Bethesda, a storm at sea, a carted harlot, a summer dawn, a milking, a local genius, a perfect priest-que sçays-je ~ The Yarns are rich as life itself in character, emotion, experience, tragedy, farce, comedy, fact ; and there is none of their innumerable details but is presented with an assurance, an understanding of essentials, a mastery of means that stamp its presentation as literature. As for poetry, what is poetry ? " The only words in the only order " ? So be it. Apply the test to these Focsle Yarns, and you will find at once that, given the dialect, they also are poetry, and poetry of the great, authentic strain. Tis small wonder to me that he who made them believed that they would triumph in the end. He thought they would nourish and enkindle and bring on the great Manx poet. I do not agree with him. I also believe in them ; but I believe in them for themselves. We may be wrong : he, the master, I, the pupilwe may both be wrong. What is certain is that if the great Manx poet ever come along, here is as rare and fortifying a compost for him to nuzzle his genius in as poet ever had.
After all, though, talking about Brown the poet is use-less. There is nothing for it but reading him : in his English, first, certainlyin all his heights and deeps, in all his brilliancies and in all his " wallowings." High or low, radiant or despondent, here is a poet. You love the style, or you do not ; but here is a poet a poet in English. And next is what I think the best of all the Browns we havethe Brown of the Manx things and the Yarns. Herein is vastly more than there is in most of the verse written of late about peculiar neighbour-hoods, by rhymesters of all grades of talent and accomplishment, from the departed Laureate downwards. And the end is, simply : " Master the dialect, and read." Master Browns dialect, such as it is, and become a worshipper of Brown. After all, his Tom Baynes is infinitely better and more variously lettered than most of our Laureates have been, and has, besides, a very great deal to say that none of our Laureates as yet has had the wit to conceive:
seeing that Tom Baynes is the most of that was written on the heart of T. E. B. This I say with, as I think, a good working knowledge of what was done for art and for the race by such laurelled sons of the God as Jonson, Wordsworth, Tennyson. But, despite the magnificent achievements of these three(the others, Dryden excepted, scarce count)I hold that none is greater and sounder than Browns ; that there are essentials in which all are less than Browns. That is for the years to approve. Meanwhile, one thing is certain : no better man has lived, and not many that were stronger or more helpful to their kind.
1 The Pall Mall Magazine, December 1900.
2 See Aber Stations , and the thrice-admirable Epistola ad Dakyns, and the daring, the grotesque, the wonderful and taking Dartmoor: Sunset al Chagford (a piece he never revised for press), with many things besides.
3 I was privileged to give it to the world : or rather, to that tiny section of the world which read The National Observer. And, in sending it, he quoted his model.
4 A great matter. The Master dead, your Society resolves itself into nothingness, and you look for excitement (intellectual or other) elsewhere,
5 So they seem. But to look carefully into their structure, and consider the means by which they achieve their effect is to see that they are a result of deliberate art.