The Saturday Review: Massey's Poems.

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The Saturday Review

March 5, 1859.

Robert Burns, a Centenary Song; and other Lyrics.

By Gerald Massey.

London: Kent (late Bogue).


Mr. GERALD MASSEY is of course the very man to write about Burns, because he is, as they say, sprung from the people.  He brought every popular attraction with him to his first publication; for it is not now, as in the days of Burns or Bloomfield, or even of Stephen Duck, that a man's verses are not read because he is a labourer, a weaver, or a thrasher. Much the reverse—it is the lord's verses which, ex hypotesi, must be bad, and the labourer's which must be good.  Virtue is most virtuous when it is clothed in homespun, if not in rags.  At any rate, there is no safer investment for a bookseller than to publish "the poems of a young man who," in a criticism attributed by Mr. Massey's publishers to the Times, but which we find it hard to believe could ever have appeared there, is said to have "fought his way to the Temple-gate sword in hand"—a feat which suggests to us that Mr. Massey's first appearance at Mr. Bogue's shop in Fleet-street in this bellicose fashion must have caused considerable astonishment to that respectable publisher.  The people's poet, then, has every chance in his favour—he is secure of an audience who speaks from the crowd.

    But the fact that a singer rises from the ranks, though it surrounds him at once with unusual sympathies, does not isolate him from criticism.  If he has his special advantages, he has his special dangers.  A certain narrowness of mind is inseparable from all self-taught geniuses.  The education which experience of books and men alone can give is not superseded by any amount of individual gifts.  The very consciousness of power tends to make all men, and especially poets, supercilious.  As a class, they are impatient of others; and the living sense of power tends to make them contemptuous and rash.  No uneducated man every attained the very highest rank in poetry; and Mr. Massey is no exception.  We deny him the possession of neither fancy nor facility.  He has an eye for external beauty; he can analyse his own feelings; he has an ear for melody and a bold and earnest spirit; and when he writes simply from his own heart, he writes with feeling and grace.  But with the outer world of men he has a harsh and unsympathizing communion.  He has heard that poets are kindled into poetry by wrong, and so he looks out for wrong as his theme.  He seems to hold that the people's poet should have only an eye to the evils of society; on these he dwells, these he exaggerates, these he holds up to scorn and contempt.  But this is at most only half of the poet's calling, if it is his at all.  Mr. Gerald Massey can only see in a Lord's daughter—we are alluding to his Lady Laura—a bride for a factory spinner.  In the great manufacturing life of nations, so prolific of substantial good and greatness to a country, and therefore so fit for the highest poet's reverent acceptance, he can see but—

Cheapness, Free Trade, and such Economy
As suck their strength from human blood and tears;
Feeding on beauty's cheek and childhood's spring;
Shredding with wintry hand life's leafy prime.

And in politics and government he call only view, on the one side, a vast overpowering tyranny—on the other, an impotent people ("peoples" is, of course, his slang phrase) ground to powder by a rich and blood-sucking aristocracy.  There is nothing, perhaps, to prevent a Socialist and a Chartist from being a poet.  At any rate Alton Locke was tailor, chartist, and poet, according to Mr. Kingsley, and Mr. Massey exemplifies the same mental affinities.  But their poetry is not the highest.   The singer's mind is narrowed and the poetical faculty debased by making it the medium of this very narrow, and, after all, very selfish view of social relations.  Ebenezer Elliott was better when he did not write on Corn-laws especially; and when Mr. Massey wrote "The Mother's Idol Broken," and more especially, that charming and delicious poem, "The White Rose of all the World"**—that is, when he wrote from the heart, and not as the Tyrtćus of the Morning Advertiser—there were great hopes of him.

    We regret to say that, like Mr. Dickens, Mr. Massey is forgetting his vocation and mistaking his powers.  His recent collection of poems shows no improvement.  His crudeness has become rough, his asperity is bitterness, his one-sidedness has hardened into vituperation, and he is debasing the poet into the tap-room spouter.  He still might win an abiding place in literature if he would leave off politics.  Not that we dislike his politics, on the whole—there is a sound English hatred in his denunciations of the French Emperor, and his estimate of Lord Palmerston differs but little from our own.  Only there is a way of treating these things.  They are scarcely the poet's subjects.  Mr. Massey has been led astray by Mr. Kingsley.  He has been told that the true poetry of the present age is in the workshops, and in the society of the million, and in debating-club orations on foreign politics, and in the domestic sociology of the nineteenth century; and so he does not consider it below the dignity of his calling and his powers to spin such doggrel as the following—which we object to, not because it is not in its way true, but because it is not the poet's function to say it. Hero are two political silhouettes—the first is from his volume Craigcrook Castle, the last from his recent publication:—

So England hails the Saviour of Society, and will tarry at
His feet, nor see his Christ is he who sold him, curst Iscariot.
By grace of God, or sleight of hand, he wears the royal vesture,
And at thy throne, Divine Success! we kneel with reverent gesture,
                      And bow, wow, wow; *
We may go to the Devil, so it's just as well to bow.
              *             *             *             *            *            *
All, Louis, had you come to us despisčd and rejected,
You might have gone to—Coventry, unnoticed and neglected;
But as you've done one nation so, and left another undone,
We kiss you, Sire, at Windsor, crown you more than king in London,
                      And bow, wow, wow,*
We may go to the Devil, so it's just as well to bow.

[* Ed. — The reviewer misquotes Massey's poem—the line should read… "And bow, bow, bow:"
 ** The reviewer probably refers to canto VII of 'The Mother's Idol Broken.' ]

The other is yet more amusing:—

Our greatest of men is Harlequin Pam,
The Times says so, and the Times cannot bam!
He bullies the Weak, to the strong he's a slave;
Best card in the pack, when the Despots play knave!
How he jauntily trips up the Palace back-stair,
To quiet the mob in the Public Square!
Look up, what a firework of words red-hot!
But lo! in the enemy's camp not a shot!
Pam, Pam, you're it wonderful sham,
And we can't do without you, old Harlequin Pam!
England, this is the man for you!
The Times says so, anti it must be true.
*             *             *             *            *            *
But ere long another high wind will blow,
Then ho! ho! but the crowns will go!
And what will they do if this Judas of Freedom then
Can't help the Despots who terribly need him then?
Pam, Pam, you're a wonderful sham, &c. &c.

All this is funny enough; but if, when turned into prose, it means that the great social reform which Mr. Massey wants is a repetition of 1848, we beg to say that we have more sympathy with the bard who, as Mr. Massey does—and with an iteration which, though approaching to the tedious, is touching and natural, because the one string is, as in deep sorrow, monotonously touched—tenderly and truly paints his own pretty tale of love, and marriage, and bereavement, than with a politician of this fuliginous hue, though he be, as he tells us in his preface, one who can speak of himself as "we who kicked out the Conspiracy Bill."  We, are very glad that the Conspiracy Bill was kicked out, but it was not kicked out by Mr. Massey's "we," and we wish him a better calling than to be the bard of the coming Red Republic.

    The first piece in the present collection is one of the defeated Prize Poems for the Burns Celebration at the Crystal Palace.  It stood fourth in the award, and strikes us as being neither much better nor worse than Miss Isa Craig's crowned ode.  It is to the full as exaggerated, and not worse in metre—a halting, stumbling, trailing, plusquam Alexandrian, as thus:—

Although your mortal face is veiled behind the spirit-wings,
You draw us up to Heaven—the Lark, when its music in him sings:
You fill our souls with tender awe, you make our faces shine;
You brim our cup with kindness here, for sake of Auld Lang Syne, &c.

And, as in the prize poem, there is in Mr. Massey's verses the same exaggeration of the poetic rank of his hero, and the same ethical falsity of representing the coarseness, the lack of education, the intemperance, the absence of self-control, and the passionate uncalculating nature of Burns as the sources of his greatness, rather than what they were—actual abatements and abuses of his undeniable gifts.  In the poem, "The Old Flag," we recognise, with the political defects we have pointed out, a true and earnest English spirit; and at least one stanza in which the French Emperor is alluded to is neatly put, and because less ardent in language, is happy and almost prophet-like:—

The Tyrant sometimes waxeth strong,
    To drag a fate inure fearful down;
He violates Justice, who ere long
    Shall see Eternal Justice frown.
The Kings of Crime from near and far
    Shall come to crown him with their crown;
Under the shadow of doom, his star
    Shall redden, and go down.

    An ode on Captain Peel, "Sir Robert's Sailor Son," is quite in the right spirit. As to the slighter and non-political poems, we regret to be unable to trace any signs of growth.  They would have been pleasant reading in Mr. Massey's first volume—they are disappointing in his third.  There is nothing in his present collection which supports the promise of the "Mother's Idol Broken," itself no unworthy echo of the "In Memoriam"—nothing in the patriotic songs which sustains the ring of "Glimpses of the War."  In fact, this collection—a sumptuous quarto—looks rather as if it had been well paid for, and made up for sale, for the most part, from the rejected pieces of the previous volume.  Mr. Massey has not forgotten his mannerism; and a certain slang of the spasmodic school clings to him.  For example, there is the use of the word "grand," which is as certainly a Shibboleth in these teachers as the recognised "Come to Jesus" is in Evangelical sermons.  We doubt if there is one of these poems which does not apply the word "grand" in a moral sense, which it never bore till about twelve years ago.  Burns' eyes are—

Sweet and clear, and calm and grand as are the eyes of heaven.

"Scotland's music" is "sorrowfully grand."  The British Lion is of course "grand;" so are our sea cliff's; so are "the praying peoples."  To Captain Peel he can but say, "You grow so grand," which in the ordinary sense of the word is scarcely a compliment.  When he turns "God Save the Queen" into "God bless our Land," Mr. Massey cannot but pray—

God bless our native land,
Glorious, and grave, and grand.

And we are to—

Lead her in triumph grand,
                       Our leal old land.

Hugh Miller's was—

the grandest head in all Scotland.

Nor is this a mere verbal criticism.  Mr. Massey uses this adjective, not because it conveys any substantial and characterizing meaning, but simply because it is vague and sonorous.  That is to say, he conceals poverty of thought in haziness of expression, as do many of his school.  He says "grand" because he has no very distinct meaning at all.  Much of the poetry of the day is difficult to make out, for the best of all reasons, that there is nothing to make out.  It is obscure in sense, because there is but little sense; it is involved in construction, because the writer does not think clearly; it is hard to construe, because the writer puts his no-meaning into bad grammar.

 



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