Isa Craig: Duchess Agnes, &c.

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THE ATHENÆUM

No. 1942, JAN. 14, 1865

Duchess Agnes, &c.   By Isa Craig. (Strahan.)


WE took occasion to quote a lyric full of suggestive sweetness, by Miss Isa Craig, on the wedding of the Prince.  Miss Craig now presents us with a book of verse which will certainly give her a place among the sisterhood of living singers, whether or not she may win and wear a wreath amongst those who live for aye.  The book contains much better poetry than the Burns Ode, which was considerably strained and flamboyant, and really unnatural to both subject and writer.  Here is a fine image:—

But when begins
The array for battle, and the trumpet blows,
A King must leave the feast, and lead the fight.
        And with its mortal foes,—
Grim gathering hosts of sorrows and of sins,—
        Each human soul must close.
        And Fame her trumpet blow
Before him; wrapped him in her purple state;
And made him mark for all the shafts of Fate,
        That henceforth round him flew.

But it is especially inappropriate when applied to Burns.  He fell, poor fellow, because he did not make any such noble fight for it!  The exaltation of the image only leaves us more depressed as we think of the sad reality.  Miss Craig fails when she would "have at the sublime"; she succeeds and is often very happy when content with that golden mean which is natural to her.  Her Muse is not a grand lady; has nothing of the heroic about her—that is, the heroic according to the popular ideal.  She is not gorgeous, nor fantastic, nor full of flame, but a homely, hearty little gentlewoman, meek of aspect, simple of speech, gravely glad, serenely bright, full of quiet life and kindly sympathies.  Her poetry is best when most true to these natural qualities.  A drama, for instance, was far beyond the great-hearted little woman's reach.  The heart may be big enough to embrace the world and yet the arms too weak to bring home for us a single sheaf of bound-up human characters.  Here is no power for adequately dealing with problems such as have rent humanity as with devils in the dark, and perplexed the subtlest thinkers who stood in the fullest and clearest light;—no stern strength capable of grasping men in mail and feeling the life underneath, wielding the raging mob, mad with ignorance and superstition, or stripping cloak and cowl from wily, plotting priests.  The feminine plea may be urged, that the drama is a very little one.  So it is.  And if we were sure the writer had not set her heart upon the bantling—was not especially proud of it—we might find a word or two in its favour. There is one direct glance of dramatic insight well conveyed in the scene where the Duchess Agnes, with her heart sinking and her life running away from her at prospect of parting with her husband,—who leaves her surrounded with perils, can look a look so full of love from out her suddenly-emptied life as shall make the Duke exclaim

Thanks, Agnes, for that look of full consent.

Whereas her heartstrings are cracking to hold him fast, and his going means literal death to her.  Also, there is no lack of felicitous lines that show the genuine poetic touch.  And, with all its weakness, the drama does succeed in holding up, with piteous appeal, the frail form and patient face of the doomed Duchess, as of a lily bowed and broken in the storm.

    But, turning to the minor poems, we shall there find Miss Craig doing more justice to herself and her subject.  Here, for example, is a little lilt that suggests a story and makes a music of its own:—

NEVER TO KNOW.

One within in a crimson glow,
        Silently sitting;
One without on the fallen snow,
        Wearily flitting;
        Never to know
That one looked out with yearning sighs,
While one looked in with wistful eyes,
        And went unwitting.

What came of the one without, that so
        Wearily wended?
Under the stars and under the snow
        His journey ended!
        Never to know
That the answer came to those wistful eyes,
But passed away in those yearning sighs,
        With night winds blended.

What came of the one within, that so
        Yearned forth with sighing?
More sad, to my thinking, her fate, the glow
        Drearily dying;
        Never to know
That for a moment her life was nigh,
And she knew it not and it passed her by,
        Recall denying.

These were two hearts that long ago—
        Dreaming and waking—
Each to a poet revealed its woe,
        Wasting and breaking;
        Never to know
That if each to other had done but so!
Both had rejoiced in the crimson glow,

And one had not lain 'neath the stars and snow

          Forsaken—forsaking!

    In the following lyric, entitled 'These Three,' we meet the writer in the happiest vein.  If read once or twice over, the stanzas will, we think, be found to possess a sort of Wordsworthian womanliness, very sweet and pure and good—a bright, still glimpse of beauty like that of the modest wayside pool, which, in its retired fashion, reflects a little bit of clear, blue heaven:—

"THESE THREE."

No viewless angels by our side,
    With wings, but women sweet and good;
"These Three," indeed, with us abide,
    True types of womanhood.
Yea, I, in turn, have reached a hand
    To each one of the blessed three,
In one fair group, I've seen them stand—
    Faith, Hope, and Charity.

My Faith hath misty hair,—and eyes,
    You cannot fix their changing hue,
But all the world within them lies,
    And all the soul looks through.
Her voice doth make divinely sweet
    Each song of sorrow which she sings,
And saddest wisdom fills replete
    With heavenly comfortings.

My Hope is ruddy with the flush
    Of morning joy, that keeps its place,
Though day has darkened, and the rush
    Of rain is on her face.
Her clear eyes look afar, as bent
    On shining futures gathering in;
Nought seems too high for her intent,
    Too hard for her to win.

My Love hath eyes as blue and clear
    As clefts between the clouds of June,
A tender mouth whose smiles are near
    To tears that gather soon.
Her best and loveliest she takes,
    To light dark places;—wastes of life
She sows with precious seed that makes
    All richest blessings rife.

Faith, when my soul in darkness dwells,
    Shall sing her song throughout the night,
For each new effort life compels
    Hope's clasp shall nerve with might;
Love shall divide each grief of mine,
    Share every joy thus doubly given,
With each in turn life grows divine,
    With all it tastes of heaven.

    The writer's genius, as we have indicated, is not at all dramatic; yet she has dealt, not unsuccessfully, with one of those misgiving moods of mind which came over Luther in his dark and painful moments, after he had cut himself adrift from the anchorage of Mother Church.  We are told that he and his Wife Kate were walking in the garden one night when they noticed the stars shining with great splendour.  Singling out one, Luther said, "What a brilliant light! But it burns not for us."—"And why are we to lie shut out of the kingdom of heaven?" said Catherine.—"Perhaps," said Luther, sighing, "because we left our convents."  This life-passage the writer has rendered with more grip than usual:—

MARTIN AND KATE.

O Kate, my Kate, these crooked Hebrew letters
        Are wriggling through my brain!
Cramps hold my fingers in their devil's fetters
        With crushing grip of pain.

Give me your hand, Kate!   Come into the garden,
        And sit beneath our vine;
Smoothing the cramp-knots as they twist and harden
        With those soft palms of thine.

A flask of wine and my old lute bring hither;
        And in the evening calm,
Tasting God's goodness, we will sing together
        My own triumphal psalm.

Good is our God! good all his gifts transcending,
        And yet this ghastly doubt—
As with the smoke of torment never ending
        The stars are blotted out.

O Kate! my Kate! again my soul is sinking
        Into the pit of pain;
'Tis writ in mockery—see those star eyes winking—
        "God's kingdom doth remain."

Yes, it may be, because our convents quitting,
        We vowed, and did not pay,
That in the outer darkness we are sitting,
        The heaven-gates closed for aye.

Shall we return? shall they from prison driven
        Out into God's free air,
Back, because blinded by the light of Heaven,
        Return for refuge there?

God is our trust; His word of truth we cherish
        Through doubt and fear and pain;
Down, Satan, down, even though His Word should perish,
        "His kingdom doth remain."

    Miss Craig's poems have the delightful characteristic of brevity—"an excellent thing in woman," or man either, especially for lyric poetry!

    Perhaps the two finest things in the book are a couple of' idylls, entitled, respectively, ' Pleasant Place' and ' Brothers.' Both are beautiful; each tells a story clearly, briefly and unaffectedly.  The first has in it some quiet, clever portraiture of two ladies, pleasant in its nature as the poem is in name.  We like also this sketch of the new parson of the Kingsley sort:—

                                             The Sunday Herbert came
And stood among them, in his father's stead,
With a new heavenly message, his mere voice
Went nearer to their souls than any words
With meaning new and strange.   But when at length
He named his father, all the people looked
In trouble to Squire Aubrey, where he sat,
And down the squire's red checks the round tears rolled,
And all the congregation wept at this.
The six old women from the almshouse wept,
And then the village mothers, and the girls,
And something—what, they did not seek to know—
Made John and Giles soft-hearted, that they stept
Through the old churchyard, with their thick-nailed shoes,
Lightlier and gentlier at their hearths that night
Stroked down the little heads.
                                                                 The advent this,
Of one who followed in his Master's steps,
Christ's faithful soldier.   But not thus are won
His daily victories; the spirit sword
The breath of some heroic soul may sweep
A space of heaven clear at a single stroke,
And set souls free to conquer; yet again
The powers of darkness rally; and the light
Pours upon eyes that see not, and the voice
Enters the ears that will not understand.
And so they murmured: "In his father's days
We never heard such things.   It we were sick
He gave us physic, or mayhap good wine;
Now we are told that if we ache or ail
Tis mostly our own fault.   'Tis blasphemy,
'Tis flying in the face of providence,
To say God sends no sickness save we sin;
And that all illness is a sign of ill,
Of something done against the will of God,
Or left undone that He would have us do.
He tells us too we may escape the sin,
But never can escape the punishment;
His rather preached another God, who said
' Repent and be forgiven.' "
                                                        Thus they warped
The message from its meaning, straight and true;
For as the father, so the children lived
In the old forest hamlets, underneath
The cliff that walled the river, underneath
The long dank dripping of the rainy woods.
The houses looked like clusters of white nests,
Hanging mid foliage; but these human nests,
Damp and unwholesome, nursed the serpent pain
To gnaw the bones of age; and poison heaps
Festered without, and when the sun was hot
There you might see, like evil genii rise,
In smoke, fierce fevers, drinking up the blood
Of fathers and of children.
                                                         "Take away
Our plague, " was still their cry, not take away
Our sloth, our ignorance, our unbelief—
Yet Herbert never falters in his work,
Nor ever slackens; grudges no high thought,
Brought down and meanly clad for common use;
Thinks the thought highest which can lowest reach,
To raise the lowest, holds the highest task.

These idylls show power of a real workable kind, such as can put a shoulder to the wheel—does not merely sigh in song about life, but will give us something of life itself, helpful to all who live, and think, and suffer.  Miss Craig has not surpassed that poem of the two 'Brothers,' with its dreary picture of the desolate chamber of death; the husband sitting all night long beside his dead wife, and the boy watching, at times, from the corner where he lies.—

                                               The boy awoke
And saw him sit there; slept, and woke again;
And there he sat and loomed out of the dark
Until he seemed a giant to the child.
The chequered moonlight fell across the floor,
Leaving the death-bed curtained by the dark
And awful mysteries of life and death,
Confused, impenetrable, undefined,
Hovered about the boy, and he would fain
Have called upon his father in the night,
But that he seemed a portion of the dread,
The unappeasable, appealless fate
That held him, and should hold him ever more.
Then he bethought him of his prayer, and said
"Our Father," and so slept until the dawn.
And in the faint dawn he was sitting there,
Who never once had drowsed nor drooped his head
Nor groaned for any anguish of his soul—
But when the morning sun looked in, he rose
With sweat-drops on his forehead.

    We have quoted sufficient to prove that Miss Craig's poems are far above the average, and possess such kindly qualities as will carry them home to many who do not live by the sensational alone, but appreciate true feeling, however shy—beauty, however subdued.  Such readers will give the book a place, not with the great masters of song, but with the humbler singers whose

—songs have power to quiet
    The restless pulse of care,
And come like the Benediction
    That follows after prayer.

 



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