Jean Inglow: Poems

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Poems.

By Jean Ingelow.

Longman & Co.


THERE is a Strong tendency in human nature to set the bud above the rose full-blown.  We all feel it, and most of us give way to it.  The promise folded in the bud makes such a childlike appeal; it stirs us more than the full, unfolded glory of the flower.  There is a glow and grace of novelty, a tenderness of dawn, an opening into the infinite, which make all that is known seem old and stale; all that is measured seem small and narrow by comparison.  Therefore, we are guarded, and desire not to exaggerate what we have found in the little book published under the title of 'Poems, by Jean Ingelow.'  But the new name undoubtedly belongs to a new poet, and this new volume will make the eyes of all lovers of poetry dance with a gladder light than if they had come upon a treasure-trove of gold.

    Oftentimes has the "Lo here!" the "Lo there!" been raised; prophetic eyes have been set rolling in a frenzy that was not fine, and the new dawn of poetry has been announced in the East, when it was only a false and fading flush reflected from some great sunset sinking in the West. Yet here, we think, is the unmistakeable touch and breath of freshness: the clear early carol and dewy light.  Here is the presence of Genius which cannot easily be defined, but which makes itself surely felt in a glow of delight such as makes the old world young again.  Here is the power to fill common earthly facts with heavenly fire; a power to gladden wisely and to sadden nobly; to shake the heart, and bring that mist of tears into the eyes through which the spirit may catch its loftiest light.

    The new singer comes quietly enough. —We are not carried away by the loudness of the music, nor dazzled by a glare of colour.  There is no mistaking of the vague for the vast,—the monstrous for the magnificent;— no heaping of the diamond-dust to try and make it balance the diamond.  We see no hectic flush, nor strain and collapse of spasm.  All is healthy sound and sweet.  Indeed, some of the poetry has the strength of man's heart, the sweetness of woman's mouth.  The writer is not imitative.  She has produced a volume not Tennysonian.  Of course she has read her contemporaries but has not been swayed this way and that by their influences.  She keeps her own personality, has her own style, and by the fullness of her own possession prevents other voices raising their echoes within her, which, as we all know, occurs most where tenements are most empty.

    The first line arrested our attention:—

An empty sky, a world of heather.

—A perfect picture in a single line.  Many a painter has tried hard to put that into a frame and failed.  The poem is called "Divided," and the old image whereby life is likened to a river was never used with more freshness, seldom touched with so new a beauty.  Two lovers walk beside the stream, hand-in-hand, and Nature smiles, the birds warble and the bonny beck sings; it is yet a mere babe in the arms of its two banks:—

Sing on!  we sing in the glorious weather
    Till one steps over the tiny strand,
So narrow, in sooth, that [still together
    On either brink we go hand in hand].

The beck grown wider, the hands must sever,
    On either margin, our songs all done,
We move apart, while she singeth ever,
    Taking the course of the stooping sun.

He prays "Come over"— I may not follow;
    I cry "Return"—but he cannot come:
We speak, we laugh, but with voices hollow;
    Our hands are hanging, our hearts are numb.

A little pain when the beck grows wider;
    "Cross to me now—for her wavelets swell:"
"I may not cross "—and the voice beside her
    Faintly reacheth, tho' heeded well.

No backward path; ah!  no returning;
    No second crossing that ripple's flow
"Come to me now, for the West is burning;
    Come ere it darkens;"—"Ah, no!  ah, no!"

Then cries of pain, and arms outreaching—
    The beck grows wider and swift and deep:
Passionate words as of one beseeching—
    The loud beck drowns them; we walk, we weep.

A braver swell, a swifter sliding;
    The River hasteth, her banks recede:
Wing-like sails on her bosom gliding
    Bear down the lily and drown the reed.

Stately prows are rising and bowing
    (Shouts of mariners winnow the air),
And level sands for banks endowing
    The tiny green ribbon that showed so fair.

While, O my heart!  as white sails shiver,
    And crowds are passing, and banks stretch wide,
How hard to follow, with lips that quiver,
    That moving speck on the far-off side.

Farther, farther—I see it—I know it—
    My eyes brim over, it melts away;
Only my heart to my heart shall show it
    As I walk desolate day by day.

And yet I know past all doubting, truly—
    A knowledge greater than grief can dim—
I know, as he loved, he will Iove me duly—
    Yea better—e'en better than I love him.

And as I walk by the vast calm river,
    The awful river so dread to see,
I say, "Thy breadth and thy depth for ever
    Are bridged by his thoughts that cross to me."

    This, we think, is very happily done.  There is much pathetic poetry in the book, but no trait whatever of whining sentimentality.  Indeed, if the book had been dropped on our table in answer to what we were asking for, the other day, in the Athenæum,—a little more of the blithe heart in our singers, a little more cheeriness in our poetry,—it could not have been more appropriate.  Here is a specimen of the writer's lighter mood, from some poems called 'Songs of Seven.'  This represents a child aged "seven times one," and her feeling of exultation:

There's no dew left on the daisies and clover,
    There's no rain left in heaven:
I've said my "seven times" over and over,
    Seven times one are seven.

I am old, so old, I call write a letter;
    My Birthday Iessons are done;
The Iambs play always, [they know no better;
    They are only one times one].

O Moon!  in the night I have seen you sailing
    And shining so round and low;
You were bright!  ah bright!  but your light is failing—
    You are nothing now but a bow.

Yon Moon, have you done something wrong in heaven
    That God has hidden your face?
I hope if you have you will be forgiven,
    And shine again in your place.

O velvet bee, you're a dusty fellow,
    You've powder'd your legs with gold!
O brave marsh marybuds, rich and yellow,
    Give me your money to hold!

O columbine, open your folded wrapper,
    Where two twin turtle-doves dwell!
O cuckoopoint, toll me the purple clapper
    That hangs in your clear green bell!

And show me your nest with the young ones in it;
    I will not steal them away:
I am old!  you may trust me, linnet, linnet—
    I am seven times one to-day.

    That is charming in its naturalness.  The reader will notice how much child character is evolved in a few lines!   This strikes us as, perhaps, the most remarkable thing in these new poems, the amount of personal character dramatically rendered.  We have had plenty of fine descriptive poetry; lots of splendid images heaped about a subject; but seldom do we meet with real, living, human brings who live their life and unfold their character while telling their story.  Here, however, it is so, and in a great range of variety.  Hence it would be impossible to do justice to the poetry by a brief extract here and there, as may be done with some books.  You may pick the spangles from the coat of Harlequin Fancy, and they will shine as jewels of richness in the new setting; but not so when the genuine vesture of Imagination is worn by real shapes of humanity.  Our quotations cannot fairly and fully illustrate our observations; we must appeal to the book itself.  Three or four of these poems are perfect as an Idyll by Tennyson, but we cannot bring away a piece of the picture.  We can only refer to them, and take our samples elsewhere.  But, let the reader turn to a poem called 'Supper at the Mill,' where, in the briefest way, we get a glimpse into three or four characters, sufficient to unfold the kind of natures and the lives they live.  The 'Reaping' is admirable from the youngster who wants a "little yellow duck to take to bed" up to the comfortable granny who looks at most, things, through her spectacles, from the farm-wife point of view.  The ballad of 'Lettice-White,' in this poem, is exquisite.  The writer is not afraid of commonplace if it belongs to her picture.  She is rightly realistic; having the mind that expands in circles, not in straight lines; she includes the less with the greater, embraces her subject all round.  She is not afraid of the churn, the wash-tub and ironing-board.  This reminds us, too, of the cheerful, mellow pastoralism of some of the poetry which breathes of soundest health and sunburnt beauty, simple life and country cheer; a nature, so to say, with much milk in it; a mellowness as of buttercups and fresh butter; the red gold of harvest-sheaves, and the rich light of harvest moons.  We cannot condense this into a quotation, but there is something of it in a poem entitled 'Looking over a Gate at a Pool in a Field':—

What change has made the pastures sweet
And reached the daisies at my feet,
    And cloud that, wears a golden hem?
This lovely world, the hills, the sward—
They all look fresh, as if our Lord
    But yesterday had finished them.

And here's the field with light aglow;
How fresh its boundary lime-trees show,
    And how its wet leaves trembling shine!
Between their trunks come thro' to me
The morning sparkles of the sea
    Below the level browsing line.

I see the pool more clear by half
Than pools where other waters laugh
    Up at the breasts of Coot and rail.
There, as she passed it on her way,
I saw reflected yesterday
    A maiden with a milking-pail.

There, neither slowly nor in haste,
One hand upon her slender waist,
    The other lifted to her pail;
She, rosy in the morning light,
Among the water-daisies white,
    Like some fair sloop appeared to sail.

Against, her ancles as she trod
The lucky butter-cups did nod.
    I leaned upon the gate to see
The sweet thing looked, but did not speak;
A dimple, came in either cheek,
    And all my heart was gone from me.

Then as I lingered on the gate,
And she came up like coming fate,
    I saw my picture in her eyes—
Clear dancing eyes, more black than sloes,
Cheeks like the mountain pink that grows
    Among white-headed majesties.

I said, "A tale was made of old
That I would fain to thee unfold:
    Ah!  let me—let me tell the tale."
But high she held her comely head;
"I cannot heed it now", she said,
    "For carrying of the milking-pail."

She laughed. What good to make ado?
I held the gate and she came through,
    And took her homeward path anon.
From the clear pool her face had fled;
It rested on my heart instead
    Reflected when the maid was gone.

For hearts where wakened love doth lurk,
How fine, how blest a thing is work!
    For work does good when reasons fail.
Good, yet my axe at every stroke
The echo of a name awoke—
    Her name, is Mary Martindale.

I'm glad that echo was not heard.
Aright by other men; a bird
    Known doubtless what his own notes tell;
And I know not, but I can say
I felt as shame-faced all that day
    As if folks heard her name right well.

And when the west began to glow
I went—I could not choose but go,
    To that same dairy on the hill;
And while sweet Mary moved about
Within, I came to her without,
    And leaned upon the window-sill.

The garden border where I stood
Was sweet with pinks and southernwood.
    I spoke—her answer seemed to fail:
I smelt the pinks—I could not see;
The dusk came down and sheltered me,
    And in the dusk she heard my tale.

And what is left that I should tell?
I begged a kiss, I pleaded well:
    The rosebud lips did long decline;
And yet I think, I think 'tis true,
That, leaned at last into the dew,
    One little instant they were mine.

O life!  how dear thou hast become:
She laughed at dawn and I was dumb,
    But evening counsels best prevail.
Fair shine the blue that o'er her spreads,
Green be the pastures where she treads,
    The maiden with the milking-pail.

    Many will appreciate the grace of ease and charm of quiet belonging to poetry like this, after all the grand pyrotechnic displays we have had of late years.  This does not leave us smitten breathless with surprise, but satisfied, and breathing a clearer, ampler ether.  We also feel that here the victory is won without the writer crowding all her forces into the field, which gives a present pleasure and a future hope.

    In a different style is 'The Wedding Song,'—full of vigour, and timed to the genuine lyrical leap of the soul into song.  Nothing better was written about the bridal.  It has a smack of heartiness quite akin to that kiss which echoed through all the land, from Gravesend to John o' Groats:—

Come up the broad river, the Thames, my Dane,
    My Dane, with the beautiful eyes;
Thousands and thousands await thee full fain,
    And talk of the wind and the skies.
Fear not from folk and from country to part,
    O, I swear it is wisely done:
For (I said) I will bear me by thee, sweetheart,
    As becometh my father's son.

Great London was shouting as I went down,
    "She is worthy," I said, "of this;
What shall I give who have promised a crown?
    O, first, I will give her a kiss."
So I kissed her and brought her, my Dane, my Dane,
    Thro' the waving, wonderful crowd:
Thousands and thousands, they shouted amain,
    Like mighty thunders and loud.

And they said, "He is young, the lad we love,
    The heir of the Isles is young:
How we deem of his mother and one gone above,
    Can neither be said nor sung.
Tie brings, us a pledge—he will do his part
    With the best of his race and name:—
And I will, for I look to live, sweetheart,
    As may suit with my mother's fame.

    The 'High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire (1571)' is the subject of a poem full of power and tenderness.  The story is related by an old mother, whose son's wife and babes were drowned.  It is done with such a sweet, Quakerly precision of manner, and such subtle touches of unconscious self-portraiture, that the old lady lives before us; and her repeated words,—

A sweeter woman ne'er drew breath
Than my sonne's wife, Elizabeth,—

are something to brood over.  But the power of the book culminates in a poem called 'Honours'—notable for its self-questioning reach of thought, its probing, of a wounded spirit, its striking out straight towards the Cross of Christ for the balm of healing; and in the dramatic poem entitled 'Brothers, and a Sermon.'  In the latter, two brothers, the elder of whom has just come into possession of his large heirdom, lie out on the reef of rocks, watching the "syle" come in, the star-fish creep, the mackerel shoot, the snow-white gulls sitting lovingly in social rings, twittering as they feed.  The elder brother grumbles at his hard lot, in being born to riches and robbed of his birthright—work.  The younger rails at him for his ingratitude.  To them comes an old fisherman, with his unfathomable simplicity of face.  He tells them how the Grace of Sunderland, was wrecked just below:—

                                                The gale was high,
The sea was all a boiling froth,
And God Almighty's guns were going off,
And the land trembled.
                                           When she took the ground,
She went to pieces like a lock of hay
Tossed from a pitchfork.   Ere it cattle to that,
The Captain reeled on deck with two small things,
One in each arm—his little lad and lass.
Their hair was long and blew before his face,
Or else we thought he had been saved; he fell,
But held them fast.   The crew, poor luckless souls!
The breakers licked them off; and some were crusht,
Some swallowed in the yeast, some flung up dead,
The dear breath beaten out of them: not one
Jumped from the wreck upon the reef to catch
The hands that strained to reach, but tumbled back
With eyes wide open.   But the Captain lay
And clung—the only man alive.   They prayed—
For God's sake, Captain, throw the children here!
And he threw one, a pretty two-years' child,
But the gale dashed him on the slippery verge,
And down he went.  They say they heard him cry.
Then up he rose and took the other one,
And all our men reached out their hungry arms,
And cried out, "Throw her, throw her!" and he did: 
He threw her right against the parson's breast,
And till at once a sea broke over them.
And they that saw it from the shore have said
It struck the wreck, and piecemeal scattered it,
Just as a woman might the lump of salt
That twixt her hands into the kneading-pan
She breaks and crumbles on her rising bread.
We hauled our men in: two of them were dead—
The sea had beaten them, their heads hung down;
Our parson's arms were empty, for the wave
Had torn away the pretty, pretty lamb;
We often see him stand beside her grave:
But 'twas no fault of his, no fault of his.

    Thus introduced to the parson, and hearing the bells chiming for church, the brothers ask if the people attend service on week-evenings.

Aye, Sir, they count it mean to slay away,
He takes it so to heart. He's a rare man,
Our parson; half a head above us all.

So to the church the brothers go, and hear such a sermon as is seldom preached.  The text is, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock"; and never has it been more pathetically enforced than by this grey-headed speaker, with his grand gruff voice, within hearing of the sound of that sea which keeps knocking for over at its cliffs for poor fishermen's and sailors' lives.  We quote one episode:—

                              There was a poor old man
Who sat and listened to the raging sea,
And heard it thunder, lunging at the cliffs
As like to tear them down.   He lay at night;
And "Lord have mercy on the lads," said he,
"That sailed at noon, tho' they be none of mine;
For when the gale gets up, and when the wind
Flings at the window, when it beats the roof, 
And cuts the crest clean off the plunging wave,
And scatters it like feathers up the field,
Why then I think of my two lads: my lads
That would have worked and never let me want,
And never let me take the parish pay.
No, none of mine; my lads were drowned at sea—
My two-before the most of these were born.
I know how sharp that cuts, since my pour wife
Walked up and down, and still walked up and down,
And I walked after, and one could not hear
A word the other said for wind and sea
That raged and beat and thundered in the night—
The awfullest, the longest, lightest night
That ever parents had to spend.   A moon
That shone like daylight on the breaking wave.
Ah, me!  and other men have lost their lads,
And other women wiped their poor dead mouths, 
And got them home and dried them in the house,
And seen the drift-wood lie along the coast,
That was a tidy boat but one day back,
And seen next tide the neighbours gather it
To lay it on their fires.   Aye, I was strong
And able-bodied—loved my work;-but now
I am a useless hull: 'tis time I sunk;
I am in all men's way?    I trouble them;
I am a trouble to myself: but yet
I feel for mariners o' stormy nights,
And feel for wives that watch ashore.   Aye, aye,
If I had learning I would pray the Lord
To bring them in: but I'm no scholar, no;
Book learning is a world too hard for me:
But I make bold to say, ' O Lord, good Lord,
I am a broken-down, poor man, a fool
To speak to Thee: but in the Book 'tis writ,
As I hear say from others that can read,
How when Thou camest Thou didst love the sea,
And live with fisher-folk, whereby 'its sure
Thou knowest all the peril they go through,
And all their trouble.
                                   As for me, good Lord,
I have no boat; I am too old, too old—
My lads are drowned; I buried my poor wife;
My little lasses died so long ago
That mostly I forget what they were like.
Thou knowest, Lord, they were such little ones;
I know they went to Thee, but I forget
Their faces, tho' I missed them sore. O Lord,
I was a strong man; I have drawn good food
And made good money out of Thy great sea:
But yet I cried for them at night; and now,
Altho' I be so old, I miss my lads,
And there be many folk this stormy night
Heavy with fear for theirs.   Merciful Lord,
Comfort them; save their honest boys, their pride,
And let them hear next ebb the blessedest
Best sound—the boat keels grating on the sand.
I cannot pray with finer words, I know
Nothing: I have no learning, cannot learn—
Too old, too old.   They say I want for nought,
I have the parish pay; but I am dull
Of hearing, and the fire scarce warms me thro'.
God save me, I have been a sinful man,
And save the lives of them that still can work,
For they are good to me; aye, good to me.
But, Lord, I am a trouble; and I sit
And I am lonesome, and the nights are few
That any think to come and draw a chair,
And sit in my poor place and talk awhile.
Why should they come, forsooth?    Only the wind
Knocks at my door, O long and loud it knocks,
The only thing God made that has a Mind
To enter in."
                             Yea, thus the old man spake,
These were the last words of his aged mouth,
But One did knock.   One came to sup with him:
I tell you that One knocked while it was dark.
What He said
In that poor place where He did talk awhile, 
I cannot tell.   But when the neighbours saw
The smile the old man passed away in, they said,
         "He looks
As he had woke and seen the face of Christ,
And with that rapturous smile held out his arms
To come to Him."

What we have quoted will show that here is another living poet; one in whom all men and women, rich and poor, have an interest.  Her range is larger than common; she can command the smile of humour and the tear of pathos.  We note with pleasure the more outward-looking spirit and richer objectivity of her poetry.  She has an earnestness of purpose and attention to business which are not to be turned aside for the usual lures of youthful fancy.  Her genuine insight goes right home in the many directions in which it turns.  She touches nature at many points; she writes with delightful ease.  And after all the commendation, the critic has no need to offer up that prayer of the old Scotch clergyman for his young friend, who was not particularly modest and whose better qualities he had been praising, with this addendum,—"But, O Lord, please tak a brog and prod him weel and let the wind out of him!"

 



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