Studies from the Antique.....

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Studies from the Antique, and Sketches from Nature.

By Charles Mackay. (Virtue Brothers & Co.) .

Charles Mackay
(1814-89)

The pleasant singer of the 'Good Time Coming' has here added one more to the many volumes of verse in which he has sung his manly sentiments in a hearty, popular manner to a music of his own.  The music may be somewhat of the barrel-organ kind, and we soon learn all the tunes that can be played; but we suppose there are ears that will be delighted with the well-known measures, and people to applaud the well-worn sentiments.  Perhaps it is owing to the many imitators of the Doctor that we are weary of what may becalled the poetry of progress, and feel the sincerity to have dwindled unto cant.  His is the best of the kind; but of that kind we have had enough.  It never can go sufficiently deep to endure.  A political poet will scarcely strike the national heart-strings abort of stirring up the revolutionary passions,—and even then he can only wield one element of poetry, i.e. the fiery one.  But a dilettante political poet, with no wrongs to smite, no stubble to consume, no fire to kindle, is really in the position of so many of the Lancashire workers in cotton.  The 'Good Time Coming' is most likely the best song which this sort of inspiration can supply.  But it belongs essentially to a passing phase of politics.  It is on the surface of things, and does not, cannot, touch the heart to any depth.  If we compare it with any of the national songs of Burns, we shall see how it lacks the quickening, kindling touch of nature, and all the elements of immortality. It is not made alive with national sentiment, only vital with a politico-social sentimentality.  That it is so is only according to natural law.  We are not blaming the singer in showing how shallow is the motive, how evanescent and whiffling the inspiration of all such poetry.

    Dr. Mackay has not confined himself to his old source of song in this new book.  He has tried back, and sought to drink at a much more ancient fount, the Greek Helicon.  We fancy, however, that it must be difficult to trace that spring of living waters.  Possibly there, as here, it has to be struck out of the ground (the subject) to-day by the powerful hoof of a high-blooded, fiery-spirited Pegasus, as well as in any time past.  We should imagine that the immortal Greek Nine would be chary of smiling on a poet well on in years (always excepting their favourite Englishman, Landor) who had devoted his best days to modern Muses of so different a complexion. It seems to require youth—from Pygmalion to John Keats—to make the old marble myths take life, and set the red blood glowing through their white shapes.  It is not a work to commence late in life.  Accordingly, we cannot congratulate the Doctor on his success in this new attempt.  They require rare and beautiful dreamers in that haunted region where Dian stoops to her lover on Latmos, and the Daphne of the poet's chase turns into the laurel for his brow,—when he can catch her!

    Amongst the best things in the 'Sketches from Nature' are the pieces entitled 'Heart-sore in Babylon,' and of these the following quotation is one of the best:

LOUISE ON THE DOOR-STEP.

Half-past three in the morning!
    And no one in the street
But me, on the sheltering door-step
    Besting my weary feet;—
Watching the rain-drops patter
    And dance where the puddles run;
As bright in the flaring gas-light
    As dewdrops in the sun.

There's a light upon the pavement
    It shines like a magic glass,
And there are faces in it,
    That look at me, and pass.
Faces-ah! well remembered
    In the happy Long-Ago
When my garb was white as lilies,
    And my thoughts as pure as snow.

Faces! ah yes! I see them—
    One, two, and three—and four—
That come on the gust of tempests,
    And go on the winds that bore.
Changeful and evanescent
    They shine 'mid storm and rain,
Till the terror of their beauty
    Lies deep upon my brain.

One of them frowns; I know him,
    With his thin long snow-white hair,
Cursing his wretched daughter
    That drove him to despair.
And the other, with wakening pity
    In her large tear-streaming eyes,
Seems as she yearned toward me,
    And whispered "Paradise."

They pass,—they melt in the ripples,
    And I shut mine eyes, that burn,
To escape another vision
    That follows where'er I turn:—
The face of a false deceiver
    That lives and lies; ah me!
Though I see it in the pavement,
    Mocking my misery!

They are gone!—all three!—quite vanished!
    Let no one call them back!
For I've had enough of phantoms,
    And my heart is on the rack 1 
GOD help me in my sorrow; .
    But there,—in the wet, cold stone,
Smiling in heavenly beauty,
    I see my lost, mine own!

There on the glimmering pavement,
    With eyes as blue as morn,
Floats by, the fair-haired darling
    Too soon from my bosom torn;
She clasps her tiny fingers—
    She calls me sweet and mild,
And says that my GOD forgives me,
    For the sake of my little child.

I will go to her grave to-morrow,
    And pray that I may die;
And I hope that my GOD will take me
    Ere the days of my youth go by.
For I am old in anguish,
    And long to be at rest,
With my little babe beside me,
    And the daisies on my breast.

—That is a true bit of London life, and rather a novel idea to make the wet, oily, shining pavement the mirror in which to reveal the mental picture.  It is a pity the poet did not hold his vision with perfect steadiness.  The words "where'er I turn," break the spell,—the attitude being one that demands the gaze fixed breathlessly!  Also, the line

Let no one call them back!

is an impertinence in such a soliloquy.  But for these two blemishes the little poem would be perfect in its kind.  As it is, it will, no doubt, draw readers to the book.

 



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