« AnteriorContinua »
house where the occultism of the past once dwelt has been swept, garnished, and re-tenanted. But many fragments of the ancient furniture remain. And to some of us it would seem that, though new feet tread the floor and new voices break the silence, some breath of the old atmosphere stirs again in the long abandoned chambers, that the smouldering ashes of extinct fires requicken on the long deserted hearths.
ART. III.-1. Poems. By STEPHEN PHILLIPS.
London : 1897. 2. Paolo and Francesca : a Tragedy in Four Acts.
STEPHEN PHILLIPS. London : 1899. IT T has become a commonplace, but one of those common
places which minds of a certain type take pleasure in repeating, that the generation born, let us say, between the Crimean and the Franco-Prussian wars has produced no genuine poet; that since Mr. Swinburne outlived the inspiration of his youth poetry is dead, or as good as dead, among us. For this opinion we can see little warrant. The work of Mr. Watson, Mr. Francis Thomson, and Mr. Yeatsto name only those about whom we feel the fullest conviction, though many would put Mr. Robert Bridges above any of the three-is quite worthy to rank with that of Herrick, Crashaw, and Carew, or any of the poets in whom lovers of poetry find unfailing pleasure, though the highest praise is never claimed for their verse. But it was evident enough that nothing was being written in verse which could entitle its author to take his place in the famous company to which of all men in this century only Scott, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Byron, Tennyson, and Browning are admitted without question, and perhaps hardly even all of these. Two years ago a new hope sprang into sight, and at the end of the century there can be no doubt that a real poet is again amongst us. He is, happily, quite young; and as surely as Wordsworth and Coleridge belonged to the nineteenth century rather than to that in which Lyrical Poems 6 and Ballads' was published, so surely, in the year 1900, has Mr. Stephen Phillips his career before and not behind him. And, since these milestones in time have always their effect upon human feeling, it is impossible not to rejoice that we enter on the fresh lap with this good omen, that there is amongst us a man who can stir in us the old thrill and rouse us to a sense of the tragic beauty, the haunting mystery of life.
Every poet inherits as well as creates, reflects light as well as emits it, and this applies both to the matter and the form of his art. Mr. Phillips, coming after Tennyson and Mr. Swinburne, found the existing standard of verse for almost any possible use brought to a pitch so high that in it he could scarcely better his instructors; he found poetic style fixed, but not rigid, an instrument perfected
and ready to his hand. He found also, as every poet does, two domains in which to adventure. There was first a bewildering mass of material broken in to the purposes of poetry: stories and myths from every age and country told already and consecrated to beauty, half familiar yet ready to take new shape and new colour in the artist's hand. Also about him there was the world, huge, weltering, shapeless, inarticulate, the modern world, ugly, disguised, and distorted, yet bathed in the same air, thrilled with the same emotions as when man came out of Eden. Out of this he might shape something; but he must rough-hew it for himself. That choice is always before every poet, and the special interest that attached to Mr. Phillips's first volume was that he had attempted both ways. His earliest work (it had been published in 1896 in a tiny pamphlet) was the poem . Christ in Hades,' a strange blending of Christian and Pagan mythos; for the dead world which Jesus enters is rather Hades as Virgil pictured it than any realm of Dante's Inferno. Proserpina sits throned there, and the thrill of Christ's coming is by her mistaken for the advent of Hermes, calling her to the upper world when the grain quickens in the ground. This new Orpheus checks Ixion's wheel, and stays the labour of Sisyphus; but as he advances through the realm of shadow, drawing the multitudes after him as he drew them on earth, one ghost meets him still unreleased. Christ cannot free his antetype Prometheus, the other who took upon himself grief in full foreknowledge, suffering for the salvation of others; and the Titan speaks :
"O Christ, canst thou a nail move from these feet,
Thy hands are too like mine to undo these bonds.' Thus the poet's imagination works, combining old things into new shapes, and the Pagan myth and the Christian take colour each from the other, but the material wrought upon has been worked over by many masters.
Everywhere in the poem there is evidence of strong imagination, but of imagination fed by memory and the thoughts of other men. And the style, too, is charged with reminiscence. Lines like these :
Toward him in faded purple, pacing came
Dead emperors and sad, unflattered kings;' or this:
• After him in passion swept Dead Asia, murmuring, and the buried North.'
have unquestionably the accent of great poetry, but they have not the individual accent. The utterance is a large utterance, which has caught not only the actual beauty of words but the magic of suggestion, the hint not only of colour, sound, and movement, but of the spirit of things; yet it is not an unmistakable voice. Reading these lines :
• But when he had spoken, Christ no answer made.
Pausing, dismantled piers and naked frames.' one says to oneself “So Milton might have written.' Throughout the poem there prevails something of the academic; some trace of an art deliberately putting itself to school; and one recognises that the artist is still experimenting in metre, not always with success. Infinite variety should be the aim of a writer in blank verse, yet within certain limits, and a phrase which by its effect of hiatus would be condemned even in prose can never be good in verse. For example, the line
And one yearning as wide as is the world' limps and does not merely drag; the fault lies not in the inverted foot, but in the sequence of weak syllables following it. In short, the effect, designed no doubt to heighten the physical suggestion conveyed in the word “yearning,' is gained at a sacrifice of true rhythm. Worse still is this instance:
'Just as a widower that dreaming holds
Want in this colourless country the warm earth.' That is a fine passage of finely varied cadence utterly marred by one intolerable line which we have italicised. The word “realises 'can only be scanned as two trochees, and no iambic line can possibly begin with it; for in iambic verse the total effect of any line must be iambic. In other instances, the boldness of experiment can only be justified by assuming a quickness of apprehension which the ordi
nary reader does not possess. Proserpina begins her speech:
• Then, stretching out her arms, she said, “O all fresh out of beautiful sunlight
Thine eyes are still too dazed to see us clear." The balance of the second of these lines demands that it should be read with a pause upon the first syllable and a distribution of the accent on the last word sunlight,' which is hardly natural. Yet, for the special emphasis, accent is needed upon the light;' it is as though the poet claimed attention for the two parts of the word. Whether this device be or be not admissible may be argued, but it is habitual with Mr. Phillips. Only the other day some noble verses were published by him on the Dreyfus verdict-an appeal to the Lord of Hosts' for retribution--in which this couplet occurred :
We praise thy patience of the growing hour,
Thy wisdom gradual that brings the flower.' Plainly it would have been easier to write,
• Thy gradual wisdom that brings forth the flower.' But presumably the poet wished to give to the word 'gradual' a length of sound which it has not in ordinary speech, and this he secured by so placing it that the three syllables must be sounded, and slowly sounded, to give value to the line. A more commendable boldness with a like object may be exemplified from • Christ in Hades':
A wonderful stillness stopped her; like to trees
So the tall dead stood drooping around Christ.' Nobody can stick at the rhythm of the first line, yet it is entirely irregular. But if it be made regular by removing the first word the stress instantly falls on the word
wonderful,' not, where it is needed, on stillness. As it stands, the ear is grateful not only for a variation of the cadence, which interrupts but does not derange the iambic rhythm, but also for the just emphasis.
Yet in the management of verse Mr. Phillips has advanced towards conformity rather than towards deviation from the normal. “Christ in Hades' was not a long poem, yet beside those quoted there were a good many lines in it that defied the ordinary rules of scansion ; in Marpessa’ there are fewer, and none that cannot be defended, while in a majority of instances they are triumphantly successful; and