Brander Matthews.

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the ends of the earth, if you will enlarge his ar
tistic science, if you will give him a fresh form."
Finally, the fact remains that great poets Dante,
Milton, Wordsworth have not scorned the son
net's scanty plot of ground ; and the sonnet is as
rigid and quite as difficult, if you play the game
fairly, as either the ballade or the rondeau. The ron
deau and rondel, have they not a charm of their
own when handled by a genuine poet? And the
ballade, that little three-act comedy in rhyme
with its epigram-epilogue of an envoy, has it
not both variety and dignity?

For the Malayan pantoum, as for the Franco-
Italian sestina, with their enervating and exasper
ating monotony, there is really nothing to be said.
And perhaps there is no need to say much for the
tiny triolet, effective as it may be for occasional
epigram, or for the elaborate and stately chant-
royal, which is a feat of skill, no more and no less ;
that Mr. Dobson has done it as well as he has
suggests, perhaps, only the pertinent query as
to whether it was well worth doing. Perhaps
no more must be said in favor of the dainty



little villanelle a form which exists under the
greatest disadvantage, since the first and typical
specimen, the ever fresh and graceful 'J'ai perdu
ma tourterelle ' of Passerat, remains to this day un
surpassable and unapproached. But the rondeau
and rondel carry no such weight, and in the hands
of a master of metres they are capable of being
filled with a simple beauty most enjoyable. What
could be more delicate, more pensive, more charm
ing than this rondel of Mr. Dobson's?


Love comes back to his vacant dwelling,
The old, old Love that we knew of yore !
We see him stand by the open door,

With his great eyes sad, and his bosom swelling.

He makes as though in our arms repelling,
He fain would lie as he lay before ;
Love comes back to his vacant dwelling,

The old, old Love that we knew of yore !

Ah, who shall help us from over-telling

That sweet forgotten, forbidden lore !

E'en as we doubt in our heart once more,
With a rush of tears to our eyelids welling,
Love comes back to his vacant dwelling.

The ballade, however, is by far the best of all
these forms. I hold it second to the sonnet alone,


and for some purposes superior even to the sonnet.
It is fair to say that it is the only one of the French
poems which in France itself has held its own
against the Italian sonnet. The instrument used
by Clement Marot, by Villon, that "voice out
of the slums of Paris," as Mr. Matthew Arnold
called him, by La Fontaine, and in later times by
Albert Glatigny and Theodore de Banville, is surely
worthy of honor. In Villon's hands it has dignity
and depth, in Glatigny's it has pathos, and in Marot's,
in Mr. Dobson's, and in Mr. Lang's it has playfulness
and gayety. I believe Mr. Dobson himself likes the
' Ballade of Imitation ' better than any of his other
ballades, while I confess my own preference for the
'Ballade of Prose and Rhyme,' the only ballade a
double refrain worthy to be set alongside Oement
Marot's 'Frere Lubin.' It is almost too familiar to
quote here at length, and yet it must be quoted per
force, for nohow else can I get the testimony of my
best witness fully before the jury :

(Ballade It Double Rt/ratn.)

When the ways are heavy with mire and rut,

In November fogs, in December snows,
When the North Wind howls, and the doors are shut,

There is place and enough for the pains of prose;


But whenever a scent from the whitethorn blows,
And the jasmine-stars at the casement climb,

And a Rosalind-face at the lattice shows,
Then hey! for the ripple of laughing rhyme!

When the brain gets dry as an empty nut,

When the reason stands on its squarest toes,
When the mind (like a beard) has a "formal cut,"

There is place and enough for the pains of prose ;

But whenever the May-blood stirs and glows,
And the young year draws to the " golden prime"

And Sir Romeo sticks in his ear a rose,
Then hey ! for the ripple of laughing rhyme !

In a theme where the thoughts have a pedant-strut,

In a changing quarrel of "Ayes" and "Noes,"
In a starched procession of " If" and "But,"

There is place and enough for the pains of prose;

But whenever a soft glance softer grows
And the light hours dance to the trysting-time,

And the secret is told "that no one knows,"
Then hey! for the ripple of laughing rhyme !


In the work-a-day world, for its needs and woes,
There is place and enough for the pains of prose ;
But whenever the May-bells clash and chime,
Then hey ! for the ripple of laughing rhyme !

It seems to me that in these poems Mr. Dobson
proves that the rondel at its best and the ballade
at its finest, belong to the poetry of feeling and


not to the poetry of ingenuity. It seems to me,
also, that the poet has been helped by his restric
tions. Here are cases where a faith in these
forms is justified by works. We may ask, fairly
enough, whether either of these poems would be
as good in any other shape. From the compres
sion enforced by the rules, they have gained in
compactness, and therefore in swiftness. They
are, in Miltonic phrase, " woven close, both mat
ter, form, and style."

It is to Mr. Dobson primarily and to his fellow-
workers that the credit is due of acclimatizing
these exotic metres in English literature. It is not
that he was absolutely the earliest to write them
in English excepting only the ballade, of which
the 'Prodigals' was the first. Chaucer wrote
rondels, the elder Wyatt rondeaus, and Patrick
Carey, about 1651, was guilty of devotional trio
lets ! But England was not then ready for the
conquest, and the forms crossed the Channel, like
the Norseman, just to set foot on land and then
away again. Even in France they had faded out of
sight. Moliere speaks slightingly of ballades as
old-fashioned. Only in our own times, since M.
de Banville set the example, has the true form
been understood. Wyatt's rondeaus were printed
as though they were defective sonnets. Both



Longfellow and Bryant translated Clement Marot's
' Frere Lubin,' and neither of them knew it was a
ballade a doitble refrain. Nor is Rossetti's noble
rendering of Villon's famous ' Ballade of Dead
Ladies ' accurately formal. Mr. Lang, in his ' Bal
lads and Lyrics of Old France' (1872), was plainly
on the right track, but he failed then to reach the
goal. At last the time was ripe.

It was doubtless again due to Mr. Stedman's
warning that, although there is no work which
when well done secures a welcome as instant as
vers de societe, there is also "none from which the
world so lightly turns upon the arrival of a new
favorite with a different note," it was this wise
warning which led Mr. Dobson to vary his style,
not only with the revival of the French forms, but
also with fables and with a slight attempt at the
drama in so far as the dainty and delicate
' Proverbs in Porcelain ' are substantial enough to
be called dramatic. Like John Gay and like the
late John G. Saxe, Mr. Dobson took to rhyming
fables after making a mark by more characteristic
verse. And Mr. Dobson's fables, good as they
are, and pertinent and brightsome as they needs
must be, since he wrote them, are like Gay's and
Saxe's in that they are not their author's best
work. The fault plainly is in the fable form,


if Mr. Dobson's fables are not as entertaining as
his other poems ; at any rate, I am free to confess
that I like his other work better.

I have to confess, also, with great doubt and
diffidence, that the half-dozen little dialogues
called 'Proverbs in Porcelain,' airy as they are
and exquisite, are less favorites with me than they
are with critics whose taste I cannot but think
finer than mine Mr. Aldrich, for instance, and
Mr. Stedman. I am inclined to believe I like them
less because they assume a dramatic form without
warrant. The essence of the drama is action, and
in these beautiful and witty playlets there is but
the ghost of an action. I doubt not that I am
unfair to these dialogues, and that my attitude
toward them is that of the dramatic critic rather
than that of the critic of poetry pure and simple.
But that is their own fault for assuming a virtue
they have not. To counterbalance this harsh
treatment of the ' Proverbs in Porcelain,' I must
declare that I take more pleasure in ' A Virtuoso '
than do most of Mr. Dobson's admirers, and for
the same reason. I find in ' A Virtuoso ' all the
condensed compactness of the best stage dialogue,
where a phrase has to be stripped to run for its
life. To be read quickly by the fireside, ' A Vir
tuoso ' may seem forced ; but to be acted or


recited, it is just right. I see in this cold and cut
ting poem, masterly in its synthesis of selfish
symptoms, a regard for theatrical perspective, and
a selection and a heightening of effect in accord
ance with the needs of the stage, which I confess
I fail to find in the seemingly more dramatic
'Proverbs in Porcelain.' Most people, however,
liking Mr. Dobson mainly for playful tenderness
and tender playfulness, dislike the marble hard
ness of 'A Virtuoso/ just as they are annoyed by
the tone of 'A Love-letter,' one of the poet's
cleverest pieces. If Mr. Dobson yielded to the
likes and dislikes of his admirers he would soon
sink into sentimentality, and he would never dare
to write as funny as he can. There are readers
who are shocked and pained when they discover
the non-existence of ' Dorothy.'

After all, this is perhaps the highest compli
ment that readers can pay the writer, when they
enter so heartily into his creations that they revolt
against any trick he may play upon them. And
in these days of haste without rest, it ill becomes
us to fling the first stone at an author who is
enamored of elusive perfection and who is willing
to spare no pains to give us his best and only his
best. He may be thankful that he is not as infer
tile on the one hand as Waller, who was "the

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greater part of a summer correcting ten lines for
Her Grace of York's copy of Tasso," or as reckless
on the other hand as Martial, who disdained to
elaborate :

Turpe est difficile habere nugas
Et stultus labor est ineptiarum.

Not infrequently do we find Mr. Frederick
Locker and Mr. Dobson classed together as though
their work was fundamentally of the same kind.
The present writer has to plead guilty to the
charge of inadvertently and inaccurately linking
the two names in critical discussion. The like
ness is accidental rather than essential, and the
hasty conjunction is due, perhaps, more to the fact
that they are friends, and that they both write what
has to be called vers de societe, than to any real like
ness between their works. The fact is, the more
clearly we define, and the more precisely we limit
the phrase vers de societe, the more exactly do we
find the best and most characteristic of Mr. Locker's
poems agreeing with the definition and lying at
ease within the limitation ; while the best and
most characteristic of Mr. Dobson's poems would
be left outside. In his criticism of Praed's work
prefixed to the selection from his poems in the
fourth volume of Mr. Ward's ' English Poets ' Mr.



Dobson declares that " as a writer of ' society verse '
in its exacter sense, Praed was justly acknowl
edged to be supreme," and then he adds, "We
say 'exacter sense' because it has of late become
the fashion to apply this vague term in the vaguest
way possible so as to include almost all verse but
the highest and the lowest. This is manifestly a
mistake. Society verse as Praed understood it,
and as we understand it in Praed, treats almost ex
clusively of the votum, timor, ira, voluptas (and
especially the voluptas) of that charmed circle of
uncertain limits known conventionally as 'good so
ciety' those latter-day Athenians who, in town
and country, spend their time in telling or hearing
some new thing, and whose graver and deeper
impulses are subordinated to a code of artificial
manners." Of these it is indisputable that Mr.
Locker is, as Praed was, the laureate-elect, and
that ' ' the narrow world in which they move is the
main haunt and region of his song." Mr. Locker
writes as one to the manner born, and nowhere
reveals the touch of the parvenu which betrayed
Praed now and again. In the exact sense of the
phrase, Mr. Locker, like Praed, is the poet of so
ciety, which Mr. Dobson is not because, for one
thing, we may doubt whether society is of quite so
much interest or importance or significance to him


as to the author of 'London Lyrics.' The distinc
tion is evasive, and has to be suggested rather than
said ; but it is none the less real and vital. It is,
perhaps, rather that Mr. Dobson is more a man
of letters, while Mr. Locker is more a man of
the world. Certainly Mr. Dobson has a more con
sciously literary style than Mr. Locker, a style
less simple and less direct. Henri Monnier would
say that Mr. Dobson had more mots d'auteur.
Admirable as is Mr. Dobson's verse, it has not
the condensed clearness nor the incisive vigor of
Mr. Locker's. One inclines to the opinion that
the author of ' London Lyrics ' is willing to make
more sacrifices for vernacular terseness than the
author of 'Vignettes in Rhyme/ It is not that
Mr. Dobson is one of the poets who keep their
choicest wares locked in an inner safe guarded by
heavy bolts, and to whose wisdom no man may
help himself unless he has the mystic letters which
unlock the massive doors, but he is not quite will
ing to be simple to the point of bareness as is Mr.
Locker, who wears his heart upon his sleeve. In
some things Mr. Locker is like Mr. du Maurier,
even in the little Gallic twist, while Mr. Dobson
is rather like Randolph Caldecott or our own
Abbey, with the quaint Englishry of whose style
Mr. Dobson's has much in common. Yet after say-



ing this I feel inclined to take it all back, for I recall
together 'This was the Pompadour's fan' and
'This is Gerty's glove' and here it is Mr. Dob-
son who is brilliant and French and Mr. Locker
who is more simple in sentiment and more Eng
lish. Yet again it is the worldly-minded Mr.
Locker who declares that

The world's as ugly, aye, as sin
And nearly as delightful,

a sentiment wholly foreign to Mr. Dobson's feel
ings. This suggests that there is a certain town
stamp in the appropriately named 'London Lyrics'
not to be seen in ' Vignettes in Rhyme,' some of
which are vignettes from rural nature. But both
books are boons to be thankful for. Both are
havens of rest in days of depression ; both have a
joyousness most tonic and wholesome in these
days when the general tone of literature is gray ;
both preach the gospel of sanity, and both may
serve as antiseptics against sentimental decay.

Here occasion serves to say that each of these
masters of what Dr. Johnson, while declaring its
difficulty, called "easy verse," has set forth his
views of the art of writing vers de societe. Mr.
Locker made his declaration of faith in the admi
rable preface, all too brief, to the selection of vers


de societe and -vers d' occasion, which he published
in 1867 as 'Lyra Elegantiarum.' Mr. Dobson, at
the request of the present writer, drew up a code
for the composition of familiar verse. Here are
Mr. Dobson 's 'Twelve Good Rules':

I. Never be vulgar.
II. Avoid slang and puns.
HI. Avoid inversions.
IV. Be sparing of long words.
V. Be colloquial, but not commonplace.
VI. Choose the lightest and brightest of measures.
VII. Let the rhymes be frequent, but not forced.
VIII. Let them be rigorously exact to the ear.
IX. Be as witty as you like.
X. Be serious by accident.
XL Be pathetic with the greatest discretion.
XII. Never ask if the writer of these rules has observed them

Mr. Dobson has not confined his labors in prose
to the canons of familiar verse. Although it is
as a poet that he is most widely known, his prose
has qualities of its own. Besides scattering maga
zine articles, it includes half a dozen apt and alert
criticisms in Mr. Ward's ' English Poets,' the final
chapter in Mr. Lang's little book on the ' Library,'
and prefaces to a fac-simile reprint of ' Robin
son Crusoe,' and to the selection from Herrick's


poems, illustrated by Mr. Abbey with such abun
dant sympathy and such delightful grace and
fancy. More important than these are the vol
umes in which Mr. Dobson has given us selec
tions from the best of the ' Eighteenth Century
Essays,' and in which he has introduced and an
notated the ' Fables ' of John Gay, the ' Poems '
and 'Vicar of Wakefield ' of Oliver Goldsmith, the
' Essays ' of Richard Steele, and the ' Barbier de
Seville' of Beaumarchais.

Still more important are the biographical sketches
of his favorite Hogarth, and of Bewick and his pu
pils ; and the lives of Fielding, Steele, and Gold
smith. It was to Mr. Dobson's biography that Mr.
Lowell referred when he unveiled Miss Margaret
Thomas's bust of Fielding in the Somersetshire
hall. In the course of his speech, as rich and elo
quent as only his speeches are, Mr. Lowell said
that "Mr. Austin Dobson has done, perhaps, as
true a service as one man of letters ever did to
another, by reducing what little is known of the
life of Fielding from chaos to coherence, by ridding
it of fable, by correcting and coordinating dates,
by cross-examining tradition till it stammeringly
confessed that it had no visible means of subsist
ence, and has thus enabled us to get some authen
tic glimpse of the man as he really was. Lessing


gives the title of ' Rescues ' to the essays in which
he strove to rehabilitate such authors as had been,
in his judgment, unjustly treated by their contem
poraries, and Mr. Dobson's essay deserves to be
reckoned in the same category. He has rescued
the body of Fielding from beneath the swinish
hoofs which were trampling it as once they tram
pled the Knight of La Mancha, whom Fielding so
heartily admired."

It has been well said that the study of practice
of verse is the best of trainings for the writing of
prose. Mr. Dobson's prose style is firm and pre
cise ; it has no taint of the Corinthian luxuriance
which Mr. Matthew Arnold has castigated, or of
the passionate emphasis which passes for criti
cism in some quarters. His ideal in prose writ
ing is a style exact and cool and straightforward.
Sometimes the reader might like a little more
glow. It is not that his prose style is sapless,
for it has life ; it is rather that it is generally cut-
and-dried of malice prepense. He can write
prose with more color and more heat when he
chooses, as he who will may see in the par
agraphs of the preface to Mr. Abbey's ' Herrick.'
In general, however, Mr. Dobson forgets that he
is a poet when he takes up his pen to write prose,
and he remembers only that he is an antiquary


and an investigator. In fact, his prose is the prose
of a scientific historian ; and Mr. Dobson has the
scientific virtues, the passion for exactness, the
untiring patience in research, and the unwilling
ness to set down anything which has not been
proved. If we apply De Quincey's classification,
we should declare that Mr. Dobson's poetry like
all true poetry belongs to the literature of
power, while his prose belongs to the literature
of knowledge.

It is to be remarked, also, that the poet some
times remembers that he is an antiquary, also.
Here Mr. Dobson is not unlike Walter Scott, who
was also an antiquary-poet, with a strong love for
the past, and a gift for making dead figures start
to life at his bidding. Much of Mr. Dobson's
poetry is like his prose in that it is based on re
search. His learning in the manners and customs
of past times is most minute. Especially rich is
his knowledge of the people and of the vocabulary
of the eighteenth century. This is the result of
indefatigable delving in the records of the past.
His acquaintance with the ways and words of the
contemporaries of Steele and of Fielding and of
Hogarth is as thorough as Lord Tennyson's knowl
edge of botany, for instance ; and it is the proof
of as much minute observation. Although Mr.


Dobson disdains all second-hand information, and
likes to verify facts for himself, he never lets his
learning burden his verse. That runs as freely
and as trippingly as though the seeking of the facts
on which it might be founded had not been a labor
of love, for which no toil was too great. The
' Ballad of Beau Brocade ' is a strong and simple
tale, seemingly calling for no special study ; but it
does not contain a single word not in actual use at
the time of the guide-book where it germinated,
and in print in the pages of the Gentleman's Mag-
aqine of that reign. In like manner, in the noble
and virile ballade of the Armada, which the Virgin
Queen might have joyed to accept, there is no
single word not in Gervase Markham.

Writing always out of the fulness of knowl
edge, there is nowhere anything amateurish, and
there is always a perfect certainty of touch. His
work as Mr. W. C. Brownell has told us is
"as natural an outgrowth as Lamb's." And he
is like Lamb in that capacity for taking infinite
pains which has been held the true trade-mark of
genius. He is like Lamb, again, in that he has
resolutely recognized his limitations. Ruler of his
own territory, he has carefully refrained from
crossing his neighbor's boundaries. Indeed, he is
as admirable an instance as one could wish of the


exactness of Swift's dictum, "It is an uncontrolled
truth that no man ever made an ill figure who
understood his own talents, nor a good one who
mistook them."




NATIONAL hymn is one of the
things which cannot be made to
order. No man has ever yet sat him
down and taken up his pen and said,
"I will write a national hymn," and
composed either words or music which a nation
was willing to take for its own. The making of
the song of the people is a happy accident, not to
be accomplished by taking thought. It must be
the result of fiery feeling long confined, and sud
denly finding vent in burning words or moving
strains. Sometimes the heat and the pressure
of emotion have been fierce enough and intense
enough to call forth at once both words and
music, and to weld them together indissolubly
once and for all. Almost always the maker of
the song does not suspect the abiding value of his
work ; he has wrought unconsciously, moved by
a power within; he has written for immediate



relief to himself, and with no thought of fame or
the future ; he has builded better than he knew.
The great national lyric is the result of the con
junction of the hour and the man. Monarchs can
not command it, and even poets are often powerless
to achieve it. No one of the great national hymns
has been written by a great poet. But for his
single immortal lyric, neither the author of the
' Marseillaise ' nor the author of the ' Wacht am
Rhein ' would have his line in the biographical dic
tionaries. But when a song has once taken root
in the hearts of a people, time itself is powerless
against it. The flat and feeble 'Partant pour la
Syrie,' which a filial fiat made the hymn of im
perial France, had to give way to the strong and
virile notes of the 'Marseillaise,' when need was
to arouse the martial spirit of the French in 1 870.
The noble measures of ' God Save the King,' as
simple and dignified a national hymn as any coun
try can boast, lift up the hearts of the English
people ; and the brisk tune of the ' British Grena
diers ' has swept away many a man into the ranks
of the recruiting regiment. The English are rich
in war tunes ; and the pathetic ' Girl I left behind
me' encourages and sustains both those who go to
the front and those who remain at home. Here
in the United States we have no 'Marseillaise/ no



'God Save the King,' no 'Wacht am Rhein'; we
have but ' Yankee Doodle ' and the ' Star-spangled
Banner.' More than one enterprising poet, and
more than one aspiring musician, has volunteered
to take the contract to supply the deficiency; as

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Online LibraryBrander MatthewsPen and ink; papers on subjects of more or less importance → online text (page 8 of 14)