Nathaniel Hillyer. Egleston.

The North American review (Volume 139) online

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dislike them.

Strangers who saw only this side of English character
might naturally fancy that this rigid self-restraint would stifle
all poetry. Yet, in spite of this habitual frigidity, it may be as
the natural recoil from it, we have in our poetry as strong and
deep a volume of emotion as any European nation can show. It
is not only that the poet is by nature a fiery creature, incapable
of toning down his spontaneous feelings to the rules of social
convention, but he has in his art a safety-valve for the strongest
emotion, a medium through which he can express feelings that
he would not venture to whisper into the friendliest ear, much
less to commit to the language of plain prose. Perhaps, too,
the frigid decorum that dominates English society may serve to
intensify by contrast the warmth of pent-up emotion that seeks
relief in poetry. Just as we see that persons who are habitually
reserved, if once they break through their wonted bonds, lay
stronger hold on the hearts of their hearers than those who are
always effusive.

In turning to our English poets, to see how they have dealt
with the affection of friendship, it is necessary to remember that
the word with us bears a much more definite and restricted
meaning than <piXt had among the Greeks. The Greek word
includes all finest affection, all highest heart-sympathy, whether
bestowed on those within the range of kindred or on those
beyond it ; while it is to regard for the latter, for those who are
not kindred, but chosen by affection, that we generally confine
the term friendship. Again, in Greece, for lack of the higher
family life, and of a religion in which the heart could rest, <pcXia
absorbed into itself most of the pure and tender devotion that
in modern life enters into the conjugal and the parental affec
tions. And with us religion wears so much more inward and
attractive an aspect, that it draws to itself much for which
affectionate and devout natures of the old time found an outlet
only in cptXta. But while this may be said on the one side, it is


no less true, on the other, that hearts into which the Christian
spirit has found entrance have thereby gained a great back
ground, to elevate and hallow earthly affection by heavenward
sympathy and immortal hope.

If England has poured forth her genuine heart through any
literary channel, it is through her poetry. Therein we see the
deepest affections, and especially the friendships of many of her
most gifted children, age after age, embalmed in forms of un
dying beauty. And if, in attempting to bring together a few of
the most striking of these records, I confine myself to the chief
poets of each succeeding period, I am well aware that I must
needs pass unnoticed many another record, as worthy of remem
brance as those I have cited. Still, it will be something to have
suggested, however cursorily, a line of thought that other,
younger persons may at leisure follow out for themselves.

A friend and younger contemporary of Shakspere, one of
his boon companions, who had shared with him many a merry-
meeting, and, as tradition says, that last merry-meeting at
Stratford immediately before his fatal illness, has left a record
of his admiration and affection for him. Ben Jonson, who was
a stern enough censor of most men, speaks of gentle Will as
"honest, and of an open and free nature," and says that his
"mind and manners are reflected in his well-tuned and well-
filed lines." In the poem addressed "To the Memory of my
Beloved Master, "William Shakspere/' Jonson apostrophizes
him as

" Soul of the age !
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage ! "

" Triumph, my Britain! thou hast one to show,
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
He was not of an age, but for all time."

" Sweet swan of Avon, what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those nights upon the banks of Thames,
That so did take Eliza and our James!
Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage
Or influence chide or cheer the drooping stage,
Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourned like night,
And despairs day, but for thy volume's light."

These lines, if less grand than Milton's well-known epitaph,
show quite as high an appreciation of Shakspere's genius. In


aJl that Ben Jonson has said of him, both in verse and in his
recorded sayings, there is not only admiration for him as a poet,
but love for him as a friend.

With so many more important things before me, I need
hardly pause over the lines that Jonson's host, Drummond of
Hawthornden, styling himself " Damon," addressed to his friend,
or brother poet, Sir William Alexander, as "Alexis." Pass on a
little later, and we come to Abraham Cowley. No poet's repu
tation ever underwent such a strange revolution. In his own
day he was esteemed the greatest poet of the time, the equal of
the best of the Greeks and Romans. Within seventy years
from his death, Pope asked, "who now reads Cowley ? If that
question could be asked in Pope's time, how much more may it
be asked now ? What is the cause of this strange reversal of
contemporary judgment ? Cowley was the victim of that false
taste which, with many changes, had reigned since euphuism
set in. He was the king of the fantastic school of poetry, in
which pedantry, conceit, metaphysics, and forced wit took the
place of natural thought and feeling and of natural language.
In him the fashion of the day culminated, and he has paid the
penalty by permanent oblivion. Yet, when moved by genuine
affection and sorrow, he could shake off all his mannerisms and
contortions, and pour forth his feelings in as pure, simple, and
manly a style as any poet. The poetry of the seventeenth
century contains no more feelingly expressed lament than that
in which Cowley mourned the death of Mr. William Hervey :

"My sweet companion, and my gentle peer,
Why hast thou left me thus unkindly here,
Thy end forever, and my life to moan?
O, thou hast left me all alone!
Thy soul and body, when death's agony
Besieged around thy noble heart,
Did not with more reluctance part,
Than I, my dearest friend, do part from thee.

"My dearest friend, would I had died for thee!
Life and this world henceforth will tedious be,
Nor shall I know hereafter what to do,

If now my griefs prove tedious, too.

VOL. cxxxix. NO. 337. 42


" He was my friend, the truest friend on earth ;
A strong and mighty influence joined our birth ;
Nor did we envy the most sounding name

By friendship given of old to fame.

"Ye fields of Cambridge, our dear Cambridge, say,
Have ye not seen us walking every day ?
Was there a tree about which did not know
The love betwixt us two ?

" O, if the glorious saints cease not to know
Their wretched friends who fight with life below ;
Thy flame to me does still the same abide,

Only more pure and rarefied.
There while immortal hymns thou dost rehearse,
Thou dost with holy pity see
Our dull and earthly poesy,
Where grief and misery can be joined with verse."

Compare this with most of Cowley's poetry, and you will at
once see the difference. It is a perilous thing for a poet to com
mit himself to the fashions of the hour. For not only the
fashions of style change, but the fashions of thought also
change, and with them the intellectual language. Only the
pure language of the heart changes not. That is simple and
universal, and for all time.

Milton was a solitary, self-sustained soul, and needed less
than most men the support of intimate friendship. Either he
dwelt apart, feeding on " the lonely rapture of a lonely mind/- 1
or he threw himself into the current of political and ecclesias
tical strife. Once, however, in his twenty-ninth year, he deigned
to dedicate one poem to the memory of a friend. Over his college
companion, Edward King, a young man of great promise, who
perished by shipwreck in the Irish Channel, Milton made a
lament that for splendor of imagery and diction has been well
said to be " unmatched in the whole range of English poetry,
and was never again equaled by himself." " Lycidas " has been
well called the tide-mark of the brightest inspiration of the seven
teenth century. It glows, indeed, with a burning passion, but it
is not the passion of personal affection, mourning an irreparable
loss; for Milton's relation to King was not that of devoted
friendship. Rather the passion of the poem comes from his
long-pent brooding over the fallen state of the church, and


indignation at its corruptions. This is the center of the poem,
and supplies its central heat. For the rest, its form is bor
rowed from the artificial model of the Greek idyl or the Latin
pastoral. And nothing more proves Milton's marvelous power
than his ability to fuse such seemingly discordant elements the
frigid, classic Arcadianism and the Puritan fervor into so har
monious and splendid a whole. Perhaps no other poet that ever
lived could have succeeded in so difficult a task. But none the
less for this we cannot admit it to be one of the great poems of
friendship, one in which that affection is paramount. The poet
and the critic will always reserve for " Lycidas " their highest
admiration ; but personal affection will look elsewhere for tones
to which its tenderness can respond.

The same may be said of two other poems, which have both
been named in conjunction with "Lycidas" the "Adonais"
of Shelley and Mr. Arnold's " Thyrsis." Each of these, starting
from the theme of friendship, passes off into splendid imagina
tive effusions ; but they do not suggest deep personal sorrow
for the lost friend. As to " Adonais," I quite agree with the
judgment recently expressed, that it is probably Shelley's
highest poetical achievement, and has in the world's eye united
Shelley and Keats in a brotherhood that no time will dissolve.
Yet the excellence of the poem lies not in the depth of personal
attachment, but in the imaginative glory with which the life of
Keats is invested. Intimate friendship could not be expected
from the circumstances under which the two poets were
acquainted with each other. They had met from time to time
under the roof of Leigh Hunt, but had never passed much time
together. For the early poems of Keats, " Bndymion " or the
others, Shelley had no great relish ; it was only when Keats's
marvelous fragment, " Hyperion," appeared, that he was kindled
to genuine admiration. And when Shelley, who had hoped to
meet Keats in Italy, heard of his untimely death at Rome, his
natural regret was roused to a deeper and more indignant
sorrow by his belief that this gifted young poet had been done
to death by the same unfair and unkindly criticism that had
aimed against Shelley himself some of its most envenomed shafts.
This, rather than the wail of bereaved friendship, is the inspira
tion of " Adonais." The poem itself is not, like " Lycidas," a
pastoral in form, but it is more or less informed with classical
imagery invocations of Urania, and personified dreams,


desires, and adorations. Some of the early stanzas are some
what vague ; but the poem grows in power as it proceeds, and
becomes more personal in the description of Byron as

" The pilgrim of eternity, whose fame
Over his living head like heaven was bent,
An early but enduring monument,
Came veiling all the lightnings of his song
In sorrow."

And of Shelley himself as

" A pard-like spirit, beautiful and swift ;
A love in desolation marked ; a power
Girt round with weakness."

Both of them come to mourn over the dead poet. At least,
the poem culminates in these two stanzas with a clearness of
outline and a majestic portraiture unusual in Shelley :

" The inheritors of unfulfilled renown
Rose from their thrones, built beyond mortal thought,
Far in the unapparent. Chatterton
Rose pale, his solemn agony had not
Yet faded from him ; Sidney, as he fought,
And as he fell, and as he lived and loved,
Sublimely mild, a spirit without spot,
Arose ; and Lucan, by his death approved.
Oblivion, as they rose, shrank like a thing reproved.

" And many more whose names on earth are dark,

But whose transmitted effluence cannot die,

So long as fire outlives the parent spark,

Rose, robed in dazzling immortality.
' Thou art become as one of us,' they cry ;
' It was for thee yon kingless sphere has long

Swung blind in unattended majesty,

Silent alone amid a heaven of song.

Assume thy winged throne, thou vesper of our throng ! ' "

This is grand poetry; yet for all its merit, it is, as I have said,
the expression of poetic sympathy in admiration, not the voice
of friend bewailing friend. As for " Thyrsis," one of the finest
and most perfect of all Mr. Arnold's poems, this only need
be said: no one admires its beauty more than I do, but I
admire it rather as an idealized description of Oxford life and
scenery, not so much as a true portrait of Arthur Clough, whose


broad brow and manly form were little in keeping with the
Arcadian disguise of Corydon.

To go back to the time of Milton, from which I have digressed,
there is nothing in the later years of the seventeenth century, or
in the first half of the eighteenth, to detain us. There is not
much in Dryden's " Lines to the pious memory of the accom
plished young lady Mrs. Anne Killigrew," over which we need
linger, though they do contain here and there a good verse,
such as :

" Her wit was more than man, her innocence a child."

Dryden and Pope, however, kept their strength for satire
and invective, and this style does not easily comport with hearty
affectionateness. Indeed, till after the middle of the eighteenth
century, English poetry was passing through a frigid zone, in
which the tender feelings either died down, or at least kept

Toward the close of last century a warmer breath touched
the heart of society and set the deeper springs of feeling once
more a-murmuring. This is seen conspicuously in Burns, who
in his poetic epistles to his friends breathed forth his homely
feelings with humor and pathos happily intermingled. Most of
these friends were boon companions, " ranting, roaring billies,' 7
as he calls them, and the epistles to them have at times an
over-alcoholic flavor. His sweetest songs he reserved for the
tenderer sex. He could, however, even for his male friends,
feel and express a serious and manly affection, as in his beauti
ful lament for the death of James, Earl of Glencairn. That
nobleman had befriended the struggling poet more than any
other of his order had done, and of this Burns bore a grateful
and affectionate remembrance, which he commemorated not only
in the lament, but by naming one of his sons James Glencairn,
after his good benefactor. Though this was one of those un
equal friendships of which Aristotle speaks, it was on both sides
eminently sincere and honorable.

" The bridegroom may forget the bride

Was made his wedded wife yestreen;
The monarch may forget the crown
That on his head an hour has been ;


" The mother may forget the child

That smiles sae sweetly on her knee ;
But I'll remember thee, Glencairn,
And a j that thou hast done for me."

The gentle-hearted Cowper was by nature well fitted for
friendship, but he lived so secluded a life that he had few men
for friends. In his retirement his time was spent almost entirely
with ladies. They watched over his weak bodily health, and
did what they could to cheer his drooping spirits. One espe
cially, Mary Unwin, the mother of his friend "William Unwin,
tended him for years. Their feelings toward each other, what
ever they may at one time have been, had long passed into those
of simple friendship ; and toward the close of Mrs. Un win's life
Cowper addressed to her one of the few sonnets he ever com
posed, and there is hardly a sweeter in the English language :

" Mary! I want a lyre with other strings,
Such aid from Heaven as some have feigned they drew,
An eloquence scarce given to mortals, new
And undebased by praise of meaner things,
That ere through age or woe I shed my wings,
I may record thy worth with honor due,
In verse as musical as thou art true,
And that immortalizes whom it sings.
But thou hast little need. There is a book
By seraphs writ with beams of heavenly light,
On which the eyes of God not seldom look,
A chronicle of actions just and bright:
There all thy deeds, my faithful Mary, shine;
And, since thou own'st that praise, I spare thee mine."

With the opening of the present century the affections found
an utterance in poetry fuller in volume, more varied and subtle
in tone, than in any former period of our, perhaps of any, litera
ture. There were fellowships among the poets that have left a
poetic record, such as we have seen in the " Adonais." There
was the triumvirate of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey,
and of this there are several memorials. Perhaps one of the
most noticeable is the poem that Coleridge addressed to Words
worth, after hearing him read aloud his poem " The Prelude."
Seldom has poet had such a listener, one so gifted to compre
hend his highest thoughts, and to respond to them in a strain
like this :


<4 Friend of the wise! and teacher of the good!
Into my heart have I received that lay
More than historic that prophetic lay,
Wherein (high theme by thee first sung aright)
Of the foundations and the building up
Of a human spirit thou hast dared to tell
What may be told.

"An Orphic song, indeed,

A song divine of high and passionate thoughts
To their own music chanted! O great Bard,
Ere yet that last strain dying awed the air,
With steadfast eye I viewed thee in the choir
Of ever-enduring men. The truly great
Have all one age, and from one visible space
Shed influence.

"Eve following eve,

Dear tranquil time, when the sweet sense of Home
Is sweetest! Moments for their own sake hailed,
And more desired, more precious for thy song,
In silence listening, like a devout child,
My soul lay pensive, by thy various strain
Driven as in surges, now beneath the stars
With momentary stars of my own birth,
Fair constellated foam, still darting off
Into the darkness ; now a tranquil sea
Outspread and bright, yet swelling to the moon.

"And then, O Friend, my comforter and guide!
Strong in thyself, and powerful to give strength!
Thy long-sustained song finally closed,
And thy deep voice had ceased; yet thou thyself
Wert still before my eyes, and round us both .
That happy vision of beloved faces.
Scarce conscious, and yet conscious of its close,
I sate, my being blended in one thought
(Thought was it f or aspiration ? or resolve ?)
Absorbed, yet hanging still upon the sound,
And when I rose I found myself in prayer."

More than thirty years passed on, and Wordsworth had seen
the poets, his contemporaries and his friends, one by one disap
pear Walter Scott, Coleridge, Charles Lamb, Crabbe, Felicia
Hemans, and the Ettrick Shepherd. On hearing of the death
of the last of these, he was roused to one more effusion, almost


his latest, and worthy of his earliest inspiration. This is the
way he spoke of Coleridge :

" Nor has the rolling year thrice measured,
Prom sign to sign, its steadfast course,
Since every mortal power of Coleridge
Was frozen at its marvelous source.

" The 'rapt one of the godlike forehead,

The heaven-eyed creature sleeps in earth,
And Lamb, the frolic and the gentle,
Has vanished from his lonely hearth.

"Like clouds that rake the mountain summits,

Or waves that own no curbing hand,
How fast has brother followed brother,
From sunshine to the sunless land!

" While I, whose lids from infant slumbers

Were earlier raised, remain to hear
A timid voice that asks in whispers,
'Who next will drop and disappear?'"

Few men ever lived of so friendly disposition as Walter
Scott. Wherever he went, his spirit, at once manly and gener
ous and healthful and homely, drew men to his side. To the
early friends of his boyhood and youth he was constancy itself,
and no change in his fortunes or reputation made him change
toward them. The style of his poetry did not admit of many
personal allusions. But in those delightful introductions to the
several cantos of " Marmion," you have Scott unbosoming him
self to his several friends Erskine, Skene, Heber, and the
rest in the most natural, unconstrained way, pouring forth his
changing feelings, now grave, now gay, in verse that, if not
highly wrought, is as healthy and sweet as the breeze that blows
over his own border hills. Several of these introductions were
written at that season when, summer long past, and autumn
ending, he was setting face once more toward town and winter
work ; and certainly they have an autumnal tone, a pensiveness
that we do not usually associate with Scott, but which lay deep
in his nature, for all his hilarity. It is thus he speaks to his
friend Harriot :


"When musing on companions gone,
We doubly feel ourselves alone,
Something, my friend, we yet may gain,
There is a pleasure in this pain:
It soothes the love of lonely rest
Deep in each gentle heart impressed.

" Whispering a mingled sentiment
'Twixt resignation and content.

" Oft in my mind such thoughts awake,
By lone St. Mary's silent lake ;
Thou know'st it well, nor fen nor sedge
Pollute the pure lake's crystal edge ;
Abrupt and sheer the mountains sink
At once upon the level brink.

" There's nothing left to fancy's guess,
You see that all is loneliness.

"Your horse's hoof -tread sounds too rude,
So stilly is the solitude."

To lovers of Scott these introductions will always be dear,
for they reveal "the mighty minstrel" in his most natural and
homely guise, opening his friendly heart in free converse with
his chosen companions, about the things he most loved, his
field sports, his border hills as they look under the changing
seasons, his favorite tastes and studies, mingled with pensive
reflections on life and man's mortality.

Scott and "Wordsworth were not so intimate as Wordsworth
and Coleridge were ; for they met only at intervals of years, as
when Wordsworth crossed the border and visited Scott at
Lasswade, in that famous Scottish tour of 1803 ; or when Scott
visited the lakes, and had to adjourn from the cottage of the
water-drinking poet to the Grasmere hostelry to get his daily
glass of beer. But from that first meeting on the banks of
Esk, when Scott repeated to Wordsworth and his sister parts of
his yet unpublished " Lay," down to Wordsworth's farewell visit
to Abbotsford with his daughter in September, 1831, nothing
could be more hearty, even affectionate, than their intercourse.
In poetry, indeed, as in other things, their style and tastes
were different ; but each respected and admired the manly


character and sterling genins of the other. No poet has left a
more touching memorial of another than Wordsworth has left
of Scott in his " Yarrow Revisited, 77 in which he commemorated
that autumn day when the two poets visited Yarrow together
for the last time, just before Scott sailed for Italy :

"Once more, by Newark's castle-gate,

Long left without a warder,
I stood, looked, listened, and with thee,
Great minstrel of the border/'

"And if, as Yarrow, through the woods

And down the meadow ranging,
Did meet us with unaltered face,
Though we were changed and changing,"

Yet still they made a day of happy hours, their happy days
recalling. Of the rest of that pathetic visit, let me give Words
worth's own account :

"On our return in the afternoon [from Yarrow], we had to cross the
Tweed, directly opposite Abbotsford. The wheels of our carriage grated
upon the pebbles in the bed of the stream that flows there somewhat rapidly.
A rich but sad light, of rather a purple than a golden hue, was spread over
the Eildon Hills at that moment ; and thinking it probable that it might be
the last time that Scott would cross the stream, I was not a little moved, and
expressed some of my feelings in the sonnet, ' On the Departure of Sir Walter
Scott from Abbotsford for Naples.' "

Those lines recall, only to surpass, Horace's ode to the ship
that was to bear Virgil to Athens :

"A trouble, not of clouds, or weeping rain,
Nor of the setting sun's pathetic light
Engendered, hangs on Eildon's triple height:
Spirits of Power, assembled there, complain
For kindred power departing from their sight ;

Online LibraryNathaniel Hillyer. EglestonThe North American review (Volume 139) → online text (page 57 of 60)