Craigcrook Castle (1856)

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Volume 51, Issue 656, Boston, December 20, 1856


from The Examiner.


Craigcrook Castle.   By Gerald Massey, pub. Bogue, London.

    WE give a hearty welcome to another book from Mr. Gerald Massey, a young writer who through hard beginnings of life has already attained to much, and undoubtedly is capable of more than he has yet achieved.  Craigcrook Castle deserves to be bought and read; there is true poetry to be found in the little volume, as there was true poetry to be found in the Ballad of Babe Christabel, and some of the lyrics that accompanied it.  There is sufficient sign in the new book of increased maturity of thought, and we like it none the worse but all the better for whatever defect of judgment may still lead the young poet astray in the expression of strong feelings imperfectly controlled by reason,—as when in the poem of Lady Laura he is found echoing Mrs.  Browning’s Cry of the Factory Children, or, in another place, bitterly scorning the reception in this country of the Emperor of France, whom he sees only as Louis Napoleon.  We should not care at once wholly to miss these flashes of the fire of youth; there remains now in Mr. Massey’s verse but little of the old wild reference to what he once considered social wrongs; in other respects, also, his muse is soberer, and has not suffered any loss of power.

    We must dwell a little on one cause of misgiving which this new volume of verse suggests; but it is in no spirit of cold criticism that we wish to do so.  It is natural and right that one of the young poets of the day should take an interest in the works of others who are travelling, or endeavouring to travel, with him the same road to fame, and seem to travel at an equal pace; it is well, also, that he takes pleasure in their efforts.  Only let him not make them objects of his imitation.  Upon the manner in which Mr. Massey sets to work, during the years now passing, to assure the education of his power as a poet, must depend alone his ultimate success or failure.  We see in the new volume evidence that Mr. Massey spares no pains to sing well; he is manifestly disposed to submit his strength to careful training, but we fear that he has of late spent some of his labour in the wrong direction.  A literary career bright in its promise is before him, but he must observe in time that there is a way of writing which, though it may help one who is but very little of a poet in emerging for a few days from obscurity, may by infecting — if it ever can infect deeply— a true poet, rot his verse, and take the life out of his reputation.  Whenever Mr. Massey is so far moved by his topic as to speak what his own nature dictates, he writes those pages which enable all his readers to declare with confidence that he is truly a poet.  He never stops to study finery of speech, but touches hearts by singing from his heart.  Incomparably the best things in this volume are two little works produced under the influence of genuine emotion; one a long poem on the bereavement of a mother who has lost her last-born infant, called the Mother’s Idol Broken, and the other that connected series of lyrics, "Glimpses of the War," which we believe we may say that, taken as a complete work — for they should be all read together—they form, whatever may be their minute defects, the most spirited accompaniment to the whole tale of the late war that has been produced up to this date by any of our English minstrels.

    In other parts of the book, wherever there occurs little to stir the depths out of which come the highest utterances, we are apt to find that a good artist has been working from bad models.  Craigcrook Castle, in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh, is a ruin with "a tiny town of towers," round about which roses abound, and from behind which slopes a hill.  The poet tells in his opening verses of the place and of a picnic party there assembled, he describes some of the persons in it,—an exiled patriot, an English bridegroom, and so forth, tells that at twilight they remained for a symposium which they were to enliven with tale and song, and in that way introduces the collection of his verses.  The opening narrative abounds in poet’s thoughts, and great labour has been manifestly spent upon the composition, but it has been almost labour in vain, for it is so written that sometimes an entire page conveys as a whole, however studied its component sentences, no distinct meaning to the reader.  To avoid this very grave defect, Mr. Massey has only to avoid all effort to say clever things.  He is clever, and will not fail to drop good sayings in sufficient plenty as he goes.  What he has once produced naturally he may test, and if necessary polish, with the utmost of the skill proper to his art; but he must be more ready to subtract than add.  Let him by no example be induced to sit and puff after the manner of the man who wishes to be thought a poet, or the frog who wishes to be thought an ox.  If Mr. Massey, having burnt his "Balder" and his "Festus," and all volumes of that sort, will enter earnestly into communion with Chaucer and Spenser, he will very soon discover what he has now to unlearn.  He will talk then no more of dewy lanes,

        "that kist us with the breath
Of their green mouths,"

           —truly an unsavoury conceit—or talk about "taking the Maytide in a golden swim," or speak of love "Warm on the bosom of mellifluous Rest," or of a golden age’s "stirred precipitate," or tell us such a thing as this, which we don’t understand at all, about a Blackbird:

"His Apple-tree hath felt the ruddying breath
Of May upon her yielding leafy lips
And broke in kisses trembling for delight;
Look how her red heart blushes warm in white!
Deep after deep the generous heart of Spring,
So golden-full of glad days, flusht in bloom,
Ripe with all sweetness."

    Or give such a sketch as this—we have not abridged it by a syllable—of a young lady:

"Aurelia with the royal eyes, and breast
Bounding with hurrying heart, wave-wanton,
A ripe repose on some Elysian shore:
A glorious passion-flower of Womanhood
Come, golden-natured, to its summer throne:
Her eyes, the stars of burning dreams, so rapt
The spirit moth-like for their fire, you might
Have gone to death by sword-light for their
And sullen beauty of her mouth’s ripe bloom."

    Or talk of spirits "toucht in tingling kiss, till every nerve stretched like a telescope." We shall have no more such compound words as mad-world-strife, precious-lined, star-smile, or lips "red-ripe to crush their fire-strong wine, pouting persuasive in perpetual kiss." Then, again, as we are reminded by those p’s just quoted, Mr. Massey will learn nowhere so well as in the verse of Spenser how to use with the most exquisite effect the art of alliteration.  Much use is made of it in Craigcrook Castle; but if the sense of it has not been spoiled by study of spasmodic poets, it perhaps may have been blunted by too strong a recollection of the "Peter Piper" of our infancy.  Thus we are told that about Craigcrook Castle,

"With cups of colour reeling Roses rise
On walls and bushes, red and yellow and
A dance and dazzle of Roses range all round."

    More difficult to our tongues than "Peter Piper picked a peck of pepper" is "Bird after bird the sweet sharp stillness stirred."  Well-managed alliteration is, we believe, not merely a legitimate, but with some measures an absolutely necessary charm of English verse.  We have specified this sort of defect only to show the more clearly in what direction Mr. Massey has a tendency to go astray.  He is not very far wrong; we have read his new poems with enjoyment, with respect; nothing is further from our thoughts than to pick out petty defects in a depreciatory spirit.  We see one of the most hopeful of our young poets arrived at that point in his course from which two roads widely diverge.  His face is turned towards the road down which it will be hard for him to travel without being stripped of all his wealth; we therefore cannot be content to say only, Go on and prosper.

    What good verse Mr. Gerald Massey writes when he is feeling what he says, the greater part of his book shows.  Fresh from the poet comes the thought that hallows the fond bending of the mother over a small curl of her dead infant’s hair—"A ring of sinless gold that weds two worlds."

    Utterly vanished is all affectation, and in his simple truth the poet speaks when he writes thus of the dead child:

"And there our Darling lay in coffined calm
 Dressed for the grave in raiment like the snow,
 And o’er her flowed the white, eternal peace:
 The breathing miracle into silence passed:
 Never to stretch wee hands, with her dear
 As soft as light-fall on unfolding flowers;
 Never to wake us crying in the night;
 Our little hindering thing forever gone,
 In tearful quiet now we might toil on.
 All dim the living lustres motion makes!
 No life-dew in the sweet cups of her eyes!
 Nought there of our poor 'Splendid’ but her
 A young Immortal came to us disguised,
 And in the joy-dance dropt her mask, and

"The world went lightly by and heeded not
 Our death-white windows blinded to the sun;
 The hearts that ached within; the measureless
 The Idol broken; our first tryst with Death.
 O Life, how strange thy face behind the veil!
 And stranger yet will thy strange mystery
 When we awake in death and tell our Dream.
 'Tis hard to solve the secret of the Sphinx!
 We had a little gold Love garnered up,
 To bravely robe our Babe: the Mother’s half
 Was turned to mourning raiment for her dead:
 Mine bought the first land we called ours—
                      Her grave.
 We were as treasure-seekers in the earth,
 When lo, a death’s-head on a sudden stares.

"Clad all in spirit-beauty forth she went;
 Her budding spring of life in tiny leaf;
 Her gracious gold of babe-virginity
 Unminted in the image of our world;
 Her faint dawn whitened in the perfect day.
 Our early wede away went back to God,
 Bearing her life-scroll folded, without stain,
 And only three words written on it — two
 Our names! Ah, may they plead for us in

    "Lady Laura" is the story of a beneficent lady, who, pitying the children in a silk-mill near her house, took from it a man destined, after changes fallen upon both their states, to be her husband.  It contains much delicate writing.  We pass it to quote part of a lyric in the series entitled "Glimpses of the War:"

WILD is the wintry weather!
    Dark is the night, and cold!
All closely we crowd together,
    Within the family fold.
A mute and mighty Shadow flies
    Across the land on wings of gloom!
And thro' each Home its awful eyes
    May lighten with their stroke of doom.
Life's light burns dim—we hold the breath—
All sit stern in the shadow of Death,
    Around the household fire—
    This Winter's-night in England,
Straining our ears for the tidings of War,
    Holding our hearts, like Beacons, up higher,
For those who are fighting afar.

We talk of Britain's glory,
    We sing some brave old song,
Or tell the thrilling story
    Of her wrestle with the wrong.
Till we clutch the spirit-sword for the strife,
    And into our Rest would rather fall
Down Battle's cataract of life,
    Than turn the white face to the wall.
Sing, O, for a charge victorious!
And the meekest face grows glorious!
    As we sit by the household fire,
    This Winter's-night in England,—
Our souls within us like steeds of War!
    And we hold our hearts, like Beacons, up higher,
For those who are fighting afar.

And oft in silence solemn
    We peer from Night's dark tent,
And see the quivering column
    Like a cloud by lightning rent.
For death, how merry they mount and ride!
    Those swords look keen for their lap of gore!
Such Valour leaps out Deified!
    Such souls must rend the clay they wore!
How proud they sweep on Glory's track!
So many start! so few come back
    To sit by the household fire,
    On a Winter's-night in England,
And with rich tears wash their wounds of War,
    Where we hold our hearts, like Beacons, up higher,
For those who are fighting afar.

We thrill to the Clarion's clangour,
    And harness for the fight:
With the Warrior's glorious anger,
    We are nobly mad to smite:
No dalliance, save with Hate, hold we,
    Where Life and Death keep bloody tryst,
And all the red Reality
    Reels on us through a murder-mist!
Wave upon wave rolls Ruin's flood,
And the hosts of the Tyrant melt in blood,
    As we sit by the household fire;
    This Winter's-night in England,
And our colour flies out to the music of War,
    While we hold our hearts, like Beacons, up higher,
For those who are fighting afar.

Old England still hath Heroes
    To wear her sword and shield!
We knew them not while near us,
    We know them in the field!
Look! how the Tyrant's hills they climb,
    To hurl our gage in his grim hold!
The Titans of the earlier time,
    Tho' larger-limb'd, were smaller-soul'd!
Laurel, or Amaranth, light their brow!
Living or dead, we crown them now!
    As we sit by the household fire,
    This Winter's-night in England:
From the white cliffs watching the storm of War,
    Holding our hearts, like Beacons, up higher,
For those who are fighting afar.

O! their brave love hath rootage
    In the Old Land, deep and dear,
And Life's ripe, ruddy fruitage
    Hangs summering for them here!
And tender eyes, tear-luminous,
    Melt thro' the dark of dreamland skies,
While, pleading aye for home and us,
    The heart is one live brood of cries!
Old feelings cling!    O how they cling!
And sweet birds sing!    O how they sing
    Them back to the household fire,
    This Winter's-night in England,
Where we wait for them weary and wounded from War,
    Holding our hearts, like Beacons, up higher,
For those who are fighting afar!

We will quote, also, because it is both brief and complete, this


O HAPPY tree;
             Green and fragrant tree;
Spring with budding jewels deckt it like a Bride!
             All so fair it bloomed,
             And the summer air perfumed;
Golden autumn fruitage smiled in crowns of pride.

             O human tree;
             Waesome wailing tree;
In the winter wind how it rocks! how it grieves!
             On a little low grave-mound,
             All its bravery lies discrowned:
O'er its fallen fruit it heaps the withered leaves.


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