Ladies' Repositary (1866)

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A monthly periodical, devoted to literature, arts,
and religion. 

Volume 26, Issue 5, MAY 1866




IN the preface to his published poems Gerald Massey says: "The dearth of poetry should be great in a country where we hail as poets such as have been crowned of late."

    It is, no doubt, true that our poetry is fast losing the vigour and energy it once possessed; that our poets are now more remarkable for beauty of expression than strength of thought; that "wordy pictures" of character and scenery are fast taking the place of word-pictures.  From the inspiring lays of chivalry, the deeper tragedies of sin and death, and the accurate study of life and character, we have gone down to love songsexquisite in themselves, it is true descriptions of tragedy, poems lacking the vigour of olden times. Poets were formerly few and rare; they are now common and commonplace.  It is yet to be seen whether the delicacy of expression compensates for want of force; whether we are beyond the day of great poems; whether Bulwer's Greek tragedy was a failure because of the poet or the time.  Chief among modern English poets stands Tennyson; in philosophical poetry we have Arnold and Browningthe philosophy in the latter often becoming mere mistwhile in rare imaginative power and passionate expression Gerald Massey may rank with these.

    With the principal facts of his life most persons are familiar. Born in 1828, the son of a canal boatman, learning to read at a penny school, he was at the age of eight put to earn his bread in a silk-mill.  When the mill burned down he went to straw-plaiting, as laborious and even more unhealthy than factory-work.  At fifteen he came to London as an errand boy; and while before his library had consisted of the Bible, Bunyan, and Robinson Crusoe, he now found himself surrounded by books, and read every thing that came in his way.  To this delight in reading succeeded the desire to write himself, and, in his own words, "after I had begun I never ceased for about four years, at the end of which time I rushed into print." These first poems were not political.  They taught that knowledge, virtue, and temperance had power to elevate the masses, and that sometime this should be done; but the fiery earnestness which he afterward showed was not then apparent.  The French Revolution produced no little effect upon him; "it was scarred and blood-burnt into the very core of my being."  In 1849 he became editor of a cheap workingmen's journal, called "The Spirit of Freedom"costly editorship, since in eleven months it cost him five situations.  Of his life since then, except as a poet, we know nothing.  There is evidence that his devotion to literature has not been unrewarded, that he has married and found happiness in domestic life.

    We think Gerald Massey's poems may be briefly divided into those which have a political bearing and those which have not, the first containing the most earnest spirit, the second the most perfect poetry.  We would not have it understood by this, however, that there are any of his poems of a bad spirit or entirely lacking in poetic expression. In the preface to the "Ballad of Babe Christabel," Massey apologizes for his political verses thus: "It was not for myself that I wrote these pieces; it was always the condition of others that made the mist rise up and clouded my vision.  I keep them as memorials of my past." It is evident that it is the "condition of others," the intense sympathy he has for all who are oppressed, which makes many of his pieces so full of indignation.  They are, indeed, the natural outgrowth of a cramped life and memorials of a peculiar phase of the poet's character.  It was but natural that Gerald Massey, rising from the people, knowing all the tyrannies they suffered from the rich, and feeling with a poet's heart for their sorrows, should have written first of them, written earnestly, indignantly, putting his soul into his verse. 

    These poems are all similar in character and treatment. Indignation at the present state of society, expostulations with the rich for their oppressions, and addresses to the people to resist, with frequently in conclusion some vision of a future time when these things shall have passed away.  There are differences, of course, some being merely fiery protests, as "They are but Giants while we Kneel," and "Eighteen Hundred and Forty-Eight," while in others the rising of the masses is the chief subject. Of the latter class are "The People's Advent," "Hope On, Hope Ever," and perhaps "The Three Voices."  In a different and more subdued vein are the lines, "The Kingliest Kings," from which we quote:

"As beauty in death's cerements shrouds,
     And stars bejewel night,
God's splendours live in dim heart-clouds,.
     And suffering worketh might;
The mirkest hour is mother of morn,
The kingliest kings are crowned with thorn."

Of a similar spirit are the lines to F. D. Maurice:

"They lay their corner-stones in dark,
    Deep waters, who upbuild in beauty,
On earth's old heart, their triumph arc,
    That crowns with glory lives of duty.

    *              *          *            *          *
Take heart;  tho' sown in tears and blood,
    No seed that's quick with love hath perished,
Though dropt in barren by-ways-God
    Some glorious flower of life hath cherished."

    The series of poems, "England and Louis Napoleon," are so different that we can not refrain from again quoting.  Here is indignation mingled with grim sarcasm :

"Our idol's hands are red with blood, with blood his
       hands are sodden,
But we know 'tis only guilty blood which he has spilt
       and trodden;
He wears the imperial purple now, that plotting prince
       of evil,
He lets us share his glory if we bow down to the
                 And we bow, bow, bow,
We may go to the devil, so it's just as well to bow."

    In "Burns" and "Hugh Miller's Grave," a different phrase of the poet's character appears. Devoted as he is to the people, feeling for their wrongs, rejoicing in their triumphs, it will readily be seen how hearty an admiration he would have for any who, breaking the bonds of circumstance, had won for themselves a name and position in the world.  With the hard-toiling life of Hugh Miller, the struggles of genius with poverty, the poet has the most intense sympathy, and he touches with an almost reverent hand upon his death. In "Burns, a Centenary Song," a much longer piece, there is mingled with sympathy for the poet's life some careful verses descriptive of his poems:

"They set us singing at our work,
      Or where no ringing voice is found,
Outsmiles the music that may lurk
      In thoughts too flue for sound.

They weave some pictured tints that shine
      Luminous in life's cold gray woof,
They make the vine of patience twine
      About the barest roof."

    Our poet has indeed no little sympathy with every thing great and noble, and whether it be genius going sorrowfully to the grave while it set the world laughing with its comicalities, suffering for the people's cause, or the death of heroes of battle, he honours them all.  The death of Havelock, "who wore the double royalty of being great and good," they who fell for Hungary and Rome, the men of forty eight, Robert Blake, and Sir Richard Grenville are all celebrated in his verse. 

    From many of Massey's poems we gain the idea that they are transcripts of personal experience.  Under different titles there are many pieces all treating of the death of a dearly loved child, one of three. Two of these, "The Mother's Idol Broken" and "The Ballad of Babe Christabel," are pieces of some length.  The latter is, we think, the finest long poem in the volumeas perfect a description of child-life and bereavement as has ever been written.  The vivid imagination so lavishly displayed in the other poems is here held in check, and the few glimpses given of it are very beautiful. It opens with a description of the time of Babe Christatel's birtha poet's picture of Spring, and goes on in parts carefully divided with the parent's joy, the child's growth, and the air-castles builded about her.  We quote:

"A spirit-look was in her face,
      That shadowed a miraculous range
      Of meanings ever rich and strange,
Or lightened glory in the place.
*            *            *            *            *            *
And through the windows of her eyes
      We often saw her saintly soul,
      Serene, and sad, and beautiful,
Go sorrowing for lost paradise."

After the description of her death the poem closes:

"God's ichor fills the hearts that bleed,
      The best fruit loads the broken bough,
      And in the wounds our sufferings plow

Immortal love sows sovereign seed."

Some of the shorter poems on the same subject have a tenderer utterance.  Of them we think "Our Little Child with Radiant Eyes" the best. 

    In "Glimpses of the Crimean War," the principal events of that period, the coalition, departure of troops, battles and siege, as well as the other side of war, the death of heroes, the grief at home, and the ministry of Florence Nightingale, are described in poems varying in power and interest.  Some of the battle lyrics have a fine musical rhythm; of them all we think "The Death Ride," a piece on the same subject and almost as vivid as Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," the best.  "A War Winter's Night in England" might be taken as the voice of more than one home-circle when, during our great struggle, we sat,

"Straining our ears for the tidings of war, 
      Holding our hearts like beacons up higher
For those who are fighting afar."

    The other long poems of the volume are "Lady Laura," a tale of factory life, and "The Bridegroom of Beauty," each of them well written, and containing some exquisite passages, but neither of sufficient importance to require notice.  The two series of poems, "Songs for Singing" and "Lyrics of Love," contain some of the most passionate love-songs in our language.  Massey leans indeed toward the tender side of nature, and his political poems are but the rebound of one who is dowered as well with the hate of hate as the love of love. 

    "A Day at Craigcrook Castle" is, we think, a fair instance of Gerald Massey's poetic power.  It combines with a succession of beautiful pictures some reflection and a hint of something deeper.  Very rarely indeed, but very reverently, has he touched upon the life-questions of God and Eternity.  Now he declares that

"Life is a maze, but God in the centre sits," 

and that

"'They wrought in faith,' and not 'they wrought in doubt,' 
   Is the proud epitaph inscribed above
   Our glorious dead."

    The reader will, perhaps, have already seen from our extracts Massey's chief characteristic and great fault.  His imagination does not seem to be entirely under his control, and often leads him into extravagances of expression.  In his poems one is confused by the succession of figures, each beautiful in itself, but too many in number.  Like "The Singer" he has so eloquently described, he scatters

 "Rare violet fancies and rose leaves of sound."

 The sweetness is cloying, and one can not help wishing that more simplicity was mingled with it.  Many of his poems are a succession of beautiful pictures; and he differs in artist power from Tennyson in an important particular.  The Laureate touches a picture with the richest and most delicate strokes possible; with his imagination flowing in a broader, fuller stream, Massey's pictures are often confused and indistinct, his poems a maze of figures. 

    There may be some that will object to Massey's political poems, but we hold it well-nigh impossible for a poet of the people to be silent on their wrongs.  True poetry has some definite aim toward the advance of the world; and as in America Whittier consecrated his muse to liberty, so in England our poet became a chartist.  Some of Tennyson's poems are fiercely political, but while he attacks all society, condemns alike rich and poor, Massey sings of the oppressions of one, the wrongs of the other.  That the present condition of English society is essentially bad no one will deny.  To the changing of it if men consecrate the gifts God has given them, who will condemn them? who will not rather bid them Godspeed?


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