The Saturday Review: A Revived Poet.

Home Up Biography Poetry Prose Reviews News Reports Miscellanea Main Index Site Search


The Saturday Review.

August 31, 1889.


Gerald Massey's Poems.

London: Keagan Paul, Trench, & Co.

IN one of his novels Mr. Walter Besant draws a poet who tried, and failed, some time in the Fifties, and who lingers on, not trying in public any more.  Somebody, to please this poet, intercalates a sham page of laudatory notice in a copy of the Saturday Review, and the good-natured trick is successful.  Mr. Gerald Massey tried, as a poet, some time ago, and perhaps it would not be unfair to say that he succeeded about as much as the other minor poets—that is, not very much.  But now he is revived, and in two neat pocket volumes of his "Lyrical Life."  We sincerely wish that we could praise him as heartily as the sham Saturday Review praised Mr. Besant's minstrel.  But we are compelled to admit that Mr. Massey's two volumes leave us with the most profound esteem for his heart, but not with a very high opinion of the distinction of his genius.  It might be unfair or unkind to say that Mr. Massey reminds us of an inoffensive and amiable Mr. Robert Buchanan.  There is, however, the same fluency, the same mastery of the manifest, the same ease in the obvious, the same sort of creditable approach to success.  But it is all infinitely more amiable and suave and kindly, so that we really like Mr. Massey's Muse, and are confident that she often brings pleasure and consolation.

    Mr. Massey innocently furnishes the critic with a prose preface about himself and his works and ideas.  Fun might be made of this preface with its artless complacency.  But this industry of fun-making is really too easy work.  Mr. Massey informs the world and the ages that he is English to the heart core, which is true, and that he was a Home Ruler (like Mr. Gladstone, Sir William Harcourt, and the rest) thirty years ago.  He also explains that "his faith in future life is based on facts in nature," by which we understand him to mean spiritual manifestations.  He "has ample testimony that his poems have done welcome work, if only in helping to destroy the tyranny of death."  This is a large triumph, and we congratulate Mr. Massey.  He adds that, in spite of this really remarkable achievement, "I see myself referred to at times as a poet who has not fulfilled the promise of his early work!" (The note of exclamation is Mr. Massey's.)  How unkind! and who has been thus referring to Mr. Massey?  It cannot have been the Saturday Review, which is quoted as a journal that praises Mr. Massey's "rising strength and indomitable vigour."  Mr. Massey cannot say we did it.  With a certain genial indiscretion Mr. Massey publishes an extract, which we are rather sorry to read, from a private letter of Mr. Matthew Arnold's.  Mr. Massey might leave that form of advertisement to another class of artists; the letter was probably not meant for publication.  However, we are lingering too fondly over Mr. Massey's advertisements and his preface, in which he speaks of Woman's Suffrage and kindred matters.

    As to Mr. Massey's verse, it is almost anything that is good; but, as a rule, is not often poetry.  Why it is not poetry most critical readers will feel, and it might be a useful exercise to put the feeling into explicit words.  Take Babe Christabel, in the metre of In Memoriam: it is full of pretty things.  For instance, the mother of the child is written about in this way:—

How she had throbbed with hopes and fears,
    And strained her inner eves till dim,
    To see the expected glory swim
Through the rich mist of happy tears.

This is pleasingly stated; but the swimming glory and the rich mist of happy tears are Tennyson at second hand.

All night, beneath the cottage eaves,
    A lonely light, with tremulous Arc,
    Surged back a space the sea of dark,
And glanced among the shimmering leaves.

Pastiche!  But the original owner of rich mists of happy tears would scarcely have said

They never saw a wee white shroud,
Nor guessed how flowers will mask the grave.

The "wee" shroud is a wrong note, and the flowers masking the grave are an example of the most ordinary commonplace.   And so it is throughout.  The sentiments are excellent and kindly; the versification is fair and fluent, but the metaphors are a little mixed; the ideas are outworn, "common is the commonplace."  Yet it is highly probable that verse on this level does charm and console people whom higher poetry can hardly reach; and, so far, the work deserves esteem, and from its admirers gratitude.  "Cousin Winnie," as it is more familiar, and does not aim so high and has not a manifest original, is really a better piece.  Mr. Massey's allegorical strains, such as "The Youth and the Angel," with the lady who was "lip-luscious," are not all devoid of platitude of the honest Teutonic variety.  An angel took a walk with a young man, the youth's taste was offended by a dead dog, and the angel's by the lady who was lip-luscious, and had delicate tinkling feet.

    Turning from domestic sentiment (in which, we think, he is most at home) Mr. Massey writes about ancient Egypt, a topic which he has also treated with more energy, we think, than judgment or scholarship in prose:—

Strike the Ap-Ap monster breathless, break his bones, in pieces hew
The coils he rings them with who voyage to the Aah-eu-Ru.

Old Egypt, like new Egypt, brings us little luck in poetry as in politics.  In one honest song of kindly feeling Mr. Massey shows very much better than in his unprovoked assault on the Ap-Ap monster:—

We just shake hands at meeting
    With many that come nigh;
We nod the head in greeting
    To many that go by,—
But welcome through the gateway
    Our few old friends and true;
Then hearts leap up, and straightway
    There's open house for you.
                                   Old Friends,
There's open house fur you!

Indeed, the less ambitious Mr. Massey is; the more he speaks from the heart, not the head, and the more briefly he speaks the more he attains true, though not lofty, poetry.  There are echoes of more sweet and powerful verses here and there, as in this:—

Ay, 'tis a tale of olden
    Time, long long ago;
When the world was in its golden
    Prime, and love was lord below.

[Banners, yellow, glorious, golden
    On its roof did float and flow;
This, all this was in the olden
    Time, long ago.

Mr. Massey is beholden,—
    Much,—to Edgar Allan Poe!]

But Poe would never, in a song entitled "My Love," have observed that the lady was

Just a wee bit sly.

This is just a wee bit wanting in taste, not to speak of dignity. In fact, Mr. Massey is too fond of wee shrouds, Wee bits, wee braves, wee wifies, and other phrases endearing in the sacred intimacies of home, but unworthy of the Muse.  He is no Tahureau, and even Tahureau abused diminutives.

    Mr. Massey has a national note in his lyre.  He appears to have been at Sydney when the Australians volunteered for service in the Soudan.  It was not their fault that they had little or no chance of proving their mettle.  They have, of course, been denounced as "Jingoes" by people who hold some of Mr. Massey's political opinions.  His own heart, as usual, is in the right place [Ed.—All Ready And All One]:—

The life-streams of the Mother
    Through all her youngsters run,
And brother stands by brother,
To die with one another,
    All ready and all one!

Mr. Massey says with perfect truth that he is true English, and he has written some stirring songs for England:—

In words she wasteth not her breath,
    But be the trumpet blown,
And in the Battle's dance of death,
    She'll dance the bravest down.

So may it be; but it is hardly correct to say that "in words she wasteth not her breath."  Mr. Massey's "Poems for Christie" contain, among many pleasant domestic pieces, a curious visionary tale,  "The Nabob's Double," too long to quote, but well worth reading.  Many of his brief pieces have a happy concentration, as this on the "Souls of Animals":—

Such look of an immortal likeness, springs
At times into the eyes of dear dumb things,
As if Hereafter we must recognize
The Unknown Life that knew us in their eyes.

He sees not only the soul in animals, but the good in Tom Sayers, and he recognized in Mr. Thackeray the man

Large-hearted, brave, sincere, compassionate.

In fact, Mr. Massey has a thousand claims on our sympathy, even if we cannot believe in the sublime of his long poems, such as his "Tale of Eternity."  On his political poems it is as well not to write, for politics will colour criticism of poems political.  Mr. Massey has a piece called "A Reviewer Reviewed," in which he, declares himself "quite content with critical half and half."  It is a modest frame of mind, and almost unexampled among poets.  They usually want nothing but nectar "or ambrosial dew."  Critical half and half, in the native pewter, is not at all beyond what Mr. Massey deserves, and it may even be trusted that he will sometimes be refreshed with some richer and rarer beverage.  At all events, he does not seem to be a water-drinking bard.  In a piece on the death of Mr. Russell, the editor of the Scotsman, he says:—

Walhalla! rise and welcome him
Across the Braga-beaker's rim
And, that his glory may be full,
Brim high some water-drinker's skull.


[Home] [Up] [Biography] [Poetry] [Prose] [Reviews] [News Reports] [Miscellanea] [Main Index] [Site Search]