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No character has ever puzzled the carries us through our usual trials. world so much as that of the poet. Kindness itself, the general affecIt is to this day an unfailing field of tion which poets have great luck inquiry for the half-fledged critic, and in winning, strengthens this deluhas been, since ever letters were, a sion. One thinks with enthusiasm matter of dispute among all those how fit it would be to strew the who, without belonging to the magic path of our minstrel with flowers, circle, hovered round the borders of and ward off from his delicate perit, and were dazzled by its glory. ceptions the harsh assaults of forThe laws of nature by which this tune ; how he ought to be guarded strange phenomenon managed to get and nursed and taken care of, out of itself developed — the particular cir- a universal tenderness and gratitude, cumstances favourable for its growth in humble requital of all he does for --whether by any artificial means it us ; and so an ideal grows upon us, were possible to produce the creature born of admiration and not of envy at will, and, being produced, what -a delicate, ethereal, tender soul, was its natural history, its anatomi- which feels every pin-point like a cal construction those features of dagger, which is above the commonpeculiar individuality which distin- place persistence of common labour, guished it from all the rest of the and from which such vulgar qualities
- have been the inquiry of so as foresight or prudence are no more many generations, that it is clear to be expected than from a child or enough there must be pleasure in an angel. This is the poet of poems, the investigation, though there is no of romances, of tender imaginationsgreat amount of profit. For it un- the pet and favourite of a superficial fortunately happens that no sooner fancy ; but it is rather hard to point have those capricious splendours out an example where this ethereal been properly classified and identi- creature has blossomed into real life. fied, and the world arrived at a And there is another side of the tolerably unanimous opinion as to question. If it is not true that the poetic character, than some un- Genius needs crutches when it alights discovered member of the family from its Pegasus, is it true that the suddenly starts up under the very vision and the faculty divine elevates hands of the inquirers, shivering the every man who possesses it, in every pretty hypothesis into a hundred particular, shoulder-high above his fragments, and proving with magni- fellows, a king of men ?—that Burns, ficent contempt that a poet may be for example, following his plough“ in the very antipodes of the poet upon glory and in joy," was the sole Titan whose attributes everybody has de- of his generation, able, if the world cided, and that no circumstances can had but known it, to rule his country smother, and no qualities of mind and period, as some persons of genius obscure, that divine gift which falls choose to say? One cannot help here and there rarely, yet without doubting it mightily when one redistinction, upon all kinds and de- members how that glorious unfortugrees of men, with the splendid im- nate managed himself, the kingdom partiality of heaven.
which lay nearest to his hand. ProIt is not an uncommon weakness vidence seldom makes those mistakes with common people-neither is it which our superiorskill discoversin its always an unamiable one-to con- working. After all, people commonclude that the poetic faculty disables ly succeed to a certain point in doing its possessors for the ordinary traffic what it is in them to do, and seldom go of the world. Indeed, the most of far astray out of their vocation. A
much disposed to elieve, man may be a great poet, and withal that for every unusual gift a man a person of extreme good sense and the has, he must naturally lack some- intensest respectability ; or he may thing of the everyday provision which be, it is sad to say, a great poet and
a vagabord; or he may be a highly when one is approached with awe, speculative and troublesome indivi- and adoring little audiences, where dual, and yet have a gift of the one repeats one's own verses, and sublimest melody known to man. all the walks one takes, and the In short, the family of poets shows as how - d’ye - do's one utters, are very many and as unaccountable features apt, unless with very delicate treatof diversity as any other handful of ment, to make a somewhat vulgar undistinguished men taken at ran- commentary upon that most perfect dom from the general race.
expression of human intellect and This is rather unfortunate, because sentiment, the work of a great poet. it is so comfortable to be arbitrary The lives of great poets, accordand make classifications; instead of ingly, turn out, for the most part, which agreeable exercise of skill, we extremely unsatisfactory performare obliged to confess humbly that
It is in their nature to be we know no infallible characteristic so, more or less, because we are of poets save their poetry ; that even already familiar with the quintesin their poetry it is not always pos- sence and glory of that life which, sible to read their lives; and that, notwithstanding, we persevere in behind the dazzling veil in which hoping to find as perfect as its prothey have the power of enveloping ductions. And it is important to themselves at their pleasure, each remark, besides, that every man who one sits solitary, not a member of a is born a poet do not – strange class, but an individual man. oversight of Providence ! - have a
“Of what importance is it to great brother, or a son, or a nephew, who poets to leave the history of their is born a biographist, to attend the lives to posterity ?” asks Beranger in steps of the loftier spirit, and record the opening sentence of his Autobio- them for the advantage of posterity. graphy. It is not easy to answer the could nothing be done, does any one question. Unhappily, this present think, to provide a Boswell or a period is the end of an age of poets, Defoe in all the future families of who leave their deaths and their bio- poets? It seems the only way in graphies, rather than their lives and which the inevitable memoir could labours, for the distinction of these be accomplished with advantage to latter years. Can anybody tell what the world. the better Wordsworth is for his bio- What it pleases a poet to say of graphy, or Southey for his ?-or even himself and of his own life is a difin the glory of so many big volumes ferent matter. Heaven bless the that unhappy little songster, who did craft! There is certainly one thing not know how his noble executor beyond their poetry which poets meant to take his life? Biography have in common, and that is a ceris a fashion of the time ; but it seems tain consciousness in their hearts indeed very doubtful how far it is that everybody loves them; that an advantage to those who have no they are free to speak as friends to public acts to explain, and no parti- multitudes of listeners; that the cular legacy of belief or knowledge personal ring of their voices someto leave to the world. The life of a how warms the hearts of their audipolitical leader is important to his- ence; and that the man who makes tory ; it throws special illumination our profoundest emotions articulate, upon special points of policy, and may, if he chooses, speak to us in his sometimes enlightens us in respect own person, with a familiarity, a to the great machinery of the govern- simplicity, even a homeliness, which ment under which we live. But the no other man is privileged to use. poet has said what he has to say It is impossible not to think thus infinitely better, in all probability, in opening the modest volume which than either his life itself, or the nar- contains all that he himself thought rative of it, can do. A man whose necessary to transmit to posterity of life is a poem, is a being to be the life of Beranger. The life of a approached tenderly and at arm's poet, the life of a Frenchman-the length. Detail takes the bloom off history of a man of popularity so his sublimity, and dinner-parties universal, that we know no parallel to it among ourselves ---a man born in old music native to his country, the ancient regime, living through which his smooth verses brought “the Terror,” the Consulate, the Em- into fashion. Burns has such matters pire, the Restoration, and all the hur- as the “Saturday Night” and “Tam ricanes of State thereafter—who has o' Shanter" to add to his claims as a seen three times over the throne of lyricist; but Beranger sings always, the Bourbons vacated, and two Napo- sings perpetually, throws himself by leons conquer the imperial crown. nature and choice into those refrains What times to live in! What an which everybody sings after him ; age for a poet ! Yet by dint of doing limits himself with a natural init himself, and by the aid of excel- stinct; is never too long, never too lent good sense, and a disposition ponderous for the popular voice and (for a Frenchman) unusually modest, fancy; and, indeed, makes few verses Beranger confines his record of more which do not sing themselves, whether than seventy years within little more their reader wills or no. The gift is than three hundred pages--the boards perfectly peculiar and individual. It of a single volume. Such examples is not the chant of narrative, the old are rare indeed in an age of book- music which is the original of all making-though perhaps it is true poetry, and which in every primitive that one is naturally inclined to society holds listeners enchained, by brevity when one has something to the hour, while the minstrel chants tell; where there are no incidents, the deeds of their forefathers. It is what can people do but bring in more of the nature of those songs words to fill the vacant place? which spring up, no one knows how,
A poet who lives to the age of natural productions of the country, Beranger realises for himself what like its flowers and its rivers-stray men less fortunate have to commit verses, of which no one can tell the to the hands of posterity. This fa- anthor. Yet it differs also from those vourite of our lively neighbours has poetical aborigines. It is the voice had his fate and fame decided years of a man whose temperament is the ago. An interval of trial is not prevailing temperament of his coun. necessary between his death and his try, whose thoughts are lively and canonisation. The avocat de diable rapid, who feels the national neceshas said all he could to keep the sity for communicating them, and is new saint out of the firmament ever restless in possession of an idea till so long ago, and has been as unsuc- he has shared it with his neighbours, cessful as that unfortunate officer He has neither time, nor reticence, generally is in such cases.
nor self-command enough to hoard unnecessary now to discuss the qua- up his imaginations for anything of lities which have elevated the chan greater effort. When a fancy takes sonnier to the high rank which he possession of his brain, it bursts forth holds, not only in France, but in the immediately in a natural efflorescence, world. Yet he is perhaps the most sets himself singing in the first place, remarkable modern instance of a breaks into a social chorus, catches celebrity so great, so just, and so un- everybody's ear with an infallible questionable, which rests only upon attraction, and goes singing on its those compositions commonly ac- way over a whole country, as light counted the lightest and least import- and tiny as a bird, before the exciteant of all the efforts of poetry. His ment of its creation is well over in fame is like the fairy palace of an the mind from which it came. There Arabian dream. It rests upon a
are no abrupt breaks in the songs multitude of little gleaming columns, of Beranger. They are not a succespolished and perfect everyone, sion of verses cut into arbitrary bits, twinkling in innumerable vistas, as but dainty little separate existences, tiny as the elves, and as multitu- tuning their periods with an intuitive dinous. In our language we find no music, long enough to interest the parallel either to his work or his suc- fancy, and not too long to burden it.
Moore is the songster of draw- And they are not songs of passion. ing-rooms and society, and, even This extraordinary chansonnier, of then, takes half his value from the all things in the world, thinks proper to confess that he has never had the seekers who find expression for their luck to know the love of romances fancies provided to their hand by and poets, and his verses accordingly the chansonnier. It is everybody lack that charm; but if they are not who lives in the same age, who sees love-songs, they are, what is still the same event, who shares with him better for their purpose, songs about in the universal sentiment. He is everything - sparks struck on the not seeking popularity by a choice of moment from every passing blaze of popular themes ; but, living in the popular emotion, from every event in midst of the common world, he sings one of the most crowded chapters of what he thinks about what he sees, history; and it becomes possible to and the people, whom the same understand, through the interpreta- events have moved perhaps to simition of Beranger, the real weight of lar fancies, crowd round him in that saying, which does not seem to delighted surprise, taking the chorus have much application to our litera- from his lips. He, too, thinks just ture and country, though it is perpe- as we have been thinking. Vive tnally quoted in regard to them, Beranger! It is the secret of his “Let who will make the laws, if I fame. make the songs."
This running comment upon things This fundamental difference, how- in general, embodied as it is in lanever, makes it very strange that any guage rich with many of the happiest one should call Beranger the Burns graces of poetry, does not exist in of France. It would be almost as this country. We have love-songs, just to call him the Milton. The we have drinking-songs, we have burning heart of the Ayrshire peasant patriotic anthems and rebellious balbears as little resemblance to the lads--and we have, if such things lively intellect of the Parisian bour- can be named even in the very lowest geois as the lightning does to the limit of literature, innumerable piles lamp. True, they have both written of the rubbish called fashionable songs; but the songs of the Scot are songs, which are generally about songs of passion, fiery effusions of an nothing at all; but we have no songs exuberant and overflowing ardour- of the time like those which have words that burn. There is an effu established so great and important a sim, an abandon (strange that we place for themselves in the literature should find names for this wild over- of France. That there is scope and tiooding exuberance in a language audience for them is apparent enough which produces so few examples of when one remembers how even such it !) a plunge of the entire spirit into a bald production as “A good time the utterance in the verses of Burns, coming” rang through all our streets which does not exist, nor a shadow a few years ago, and how the kindred of it, in Beranger. Wild mirth, wild platitude of “ Cheer, boys, cheer," love, wild despair, all the big pas- even caught a momentary glory from sions of a giant, glow in the songs of the fact that our poor soldiers, for the ploughiman; but as for the Pari- want of better, sang it under their sian, he has not very much to do with tents in the Crimea, where even such passions. He is not a Burns, start- very poor cheer had some comfort in sing the quiet with his great emo- it. But it is no fault of Dr Charles tions. He is not an Anacreon, rose- Mackay that he is not Beranger-and crowned and flushed with wine. Rich it seems quite doubtful whether anyin the power and inspiration of a body could do in English what Bepoet, he is, nevertheless, simply a ranger has done in his own land. citizen, living as everybody else does, For our neighbours across the thinking as everybody else thinks, Channel, who do things avec effusion throwing his sentiments about every- -- who rush into each other's arms, thing freely from him in lively and when we only shake hands—who are melodious verses, in happy refrains, in despair when we are simply anin delightful turns of expression, noyed-who deal in ecstasies and which one loves to take into one's agonies with the most lavish prodilips, as a child does a bonbon. It gality-have, it is strange to say, is not lovers, it is not pleasure though their speech abounds with
phrases expressive of all those super- in this respect, Burns has taken hold lative sensations, a language which is of his entire nation. There are some not adapted, as ours is, for the vehe- of his songs which everybody sings ment and impetuous tide of passion. everywhere ; there is scarcely an inThey have, instead, a voice which can dividual to whom one or two at least be elegant, spirituelle, dainty, epi- among them are not as familiar as his grammatic, and antithetical, beyond own thoughts--but these are almost anything which we can attain to. all songs peculiar, personal, and pasThe very genius of their speech is sionate--songs of love, of grief, or of order, precision, neatness; their that old enthusiastic patriotism, unwords balance each other with an in- reasoning and ardent, which once stinct of propriety foreign to our made every boy in Scotland worship wilder syllables ; even their tragic the names of Bruce and Wallace. But muse marches heroically upon the let us once get clear of passion, of stilts of rhyme. French is the special riotous mirth, or of that patriotic language of bon-mots, of sayings, of emotion which, more serious than effuthose little gleaming arrows of talk sive, strikes with us a note too lofty which carry the point of a dagger or and too solemn for everyday choruses, a needle in their innocent-seeming : and we have no expression left for there is no latitude for a tumult of the secondary poetries of life. Dibhalf-expressed thoughts in this well- din's songs are so nearly dead that ordered language ; everything must the present generation knows little be sharply and clearly cut, distinct of them ; but the fact is certain, that in conception, and precise in word. verses made about ordinary events in The very power of double entendre these days-or even about events exfor which it is famous, depends upon traordinary, such as unfortunately this extreme regularity and balance our present history abounds in—fail of speech ; for it is only here that the infinitely below the level of the separate meanings of which a word sparkling and graceful chanson, in is capable are so distinctly yet deli- which Monsieur our neighbour sings cately individualised. And this com- to himself his own sentiment and his pletest of tongues has its own virtues poet's. The Times contained not long and its own defects consequent upon ago sundry marvellous lines of dogits nature. The greatest genius in grel, professing to describe the march the world could scarcely find in it of General Havelock, and enshrined that torrent of glowing and exu- in the midst of the musical ovation berant expression, overflowing all with which it pleased M. Jullien and bounds, in which languages more his constituency to honour the name primitive pour forth the strong pas- of that great soldier. It seems somesions of humanity, the wild human thing scarcely conceivable that any outcry of great hope or overwhelming human creature could be so far left despair ; but for all the emotions to him or her-self as to speak, much which are less than the greatest-for less write, anything so nonsensical ; lively sensations, vivid thoughts, in- and the idea of a workman in his cidents of pathos, all the superficial workshop, or a needlewoman in her sentiments which stir us with plea- garret, singing such doleful rubbish, sure or with melancholy, but do not is enough to disgust one for ever with stir us very deeply, there is no lan- the hitherto cheerful and kindly fancy guage equal to this language of points of labour lightened by song. No ! in and epigrams—this native air of dia- this island, this truth is certain logue and syllogism, this tongue when we sing, we either sing somewhich is so happily adapted, not for thing striking direct from one of the song, but for songs.
great primitive emotions of humanity In our language-especially in that -a poem rather than a song-or we which is the native tongue of Maga, sing nonsense, popularly known as our dear vernacular, which she does the words” to such and such an not employ so much as she once did air. The chanson, as it lives and --we have songs as perfect and as flourishes in France, has no existence pop ular as ever have issued from the among us. In these times of war, lips of any people. Like Beranger where is our war-song? It is “Come