Gosse's Gossip - THE DUKE OF RUTLAND'S POEMS

THE DUKE OF RUTLAND'S POEMS

ENGLAND'S TRUST AND OTHER POEMS. By Lord John Manners. London: printed for J.G. & J. Rivington, St. Paul's Church Yard, and Waterloo Place, Pall Mall. 1841.

            My newspaper informed me this morning that Lord John Manners took his seat last night, in the Upper House, as the Duke of Rutland. These little romantic surprises are denied to Americans, who do not find that old friends get new names, which are very old names, in the course of a night. My Transatlantic readers will never have to grow accustomed to speak of Mr. Lowell as the Earl of Mount Auburn, and I firmly believe that Mr. Howells would consider it a chastisement to be hopelessly ennobled. But my thoughts went wandering back at my breakfast to-day to those far-away times, the fresh memory of which was still reverberating about my childhood, when the last new Duke was an ardent and ingenuous young patriot, who never dreamed of being a peer, and who hoped to refashion his country to the harp of Amphion. So I turned, with assuredly no feeling of disrespect, to that corner of my library where the péchés de jeunesse stand–the little books of early verses which the respectable authors of the same would destroy if they could–and I took down England's Trust.

            Fifty years ago a group of young men, all of them fresh from Oxford and Cambridge, most of them more or less born in the purple of good families, banded themselves together to create a sort of aristocratic democracy. They called themselves "Young England," and the chronicle of them–is it not patent to all men in the pages of Disraeli's Coningsby? In the hero of that novel people saw a portrait of the leader of the group, the Hon. George Percy Sydney Smythe, to whom also the poems now before us, parvus non parvae pignus amicitiae, were dedicated in a warm inscription. The Sidonia of the story was doubtless only echoing what Smythe had laid down as a dogma when he said: "Man is only truly great when he acts from the passions, never irresistible but when he appeals to the imagination." It was the theory of Young England that the historic memory must be awakened in the lower classes; that utilitarianism was sapping the very vitals of society, and that ballads and May-poles and quaint festivities and processions of a loyal peasantry were the proper things for politicians to encourage. It was all very young, and of course it came to nothing. But I do not know that the Primrose League is any improvement upon it, and I fancy that when the Duke of Rutland looks back across the half-century he sees something to smile at, but nothing to blush for.

            One of the notions that Young England had got hold of was that famous saying of Fletcher of Saltoun's friend about making the ballads of a people. So they set themselves verse-making, and a quaint little collection of books it was that they produced, all smelling alike at this time of day, with a faint, faded perfume of the hay-stack, countrified and wild. Mr. Smythe, who presently became the seventh Viscount Strangford and one of the wittiest of Morning Chroniclers, only to die bitterly lamented before the age of forty, wrote Historic Fancies, Mr. Faber, then a fellow of University College, Oxford, and afterwards a leading spirit among English Catholics, published The Cherwell Water-Lily, in 1840, and on the heels of this discreet volume came the poems of Lord John Manners.

            When England's Trust appeared, its author had just left Cambridge. Almost immediately afterward, it was decided that Young England ought to be represented in Parliament, where its Utopian chivalries, it was believed, needed only to be heard to prevail. Accordingly Lord John Manners presented himself, in June 1841, as one of the Conservative candidates for the borough of Newark. He was elected, and so was the other Tory candidate, a man already distinguished, and at present known to the entire world as Mr. W.E. Gladstone. On the hustings, Lord John Manners was a good deal heckled, and in particular he was teased excessively about a certain couplet in England's Trust. I am not going to repeat that couplet here, for after nearly half a century the Duke of Rutland has a right to be forgiven that extraordinary indiscretion. If any of my readers turn to the volume for themselves, which, of course, I have no power to prevent their doing, they will probably exclaim:

            "Was it the Duke of Rutland who wrote that?" for if frequency of quotation is the hall-mark of popularity, his Grace must be one of the most popular of our living poets.

            There is something exceedingly pathetic in this little volume. Its weakness as verse, for it certainly is weak, had nothing ignoble about it, and what is weak without being in the least base has already a negative distinction. The author hopes to be a Lovelace or a Montrose, equally ready to do his monarch service with sword or pen. The Duke of Rutland has not quite been a Montrose, but he has been something less brilliant and much more useful, a faithful servant of his country, through an upright and laborious life. The young poet of 1841, thrilled by the Tractarian enthusiasm of the moment, looked for a return of the high festivals of the Church, for a victory of faith over all its Paynim foes. "The worst evils," he writes, "from which we are now suffering, have arisen from our ignorant contempt or neglect of the rules of the Church." He was full of Newman and Pusey, of the great Oxford movement of 1837, of the wind of fervour blowing through England from the common-room of Oriel. Now all is changed past recognition, and with, perhaps, the solitary exception of Cardinal Newman, preserved in extreme old age, like some precious exotic, in his Birmingham cloister, the Duke of Rutland may look through the length and breadth of England without recovering one of those lost faces that fed the pure passion of his youth.

            The hand which brought the flame from Oriel to the Cambridge scholar was that of the Rev. Frederick William Faber, and a great number of the poems in England's Trust are dedicated to him openly or secretly. Here is a sonnet addressed to Faber, which is very pleasant to read:

 

Dear Friend! thou askest me to sing our loves,
  And sing them fain would I; but I do fear
To mar so soft a theme; a theme that moves
  My heart unto its core. O friend most dear!
No light request is thine; albeit it proves
  Thy gentleness and love, that do appear
  When absent thus, and in soft looks when near.
Surely, if ever two fond hearts were, twined
  In a most holy, mystic knot, so now
Are ours; not common are the ties that bind
  My soul to thine; a dear Apostle thou,
I a young Neophyte that yearns to find
  The sacred truth, and stamp upon his brow
  The Cross, dread sign of his baptismal vow!

            The Apostle was only twelve months older than the Neophyte, who was in his twenty-third year, but he was a somewhat better as well as stronger poet. The Cherwell Water-Lily is rather a rare book now, and I may perhaps be allowed to give an example of Faber's style. It is from one of many poems in which, with something borrowed too consciously from Wordsworth, who was the very Apollo of Young England, there Is yet a rendering of the beauty and mystery of Oxford, and of the delicate sylvan scenery which surrounds it, which is wholly original;

 

There is a well, a willow-shaded spot.
  Cool in the noon-tide gleam,
  With rushes nodding in the little stream,
And blue forget-me-not.

 

Set in thick tufts along the bushy marge
  With big bright eyes of gold;
  And glorious water-plants, like fans, unfold
Their blossoms strange and large.

 

That wandering boy, young Hylas, did not find
  Beauties so rich and rare,
  Where swallow-wort and pale-bright maiden's hair
And dog-grass richly twined.

 

A sloping bank ran round it like a crown,
  Whereon a purple cloud
  Of dark wild hyacinths, a fairy crowd,
Had settled softly down.

 

And dreamy sounds of never-ending bells
  From Oxford's holy towers
  Came down the stream, and went among the flowers,
And died in little swells.

            These two extracts give a fair notion of the Tractarian poetry, with its purity, its idealism, its love of Nature and its unreal conception of life, Faber also wrote an England's Trust, before Lord John Manners published his; and in this he rejoices in the passing away of all the old sensual confidence, and in the coming of a new age of humility and spirituality. Alas! it never came! There was a roll in the wave of thought, a few beautiful shells were thrown up on the shore of literature, and then the little eddy of Tractarianism was broken and spent, and lost in the general progress of mankind. We touch with reverend pity the volumes without which we should scarcely know that Young England had ever existed, and we refuse to believe that all the enthusiasm and piety and courage of which they are the mere ashes have wholly passed away. They have become spread over a wide expanse of effort, and no one knows who has been graciously affected by them. Who shall say that some distant echo of the Cherwell harp was not sounding in the heart of Gordon when he went to his African martyrdom? It is her adventurers, whether of the pen or of the sword, that have made England what she is. But if every adventurer succeeded, where would the adventure be?

            The Duke of Rutland soon repeated his first little heroic expedition into the land of verses. He published a volume of English Ballads; but this has not the historical interest which makes England's Trust a curiosity. He has written about Church Rates, and the Colonies, and the Importance of Literature to Men of Business, but never again of his reveries in Neville's Court nor of his determination to emulate the virtues of King Charles the Martyr. No matter! If all our hereditary legislators were as high-minded and single-hearted as the new Duke of Rutland, the reform of the House of Lords would scarcely be a burning question.

 

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