Richard Dowling.

Ignorant Essays





Turning eyes away from literature, take a few more of the arts. Before we go farther, let us admit that one art at least never reached sublimer recorded heights than to-day. The music of the generation just past is, I believe, in the front rank of the art. It is an art now in the throes of an enormous transformation. Not using the phrase in its slangy meaning, the music of the future is sure to touch splendours never dreamed of by that Raphael of the lyre, Mozart. The only art-Titans now wrestling are the musicians; not those paltry souls that pad the poor words of inane burlesques, but the great spirits that sit apart, and have audiences of the angels. These men, out of their own mouths, assure us that they catch the far-off murmurs of such imperial tones as never filled the ear of man yet. They cannot gather up the broken chords they hear. They admit they have heard no more than a few bars of the great masters who are close upon us; but, they say, if they only reproduce the effect these preluding passages have upon them, Such harmonious madness from their lips would flow, the world should listen then as they are listening now.

Go to the Royal Academy and look round you. How pretty! How nice! How pathetic! But would you like to lend your arm to Michael Angelo, and go round those walls with him? He would prefer the rack, the gridiron of St. Laurence. It is true there is no necessity for the sublime; but those men who have been in the awful presence of such dreams as Night and Morning, by that sculptor, must be pardoned if they prefer it to the art you find in Burlington House. One of our great English poets said, speaking of the trivial nature of conversation at the beginning of this century, that if Lord Bacon were alive now, and made a remark in an ordinary assembly, conversation would stop. If casts of Night and Morning were placed at the head of the staircase of Burlington House, no one with appreciation of art would enter the rooms; the strong would linger for ever round those stupendous groups, and the feeble would be frighted away. Of course, the vast crowd of art-patrons would pass the group with only a casual glance, and a protest against having plaster casts occupying ground which ought to be allotted to original work.

Read any speech Burke or Grattan ever spoke, and then your Times and the debate last night. How plain it becomes that from no art has the sublime so completely vanished as the orators. Take those two speakers above, and run your eye over Cicero and Demosthenes, the four are of the one school, in the great style. Theirs is the large and universal eloquence. It is as fresh and beautiful, as pathetic, as sublime now as when uttered, although the occasions and circumstances are no longer of interest to man. The statistician and the poltroon and the verbatim reporter have killed the orator. If any man were to rise in the House and make a speech in the manner of the ancients, the honourable members would hurry in from all sides to laugh.

A few sessions ago a member rose in his place, and delivered an oration on a subject not popular with the House, but in a manner which echoed the grand old style. At once every seat for which there was a member present at the time was occupied; and the next morning the daily papers had articles which, while disposing of the speakers cause in a few lines, devoted columns to the manner in which he had pleaded it.

To discover what has led to the decay of the sublime is not difficult, and even in an ignorant essay like this, it may be briefly indicated. Roughly speaking, it is attributable to the accumulation of certainties. Any handbook that cribs from Longinus or Burke will tell you the vague is essential to the sublime. To attain it there must be something half understood not fully known, only partly revealed. To attain it detail must be lost, and only a totality presented to the mind. For instance, if a great lover of Roman history were suddenly to find himself on the top of the Coliseum, the most sublime result to be obtained from the situation would be produced by repeating to himself the simple words, This is Rome. By these words the totality of the citys grandeur, influence, power, and enterprises would be vaguely presented to a scholars mind dim in the glow of a multitude of half-revealing side-lights. If a companion whispered in the scholars ears, This place would at one time seat a hundred thousand people, then the particular is reached, and the sublime vanishes like sunshine against a cloud. Most of North America has been explored. Africa and Australia have been traversed. The source of the Nile has been found. We can read the hieroglyphics. We know the elements now flaming in the sun. Many of the phenomena in all branches of physiology which were mysteries to our fathers are familiar commonplaces of knowledge now. We have learned to foretell the weather. We travel a thousand miles for the hundred travelled by our fathers. We have daily newspapers to discuss all matters, clear away mysteries. We have opened the grave for the sublime with the plough of progress. Though the words stick in my throat, I must, I daresay, cry, God speed the plough!

A BORROWED POET

Twenty years ago I borrowed, and read for the first time, the poems of James Clarence Mangan. I then lived in a city containing not one-third as many people as yearly swell the population of London. The friend of whom I borrowed the volume in 1866 is still living in his old home, in the house from which I carried away the book then. I saw him last winter and he is almost as little aged as the hills he has fronted all that time. I have had in those years as many homes as an Arab nomad. He still stays in the old place, and in the gray twilight of dark summer mornings wakes to hear as of yore the twitter of sparrows and the cawing of rooks from the other side of the river, and the hoarse hooting of the steamboat hard by.

The volume of Mangan now by me I borrowed of another old friend, who passes most of his day within sight of that familiar river not quite a hundred yards from the house of the lender of twenty years back. In the meantime I have seen no other copy of Mangan.

This latest fact is not much to be wondered at, for I am not enterprising in the matter of books rarely buy and rarely borrow, and have never been in the reading room of the British Museum in my life. The book may be common to those who know much about books; but I have seen only the two copies I speak of, and these are of the same edition and of American origin. I believe a selection from the poems was issued a few years ago in Dublin, but a copy has not drifted my way. The title-page of the volume before me is missing, but in a list of publications at the back I find The Poems of James Clarence Mangan. Containing German Anthology, Irish Anthology, Apocrypha, and Miscellaneous Poems. With a Biographical and Critical Introduction, by John Mitchel. 1 vol. 12mo. Printed on tinted and calendered paper. Nearly 500 pages. $1. Beyond all doubt this is the book, and it was published by Mr. P. M. Haverty, of New York.

As far as I know, this is the only edition of Mangan which pretends to be even comprehensive. It does not lay claim to completeness. At the time the late John Mitchel wrote his introduction he was aware of but one other edition of Mangans poems the German Anthology, published in Dublin many years ago. I am nearly sure that since the appearance of Mitchels edition there have been no verses of Mangans published in book form on this side of the Atlantic, except the selections I have already mentioned, and I do not think any edition whatever has been published in this country.

During the twenty years which have elapsed since first I made the acquaintance of the poems of James Clarence Mangan, I have read much verse and many criticisms of verse, and yet I dont remember to have seen one line about Mangan in any publication issued in England. I believe two magazine articles have appeared, but I never saw them. Almost during these years, or within a period which does not extend back far beyond them, criticism of verse has ceased to be a matter of personal opinion, and has been elevated or degraded, as you will, into an exact science. The opinions of old reviewers the Jeffreys and Broughams are now looked on as curiosities of literature. There is as wide a gulf between the mode of treating poetry now and eighty years ago as there is between the mode of travelling, or the guess-work that makes up the physicians art; and if in a gathering of literary experts any one were now to apply to a new bard the dogmas of criticism quoted for or against Byron, Shelley, Keats, and the Lakers in their time, a silence the reverse of respectful would certainly follow.

This is not the age of great poetry, but it is the age of poetical poetry, to quote the phrase of one of the finest critics using the English language one who has, unfortunately for the culture of that tongue and those who use it, written lamentably little. The great danger by which we stand menaced at present is, that our perceptions may become too exquisite and our poetry too intellectual. This, anyway, is true of poetry which may at all claim to be an expression of thought. There are in our time supreme formists in small things, carvers of cameos and walnut shells, and musical conjurors who make sweet melodies with richly vowelled syllables. But unfortunately the tendency of the poetic men of to-day is towards intellectuality, and this is a humiliating decay. In the times of Queen Elizabeth, when all the poets were Shakespeares, they cared nothing for their intellects. The intellectual side of a poets mind is an impertinence in his art.

I do not presume to say what place exactly James Clarence Mangan ought to occupy on the greater roll of verse-writers, and I am not sure that he is, in the finest sense of the phrase, a poetical poet; but he is, at all events, the most poetical poet Ireland has produced, when we take into account the volume and quality of his song. I shall purposely avoid any reference to him as a translator, except in acting on John Mitchels opinion, and treating one of his translations from the Arabic as an original poem; for during his lifetime he confessed that he had passed off original poems of his own as translations; and Mitchel assures us that Mangan did not know Arabic. As this essay does not profess to be orderly or dignified, or anything more than rambling gossip, put into writing for no other reason than to introduce to the reader a few pieces of verse he may not have met before, I cannot do better than insert here the lines of which I am now speaking:

THE TIME OF THE BARMECIDES
I

My eyes are filmed, my beard is grey,
I am bowed with the weight of years;
I would I were stretched in my bed of clay
With my long-lost youths compeers!
For back to the past, though the thought brings woe,
My memory ever glides
To the old, old time, long, long ago,
The time of the Barmecides!
To the old, old time, long, long ago,
The time of the Barmecides.

II

Then youth was mine, and a fierce wild will,
And an iron arm in war,
And a fleet foot high upon Ishkars hill,
When the watch-lights glimmered afar,
And a barb as fiery as any I know
That Khoord or Beddaween rides,
Ere my friends lay low long, long ago,
In the time of the Barmecides;
Ere my friends lay low long, long ago,
In the time of the Barmecides.

III

One golden goblet illumed my board,
One silver dish was there;
At hand my tried Karamanian sword
Lay always bright and bare;
For those were the days when the angry blow
Supplanted the word that chides
When hearts could glow long, long ago,
In the time of the Barmecides;
When hearts could glow long, long ago,
In the time of the Barmecides.

IV

Through city and desert my mates and I
Were free to rove and roam,
Our diapered canopy the deep of the sky,
Or the roof of the palace dome.
Oh, ours was the vivid life to and fro,
Which only sloth derides:
Men spent Life so long, long ago,
In the time of the Barmecides;
Men spent Life so long, long ago,
In the time of the Barmecides.

V

I see rich Bagdad once again,
With its turrets of Moorish mould,
And the Kalifs twice five hundred men
Whose binishes flamed with gold.
I call up many a gorgeous show
Which the Pall of Oblivion hides
All passed like snow, long, long ago,
With the time of the Barmecides;
All passed like snow, long, long ago,
With the time of the Barmecides.

VI

But mine eye is dim, and my beard is grey,
And I bend with the weight of years
May I soon go down to the House of Clay,
Where slumber my Youths compeers!
For with them and the Past, though the thought wakes woe,
My memory ever abides,
And I mourn for the Times gone long ago,
For the Times of the Barmecides!
I mourn for the Times gone long ago,
For the Times of the Barmecides!

This is the poem claimed by Mangan to be from the Arabic. I have no means of knowing whether it is or not. There is one translation from the Persian, one from the Ottoman, and according to Mitchel, one from the Coptic. But seeing that he turned into verse a great number of Irish poems from prose translations done by another, and that he did not know a word of that language, I think it may be safely assumed that The Last of the Barmecides is original. This poem is so old a favourite of mine that I cannot pretend to be an impartial judge of it. When I hear it (I can never see a poem I know well and love much) I listen as to the unchanged voice of an old friend; I wander in a maze of memories; I see rich Bagdad once again; I am once more owner of the magic carpet, and am floating irresponsibly and at will on the intoxicating atmosphere of the poets over the enchanted groves, and streams, and hills, and seas of fairyland, or harkening to voices that years ago ceased to stir in my ears, gazing at the faces that have long since moulded the face cloth into blunted memories of the face for the grave.

On the 20th of June, 1849, Mangan died in the Meath Hospital, Dublin. Having been born in 1803, he was, in 1849, eight years older than Poe, who died destitute and forlorn at Baltimore in the same year. Both poets had been in abject poverty, both had been unfortunate in love, both had been consummate artists, both had been piteously unlucky in a thousand ways, and both had died the same year, and in common hospitals. Two more miserable stories it is impossible to find anywhere. I would recommend those of sensitive natures to confine their reading to the work these men did, and not to the misfortunes they laboured under, and the follies they committed. I think, of the two, Mangan suffered more acutely; for he never rose up in anger against the world, or those around him, but glided like an uncomplaining ghost into the grave, where, long before his death, all his hopes lay buried. He had only a half-hearted pity for himself. Poe, in his Raven, is, all the time of his most pathetic and terrible complaining, conscious that he complains as becomes a fine artist. But the ravens croak does not touch the heart. It appeals to the intellect; it affects the fancy, the imagination, the ear, the eye. When Mangan opens his bosom and shows you the ravens that prey upon him, he cannot repress something like a laugh at the thought that any one could be interested in him and his woes. See:

THE NAMELESS ONE
BALLAD
I

Roll forth, my song, like the rushing river,
That sweeps along to the mighty sea;
God will inspire me while I deliver
My soul of thee!

II

Tell thou the world, when my bones lie whitening
Amid the last homes of youth and eld,
That there was once one whose veins ran lightning
No eye beheld.

III

Tell how his boyhood was one drear night-hour,
How shone for him, through his griefs and gloom,
No star of all heaven sends to light our
Path to the tomb.

IV

Roll on, my song, and to after ages
Tell how, disdaining all earth can give,
He would have taught men from wisdoms pages
The way to live.

V

And tell how, trampled, derided, hated,
And worn by weakness, disease, and wrong,
He fled for shelter to God, who mated
His soul with song

VI

With song which alway, sublime or vapid,
Flowed like a rill in the morning beam,
Perchance not deep, but intense and rapid
A mountain stream.

VII

Tell how the Nameless, condemned for years long
To herd with demons from hell beneath,
Saw things that made him, with groans and tears, long
For even death.

VIII

Go on to tell how, with genius wasted,
Betrayed in friendship, befooled in love,
With spirit shipwrecked and young hopes blasted,
He still, still strove.

IX

Till, spent with toil, dreeing death for others,
And some whose hands should have wrought for him
(If children live not for sires and mothers),
His mind grew dim.

X

And he fell far through the pit abysmal,
The gulf and grave of Maginn and Burns,
And pawned his soul for the devils dismal
Stock of returns.

XI

But yet redeemed it in days of darkness,
And shapes and signs of the final wrath,
Where death in hideous and ghastly starkness
Stood in his path.

XII

And tell how now, amid wreck and sorrow,
And want and sickness and houseless nights,
He bides in calmness the silent morrow
That no ray lights.

XIII

And lives he still, then? Yes! old and hoary
At thirty-nine, from despair and woe,
He lives enduring what future story
Will never know.

XIV

Him grant a grave to, ye pitying noble,
Deep in your bosoms! There let him dwell!
He, too, had tears for all souls in trouble,
Here and in hell.

The burden of all his song is sad, and in his translations he has chosen chiefly themes which echoed the harpings of his own soul. He began life as a copying clerk in an attorneys office, and had for some time to support wholly, or in the main, a mother and sister. In Mitchels preface there are many passages almost as fine as the verse of the poet. Here is one, long as it is, that must find a place. Mitchel is speaking of the days when Mangan was in the attorneys office:

At what age he devoted himself to this drudgery, at what age he left it, or was discharged from it, does not appear; for his whole biography documents are wanting, the man having never, for one moment, imagined that his poor life could interest any surviving human being, and having never, accordingly, collected his biographical assets, and appointed a literary executor to take care of his posthumous fame. Neither did he ever acquire the habit, common enough among literary men, of dwelling upon his own early trials, struggles, and triumphs. But those who knew him in after years can remember with what a shuddering and loathing horror he spoke when at rare intervals he could be induced to speak at all of his labours with the scrivener and attorney. He was shy and sensitive, with exquisite sensibilities and fine impulses; eye, ear, and soul open to all the beauty, music, and glory of heaven and earth; humble, gentle, and unexacting; modestly craving nothing in the world but celestial, glorified life, seraphic love, and a throne among the immortal gods (thats all); and he was eight or ten years scribbling deeds, pleadings, and bills in Chancery.

There is, I believe, but one portrait of him in existence, and a copy of it hangs on the wall of the room in which I am writing, a few feet in front of my eyes. It is not a face easy to describe. Beauty is the chief characteristic of it. But it is not the beauty that men admire or that inspires love in women. It is not the face of a poet or a visionary or a thinker. There is no passion in it; not even the passionate sadness of his own verse. It is not the face of a man who has suffered greatly, or rejoiced in ecstasy. It is the face of a fleshless, worn man of forty, with hair pressed back from the forehead and ear. I have been looking at it for a long time, trying to find out something positive about it, and I have failed. It is not interesting. It is the face of a man who is done with the world and humanity. It is the face of a dead man whose spirit has passed away, while the body remains alive. The eyes are open, and have light in them; the face would be more complete if the light were out, and the lids drawn down and composed for the blind tomb.

He gives a picture of his mental attitude at about the time this portrait was taken:

TWENTY GOLDEN YEARS AGO
I

Oh, the rain, the weary, dreary rain,
How it plashes on the window-sill!
Night, I guess too, must be on the wane,
Strass and Gass around are grown so still.
Here I sit with coffee in my cup
Ah, twas rarely I beheld it flow
In the tavern where I loved to sup
Twenty golden years ago!

II

Twenty years ago, alas! but stay
On my life, tis half-past twelve oclock!
After all, the hours do slip away
Come, here goes to burn another block!
For the night, or morn, is wet and cold;
And my fire is dwindling rather low:
I had fire enough, when young and bold
Twenty golden years ago.

III

Dear! I dont feel well at all, somehow:
Few in Weimar dream how bad I am;
Floods of tears grow common with me now,
High-Dutch floods that Reason cannot dam.
Doctors think Ill neither live nor thrive
If I mope at home so I dont know
Am I living now? I was alive
Twenty golden years ago.

IV

Wifeless, friendless, flagonless, alone,
Not quite bookless, though, unless I choose;
Left with naught to do, except to groan,
Not a soul to woo, except the Muse.
Oh, this is hard for me to bear
Me who whilom lived so much en haut
Me who broke all hearts like china-ware,
Twenty golden years ago.

V

Perhaps tis better; times defacing waves
Long have quenched the radiance of my brow
They who curse me nightly from their graves
Scarce could love me were they living now;
But my loneliness hath darker ills
Such dun duns as Conscience, Thought, & Co.,
Awful Gorgons! Worse than tailors bills
Twenty golden years ago.

VI

Did I paint a fifth of what I feel,
Oh, how plaintive you would ween I was!
But I wont, albeit I have a deal
More to wail about than Kerner has!
Kerners tears are wept for withered flowers;
Mine for withered hopes; my scroll of woe
Dates, alas! from youths deserted bowers,
Twenty golden years ago.

VII

Yet, may Deutschlands bardlings flourish long!
Me, I tweak no beak among them; hawks
Must not pounce on hawks: besides, in song
I could once beat all of them by chalks.
Though you find me, as I near my goal,
Sentimentalising like Rousseau,
Oh, I had a great Byronian soul
Twenty golden years ago!

VIII

Tick-tick, tick-tick! not a sound save Times,
And the wind gust as it drives the rain
Tortured torturer of reluctant rhymes,
Go to bed and rest thine aching brain!
Sleep! no more the dupe of hopes or schemes;
Soon thou sleepest where the thistles blow;
Curious anti-climax to thy dreams
Twenty golden years ago!

I find myself now in a great puzzle. I want, first of all, to say I think it most melancholy that Mangan, when of full age and judgment, should have thought Byron had a great Byronian soul. Observe, he does not mean that he had a soul greatly like Byrons, but that he had a soul like the great soul of Byron. I do not believe Byron had a great soul at all. I believe he was simply a fine stage-manager of melodrama, the finest that ever lived, and that as a property-master he was unrivalled; but that to please no one, himself included, could he have written the play. I am not descending to so defiling a depth as to talk about plagiarism. What I wish to say is, that whether Byron stole or not made not the least difference in the world, for he never by the aid of his gifts or his thefts wrote a poem. I wanted further to say of Byron that there was nothing great about him except his vanity. Suddenly I remembered some words of the critic of whom I spoke a while back, in dealing with the question of poetical poetry and poems. I took down the printed page, where I found these lines:





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