Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by John Drinkwater
Lord de Tabley (John Byrne Leicester Warren) (18351895)
[John Byrne Leicester Warren was born at Tabley House, Cheshire, on April 26, 1835, and succeeded to his title in 1887. He was a distinguished bibliophil, numismatist, and botanist, being a leading authority on brambles. Always of secluded habits, he spent his later years in close retirement, and died at Ryde on November 22, 1895. His earlier books of poems were published under the names of G. F. Preston and William Lancaster, while Philoctetes (1866) had merely M. A. on the title-page, with the not unnatural result that the poem was for a moment attributed to Matthew Arnold, greatly to the concern of de Tableys modesty. Rehearsals (1870) and Searching the Net (1873) bore the poets name, but it was not until 1893, when Poems Dramatic and Lyrical collected the best of his work, that he won anything like due public recognition. A second series with the same title appeared in 1895, and a posthumous collection, Orpheus in Thrace in 1901, was followed by Collected Poems in 1903.]
WHEN we decide that a poets station is in the second rank, it is well to remember that we cannot reasonably mean that his most distinguished qualities are in themselves of a secondary or inferior kind. If that were so, we should not in sanity spend any time on him at all. There can be no compromise with mediocrity in these matters; but mediocrity is not at all the same thing as clouded or congested excellence. Every poet who claims our consideration, not merely forcing a moment of unwilling attention, must do so by virtue of qualities that the greatest would be content to share with him. It is absurd to suppose that the purely poetic essence can be measured by degrees of goodness: that essential poetry may be good, and better, and best. The elements of poetry may be manifold, and a poet may be endowed with few or many of these, but in so far as he is possessed of any of them, he possesses them absolutely and not relatively. If he never achieves anything more than what might be called a fairly good lyric line, we are foolish to give him a thought; if he achieves one perfect lyric line, thereby winning from us one moment of rapt attention, and does no more, in that moment of achievement he stands worthily with the masters. The difference is that the great masters are able to exercise their essential poetic faculties much more continuously and freely than he; their song is not confounded by nearly so many distractions as his, nor subject to the same indiscretions, which are, as it were, external to the pure poetic impulse. In the master, the poetry is liberated more certainly and with more sustained splendour. The poet of the second rank habitually finds his poetic utterance in conflict with some alien force, and the result is that frequent clouding or congestion.
No more striking illustration of this fact could be well found than the work of Lord de Tabley. Of the essential elements of poetry there is scarcely one with which he was not richly, very richly, endowed. It was in no thin vein that poetry worked in his spirit; it flowed abundantly and was liberal of its many virtues. He perceived the world clearly and intensely as a poet, he was fortunate in a scholarship that quickened and mellowed his vision, he had an exquisitely inherited and trained manner, he had a great sense of diction and an almost phenomenal vocabulary, and his poetic temper was nobly sensitive to all thrilling and poignant beauty. And yet, for all his splendid qualities, his is not among the great names. In reading through his work, imposing in volume, there is scarcely a page that does not reward us with some notable excellence; scarcely one that does not force us to the opinion that never was there more exasperating genius. The poetry is disturbed in its movement by something over which it seems to have no dominion. As is generally the case, this disturbing factor is not constant, though with de Tabley it is commonly the product of one characteristic disabilitya kind of intellectual inertia, a refusal, that in the light of his proved judgment and gifts must seem to be almost deliberate, to spend that last ounce of energy that must always go to the achievement of perfection, in poetry as in other things. From positive blemishes his work is remarkably free; indeed he may, in comparison with almost any poet of whom one can think, be said to be almost impeccable in this matter. Poor or false images such as
Where our lips were merely noise
Of babies wrangling with a sleepy man;
Mere-waves solid as a clod,
Roar with skaters thunder-shod
are so rare in his work as to be startling when they are found, while Sorrow Invincible may be said to be his one entirely poor poem. The trouble is, rather, a too frequent failure of mere driving force. In the first place, six out of seven of his poems, even his short pieces, are too long, and this we always feel not to be due to a defective art or to lack of intellectual power, but just to intellectual drifting. Again, it is common enough to find single lines and phrases in the midst of excellent work that we are sure he could have bettered by a movement of the pen:
The rose of youth upon your face,
My name upon your lips,
The rippling trees, the lonely place,
The sails of harbour ships
That is delightful, but who with any feeling for poetry does not ache to have been an imp in the poets brain when that last line was written?
When, however, every deduction has been made on account of his general weakness,and the penalty is a heavy one, depriving a poet, who we feel might so easily have secured them, of the highest honoursde Tabley remains a poet of great distinction, one whose place in the history of English poetry is secure. Of detailed felicities his work is full.
My frown is like a winter house
Laid eastward in a bitter land
The vivid martin strikes the lake
Where in among the fleeces of the sheep,
Like small and burnished rooks, the starlings call
might be matched in nearly every poem he wrote. Mr. Gosse, in one of his kit-kat essays, has pointed to this wealth of beautiful detail as de Tableys most striking achievement. While, however, it is in giving beauty to its parts that he is commonly successful, and in bringing his poem to a finely constructed and concentrated whole that he commonly fails, he must not be supposed to be entirely without this larger co-ordinating faculty. His two long dramas designed after a classic model, Philoctetes and Orestes, are both finely wrought poems, not only rich in admirable touches, but in each case carried through on an ambitious plan to a memorable conclusion. Indeed, were it not that dramatic poetry lies outside the scope of this book, it would be pleasant to quote from the former play, which at momentsas, for example, when Philoctetes bids farewell to the Lemniansreaches a nobility that can remind us of none but the greatest.
In his shorter poems one might perhaps wish that he turned less constantly for his subjects to classical mythology. Not that he handled these subjects ill; on the contrary, he moves here with his most assured ease. And yet the frequent remoteness of interest, the reiteration of established imagery, the evocation of an emotion from a literary memory rather than from direct experience, are apt to grow a little enervating. His poetry in this kind, though it would be folly to question its sincerity, loses some companionable quality. We remember then that de Tabley was a lonely and secluded man, and we feel that here is rather a lonely and secluded poetry. His poems of the English country-side, however, are quite another matter. He is one of the rare poets who can bring all the precision of a trained naturalist to the service of poetry, and with him the display of minute knowledge is as delightful as it commonly is tedious. He made successful experiments too, such as The Sale at the Farm, in a homely manner not altogether apt to his genius, and in one at least of his more whimsical moods he achieved, in the Study of a Spider, a masterpiece of its kind.