Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Aldous Huxley
Richard Middleton (18821911)
[Richard Middleton, born 1882, died at Brussels in 1911. His work, during his life, was published in various periodicals. Three volumes of prose, The Ghost Ship, Monologues, and The Day before Yesterday, containing essays and short stories, were collected after his death. Two volumes of verse, Poems and Songs, first and second series, were also posthumously published in 1912 and 1913, by Fisher Unwin.]
THE MIND of a great poet is a mirror endowed with the power of collecting the diffused and broken light of experience and reverberating it in one bright focal ray of consummated expression. Good poetry is always an account of facts, whether facts of the senses, or of thought and passion and imagination. It is not a collection of vague phrases and unbodied verbiage, but a significant expression of truth. But there is also a kind of simulation poetry, which is an art of making phrases, of linking shadowy, inaccurate words into a melody. This rhetoric a gradus may teach; and by a man of talent it may be brought to a certain specious perfection, from which only time and the ravages of criticism will rub the dazzle and the gilt. At its best, the poetry of words may drug and intoxicate the senses. It can never hope to appeal to any higher faculty.
The work of Richard Middleton belongs to both these categories. Some of his writing may be classed with true poetry; some, and perhaps it is the greater part, with the sham variety. At his most inspired, he displays clarity of thought and sincere emotion, clothed in melody that is sweet, sometimes to over-ripeness. At his worst, he trusts to vaguely poetical words and a copious use of not too significant images to cover the defects in the substance of his poetry. His bad verse is like a piece of music, blurred into husky sweetness by some indifferent player who relies for his effects rather on the pedal than on a clean and skilful execution. The fine intricacies of truth, which a great poet labours exactly to express, are by Middleton too often confounded and smudged into a rhetorical dimness, where outlines are lost in a welter of sensuous words.
It is not hard to find examples of Middletons rhetorical vagueness and exuberance. His poems abound in such phrases as stained by the wine of our old ecstasy, moonlit lilies of the past, domes of desire and secret halls of sin. They are powdered with the dust of dreams, and on their smooth tide of harmony swims many a dreamy ship, many an argosy freighted with no poetical treasure beyond its own sonorous name. The use of words without significant content, intoxicating substitutes for thought, has been the bane of almost every mental activity. Not least has poetry suffered. Beautiful as, in its way, rhetoric may be, it is nevertheless a degraded form of poetry.
Of the earth and of the fire, earthly and fiery, Middletons best poems are the expression of a passionate paganism. This present world is enough for us, he says, and a man may satisfy his soul with the good things of it, kisses and wine and sunlight. He bids us pluck the roses of the day, adding no philosophic caution as to the limitation of desires. In passion the extreme is the only mean, and, for him, the ideal life is one of continual passion, of unceasing and ecstatic enjoyment of the here and now. If the spirit has any thirst for the infinite, it must satisfy itself in the boundlessness of passion. He has not the vision of the mystic who looks through the beauties of this world into a divine beauty beyond them. To his eyes the things of the earth are opaque, solid, complete in themselves. They are divine, not as being symbols of some universal spirit, but because of the earth-born divinity within themselvestutelary nymph or little goat-foot genius of the place. Passion, then, and the warm immediacy of paganism are the themes upon which Middleton works. He gives them expression in a rich voluptuous form, that is apt, as we have seen, to decay to mere verbal luxuriance.
The metrical skill displayed in all the poems is considerable, though the range of the musical effects at which Middleton aims is a narrow one. Smoothness and sweetness of numbers, melodies that will sing themselves as they runthese are the characteristics of Middletons verse. Many of the metrical devices adapted by the nineteenth century from Elizabethan usage are to be met with in his poems. Such balanced phrases of rhythm as,
For I have learnt too many things to live,
And I have loved too many things to die,
And there is earth upon my eyes
And earth upon my singing lips,
illustrate the successful use of one of the most pleasing of these musical artifices.