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The Eloping Angels is further called “a caprice," and that the sub-title is not ill-chosen, will be seen from the opening stanza:
Faust, on a day, and Mephistopheles,
In the dead season, were supremely bored.
Said Faust to his Familiar and his lord.
All byways of all sin have we explored. What shall we do, our jaded souls to please ?” “Ah, what indeed?” said Mephistopheles.
Faust expresses a wish to spend half-an-hour in heaven. Mephisto fears the door is locked, but thinks they might perhaps slip in at a window. In fact they descry through a window two angels, who, having been lovers on earth, desire to return to their earthly existence. They at once arrange to exchange garments; and Faust enters heaven. But he finds it horribly dull, and winds up his reflections on it by saying,
I know no harsher ordinance of fate
Meanwhile it is told how the eloping angels reached a similar conclusion by a somewhat different route; for they found a life of useful and immortal love on earth far more charming to them than the pleasures of an idle heaven. The volume is inscribed to Mr. Grant Allen, with the hope “ that he will recognise beneath its somewhat hazardous levity a spirit not wholly flippant." The only hazard is that Mr. Watson may be thought to satirise the idea of heaven itself. That such was not his intention is made very clear by a poem which I shall quote elsewhere. He desires only to satirise certain childish and Oriental conceptions of heaven, which are still very current.
A word may be here bestowed on Mr. Watson's volume of critical essays. Few English writers have excelled equally in prose and verse. Herein we differ from the French, whose great writers are often equally great in both media. And the reason is well understood; for in French the vocabulary of prose and that of poetry are just the same, but the English poet has at his service a wealth of old forms, and a license of creating new ones, which make his language essentially different from that of prose. Mr. Watson makes us feel continually that his prose is that of a poet, and we enjoy it most when we remember that fact. Take his criticism of Webster:
We turn (from Shakespeare) to Webster, and it is like exchanging the breath of morn for the exhalations of the charnel. An unwholesome chill goes out from him. An odour of decay oppresses the tenebrous air.
No writer whose habitual vehicle was prose, would have expressed himself just like this. Of course Mr. Watson is quite unconscious that there is anything specially technical in his vocabulary; and in his criticism of Mr. Hardy's Tess, the result is rather amusing. Mr. Hardy also is sometimes a little technical; Mr. Watson says “his phraseology is over-academic.” And he goes on to say
This terminology of the schools is misplaced; I can feel nothing but regret for these nodosities upon the golden thread of an other. wise fine diction.
This is all very fine, but if a man may lawfully call a knot a "nodosity,” what is there that he may not do ?
The substance of Mr. Watson's criticism is always robust and healthy: it has the clean invigorating quality of a morning bath. I quote a noble passage from the first essay, which seems to me to embody better than any other short passage the general spirit of his comments :
But the authentic masters, are they not masters in virtue of their power of nobly elucidating the difficult world, not of exhibiting it in a fantastic lime light? And, after all, the highest beauty in art is, perhaps, a transcendent propriety. The touches which allure us by strangeness, or which “surprise by a fine excess,” belong at best to the second order of greatness. The highest, rarest, and most mar. vellous of all are those which simply compel us to feel that they are supremely fit and right.
His appreciations of Keats, Coleridge, Hogarth, Meredith, Ibsen and Lowell will interest all who know those writers. The article on R. H. Hutton has a melancholy interest at the present moment. The analysis of one of Rossetti's sonnets by the shade of Dr. Johnson is somewhat merciless : but it brings into sight the intellectual gulf which separates most of Mr. Watson's work from the prettinesses of much contemporary poetry. The essay on the “ Mystery of Style" confirms the conclusion, already here otherwise arrived at, that behind and above all others, Milton is his ideal poet. In his essay on “ Critics and their Craft,” Mr. Watson displays something of that “joy of battle” of which Northern poets knew something a thousand years ago. “The half-contemptuous amiability of the latter day reviewer,” he cannot away with ; and he almost sighs for the good old days when “the critic and poet were like the gardener and the frog that we have heard of. “I'll larn you to be a frog,' said the gardener, as he applied the hoe of extermination.”
But Mr. Watson is hardly the man to allow himself to be so tamely exterminated.
In connexion with the re-printing of the Prince's Quest, I may now quote a few lines of it. I have purposely deferred doing so, in order that the contrast between Mr.
Watson's earlier and later styles may be made more manifest. The passage describes the opening scene of the dream which prompted the prince to his quest :
'Twas like as he did float adown a stream,
And, singing much, to hold yet more unsung. It was nearly two years after the simultaneous issue and re-issues just mentioned that Mr. Watson's next volume, Odes and other Poems, was issued from the Bodley Head establishment, which had in the meantime passed under the sole administration of Mr. John Lane. This was in December, 1894, and the volume consists chiefly of poems produced during the two previous years. One poem, the Vita Nuova, records, very touchingly, the author's recovery from the illness already mentioned. Written on March 18, 1893, it first of all celebrates the revival of nature after winter's deadness and storm; then it proceeds :
I, too, have come through wintry terrors,-yea,
And with regenerate hope, the salt of life;
The volume takes its title from the six odes with which it commences—To R. H. Hutton, To H. D. Traill, To A. C. Benson, To Licinius, To the First Skylark of Spring, and Lakeland Once More. The last has already been quoted; the subject of the last but one challenges a comparison with more than one of the finest lyrics in the language. To say that it is not hopelessly defeated is already great praise. The ode, To Licinius (Horace, Ode x, bk. 2), is the solitary specimen of translation which Mr. Watson has given us. Its merit as an English poem is higher than as a translation. Compare the fine third stanza with the original Latin :
Most rocks the pine that soars afar,
When leaves are tempest-whirled.
In dusty ruin hurled.
The bright brows of the world.
Saepius ventis agitatur ingens