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The personal odes do not quite escape the pitfall of overstrained laudation; the juxtaposition of the names of Shakespeare and Mr. R. H. Hutton is a tribute from which the latter might well have prayed to be spared. The ode To A. C. Benson concludes with two splendid stanzas on Milton :
Well if the coming time,
With loud and strident tongue,
Drown not the song half sung,
Choked with polemic rage
And bade her seer awhile
Pause and put by the bard,
With feuds and factions jarred,
To hear the long-pent strain
Mr. Watson's muse, unlike that of Milton, suffers not her polemic rage to impede her utterance. She employs it rather as a fiery engine to hurl blazing sonnets at the heads of political adversaries. But of this later; it is only one aspect of what is, perhaps, Mr. Watson's most distinguishing mark among our greater poets. This is what I will venture to describe, in one word, as his occasionalism.
In calling Mr. Watson an occasional poet, or a poet of occasion, I mean nothing essentially derogatory, but simply to put into one epithet what he himself has repeatedly expressed about himself. We have already had the second Epigram. In the ode To H. D. Traill we read :
The poem, well the poet knows,
Laughs in each wave,
Wails from the grave.
Mr. Watson is always on the watch for occasions to write; but never since he wrote the Prince's Quest does he seem to have made an occasion for himself. No wonder, then, that he tells us in the Prelude to the Poems—
Not mine the rich and showering hand, that strews,
Or that in the Hymn to the Sea he calls himself
A tarrying minstrel, who finds, not fashions his numbers, Who from the commune of air, cages the volatile song.
Another passage in the Odes volume illustrates further Mr. Watson's principles of composition :
Forget not, brother singer! that though Prose
Can never be too truthful or too wise,
Upon Truth's lips, the light in Wisdom's eyes.
In other words Mr. Watson claims for poetry that it shall not be judged precisely by the rules of logic; the poet is at liberty to swerve a little from literal truth and literal consistency, so long as he swerves gracefully.
Mr. Watson's life-long cultivation of the sonnet has bred in him that fine feeling of gradation, unity and climax, which that kind of composition imperatively demands. He excels also, for the same reason, in finely sonorous single lines. He has attained to this excellence by steps ; we have already seen an early poem with no climax at all ; in the Angelo the climax is terribly abrupt and forced. As an example of maturer art, I cull from the Odes volume the ending of A Legend of the Early Church. St. Peter, in a time of terrible persecution at Rome, is divided between loyalty to his flock and the earnest solicitations of the other Christians that he will save himself by flight. He reluctantly yields, but as he is hurrying by night through the Campagna, he is shaken by horrible doubts, and prays to God for guidance :
Lo, on the darkness brake a wandering ray:
A King, of David's lineage, crowned with thorn,
Into the night the vision ebbed liked breath;
Mr. Watson garnered his next year's harvest in the little volume called the Father of the Forest, and other Poems, which was issued by Mr. John Lane in Nov., 1895. In this collection, the poet shews more disposition for sustained effort than he has done since his early days. Four pieces, namely, the title-poem, the Hymn to the Sea, the Tomb of Burns, and the Apologia make up the bulk of the volume. Two of these have been already quoted. In the Tomb of Burns, Mr. Watson once more displays his genius for elegiac poetry. It happily embodies, in a metre beloved by Burns himself, a generous, though true and searching criticism of the great peasant-poet. I quote a stanza here and there by way of illustration :
He came when poets had forgot
Are Love and Hate;
Makes Manhood great.
He saw what all men see-no more
In heaven and earth :
But as, when thunder crashes nigh,
So fiery clear
To him appear.
Not ours to gauge the more or less,
The radiant mind.
To him the Powers that formed him brave,
A gift above
The gift of Love.
This is not only fine poetry but also fine criticism.
In the same volume there are some lyric poems, or songs, apropos of which something may now be said about Mr. Watson as a lyric poet, or songwriter. There was a time when a lyric poem and a song meant exactly the same thing. The poet wrote his poem with the intention of singing it, or at least with the intention that it should be sung. But now-a-days the poet writes his lyric or his drama first, and only afterwards, if ever, considers whether it is suitable for acting or for singing. Mr. Watson has written nothing at all in the way of drama, but he has written a good many lyrical pieces, and we are obliged to rank most of them as lyric poems rather than songs. This is not to deny them frequent high merit as poems; but many of them are too short for singing, and they often lack that imperative rhythm which seems to hunger and cry out for musical expression. Take, as an example of the former class, the bright little love-song from an earlier volume :
Well he slumbers, greatly slain,
Who in splendid battle dies ;
Pillowed upon pearl who lies.
Ease, of all good gifts the best,
War and wave at last decree :
Crueller than sword or sea.
But in the Father of the Forest volume Mr. Watson gives us a far more singable song than this :
Oh, like a queen’s her happy tread,
Her woman's heart for me!
So proud, and pure, and free!
The pines their reverie.