Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Henry Charles Beeching
Richard Watson Dixon (18331900)
[R. W. Dixon was born May 5, 1833, and died in January, 1900. He was a schoolfellow of Edward Burne-Jones at King Edwards School, Birmingham, and carried on the friendship at Oxford, where, with William Morris and others of the set, he founded the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. His first volume, Christs Company and other Poems, appeared in 1861; a second, Historical Odes and other Poems, followed in 1864; in the previous year he had won the Oxford prize for a sacred poem, the subject being St. John in Patmos. He took Orders in 1858, and after serving for a few years as second master of Carlisle High School, became a Minor Canon of the Cathedral. In 1875 he was presented to the vicarage of Hayton, and in 1883 to that of Warkworth, both in the same diocese. The first volume of his History of the Church of England from the abolition of the Roman Jurisdiction appeared in 1877, the fifth and last after his death. The rest of his poetical work was published in the following order: Mano, 1883; Odes and Eclogues, 1884; Lyrical Poems, 1887; The Story of Eudocia and her Brothers, 1888; Last Poems (a posthumous volume), 1905. In 1895 a selection of his later poems was published under the title of Songs and Odes; and in 1909 a larger selection with a memoir by Robert Bridges, and present Poet Laureate.]
IN most literary coteries which become famous there are members who, while respected for their talents within the circle, escape public recognition because they pursue the common ideal with a divided will. R. W. Dixon undoubtedly occupied a prominent place in that brotherhood of Oxford undergraduates in the fifties of last century, which included Burne-Jones and William Morris and, as an outside member, Gabriel Rossetti. But while still at Oxford he had discovered a taste for historical studies, winning the Arnold prize for an essay on The Close of the Tenth Century of the Christian Era, and on leaving the University and taking orders he began, in the leisured post of a Cathedral minor canonry, to write that picturesque chronicle history of the English Reformation by which he is best known. Later church preferments were all of the kind which added to his professional labours, and as his History retained for the rest of his life the first claim upon his leisure, poetry was well-nigh crowded out. This is not a thing of which any one can reasonably complain. The History is at least an accomplished fact, and its merits as literature are acknowledged; while there is no evidence that Dixon saw his way at all clearly in poetry. He was experimenting to the last, and none of his experiments held out much prospect of a great success. But it is worth pointing out how little time Dixon could give to poetry, because poetry was not with him, as it was with his friend Morris, very much a matter of improvisation; it was an art calling for long study and assiduous practice; and his first book shows that he had many of the qualities which might in other circumstances have led to a greater measure of success.
His first book, Christs Company, published in 1861, three years after Morriss Defence of Guenevere, had even less chance of attracting popular attention. The Defence of Guenevere, though it might surprise by occasional quaintness and offend by the absence of Tennysonian polish, contained stories of human passion which are at any rate intelligible, and, as we know, it made on many sympathetic minds an ineffaceable impression. Dixons poems were at the opposite pole to these straightforward tales in easy verse. The first impression they gave was of queerness. The vocabulary was queer, there were words like agraffes, stroom, graith, which are not known to the dictionary, and lines like the flax was bolled upon my crine; the rhymes were queer and assertive, only, conely; writhing, high thing; often the syntax was queer. Who, asks St. Peter, shall ban my sorrow? and this is the answer he gives:
Not earth that drinks my tears; not heavenly sky;
But no less evident to an attentive reader is the fact that in each poem the writer has something to say which he is earnest about saying, and that he is saying it as well as he can, with his eye upon some ideal beauty which he is endeavouring to reproduce. What is unfortunate is that through want of skill the artists hand does not always answer to his imagination, and thus the reader is sorely puzzled to make out the meaning. St. Mary Magdalene is perhaps the most successful of these early poems. It has the accent of Rossetti, and could never have been written without his influence. But it has a beauty of its own; and if it had been furnished with an argument, so that the ordinary reader could have mastered the general meaning, it might have become as popular in the Butterfield period of Churchmanship as many of Miss Rossettis picturesque poems. The St. John contains a fine series of pictures of the seven archangels with his army each, done in the same Pre-Raphaelite manner. And many of the descriptions of natural scenery with which the book abounds are in the same style of careful detail.
Here I lie along the trunk
That swings the heavy sluice-door sunk
In the water, which outstreams
In little runlets from its seams.
But occasionally we have passages of description of quite a different character, addressed not to the memory but to the imagination. This is how the Bride of Christ is seen in St. Johns vision:
Dixons second volume followed the first after a three years interval, and while containing a few poems in the early manner, was chiefly interesting for its new experiments. It bore the name Historical Odes from the poems upon Wellington and Marlborough with which it opened: poems which it is to be feared there have been few to praise, and very few to love. The historical interest is rightly subordinated to that of character, but the sentiments, though excellent, do not succeed in finding for themselves a memorable expression. But there were experiments also in other directions. There are tales of classical mythology and there are romantic tales, both of which modes of writing retained their attraction for the poet to the last. There are also various odes upon such subjects as Sympathy, Rapture, and Departing Youth. Finally, there was one song, The Feathers of the Willow, of which it was said by a fine critic that it would be difficult to find anywhere two stanzas so crowded with the pathos of nature and landscape.
Dixon published no more poetry for twenty years. In 1878 the late Father Hopkins, S. J., who admired the early volumes, introduced himself to him and then made him known to Mr. Robert Bridges, and the stimulus of this poetic sympathy provoked an aftermath in a series of fine odes, dealing chiefly with the thoughts and experiences of age, which remain Dixons most original and effective contribution to poetry.