POETS are never independent of circumstances: Sandys, the only one of the four whose names stand at the head of this section who escaped the epidemic of conceits which ran its course in the first half of the seventeenth century, was the only one who had a full and successful life. He too was the only one who could write smooth, clear and vigorous verse, an accomplishment which requires perfect self-possession, or overmastering inspiration, or good models. Sandys wrote before Waller and Denham as well as the average versifiers who came after Dryden. His classical translations are not equal to his scriptural paraphrases, and if he had finished the Æneid Dryden would have left it alone. Like Dryden he did his best work late: he was fifty-nine when he published the Psalms. It does not do to compare Sandys with the authorised version of the Bible. Wherever the original is peculiarly striking he is disappointing: he gives his reader no such compensation for his temerity as Sternholds version of the Theophany in the 18th Psalm or the close of the 24th, or as Wattss equally well-known paraphrase of the 90th. Even Tate and Brady at their best, as in the 139th Psalm, come very near to Sandys highest level; but he is much more equable; he never subsides, like Sternhold and Hopkins, into doggerel; he never subsides, like Tate and Brady, into diffuse platitudes. He always grasps the meaning for himself; he seems to work, if not always from the Hebrew, from an ancient version, and he sometimes exhibits a really masterly power of condensation, as in the 119th and the 150th Psalms. Apart from the strictly relative praise due to the versification, the paraphrase on Job is appallingly tame.
The sacred poetry of Sandys was the dignified amusement of the evening of a successful life, whose morn had been spent in eastern travel and in colonial enterprise, without a trace of the internal struggles which form the staple of the poetry of Herbert. The Temple is the enigmatical history of a difficult resignation; it is full of the authors baffled ambition and his distress, now at the want of a sphere for his energies, now at the fluctuations of spirit, the ebb and flow of intellectual activity, natural to a temperament as frail as it was eager. There is something a little feverish and disproportioned in his passionate heart-searchings. The facts of the case lie in a nutshell. Herbert was a younger son of a large family; he lost his father early, and his mother, a devout, tender, imperious woman, decided, partly out of piety and partly out of distrust of his power to make his own way in the world, that he should be provided for in the Church. When he was twenty-six he was appointed Public Orator at Cambridge, and hoped to make this position a stepping-stone to employment at court. After eight years his patrons and his mother were dead, and he made up his mind to settle down with a wife on the living of Bemerton, where he died after a short but memorable incumbency of three years. The flower of his poetry seems to belong to the two years of acute crisis which preceded his installation at Bemerton or to the Indian summer of content when he imagined that his failure as a courtier was a prelude to his success in the higher character of a country parson. The well-known poem on Sunday, which he sang to his lute so near the end, and the quaint poem on the ideal priest, which we extract, may date from Bemerton. The Quip and The Collar may date from the years of crisis. Still, much, like the poems on Employment, of which we insert a specimen, dates from the years of hopeful ambition. There are no traces of consecration or defeat in the Church Porch, where Herbert, like a precocious Polonius, frames a rule of life for himself and other pious courtiers. Herbert, who had thought much of national destiny, and decided that religion and true prosperity were to take flight for America, considered that England was full of sin, but most of sloth.
The plain truth is, that after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the submission of the chieftains of Ulster, and the tardy pacification of the Netherlands, the English gentry were for the first time since the Field of the Cloth of Gold without a rational object of public concern. Poets were left for the first time to feed idly on their own fancies and feelings: that all kinds of enterprise were feasible, as Herbert repeatedly urged, was of little avail in the absence of motive power. The excitement without impulse which characterises Herbert is the explanation of the old criticism that he has enthusiasm without sublimity. He was, it may be, too fastidious to have succeeded in the best of times. The ascetic temper shows early
Look on meat, think it dirt, then eat a bit,
And say withalearth to earth I commit;
and more pleasantly
Welcome dear feast of Lent. Who loves not thee
He loves not temperance or authority.
* * * * *
Beside the cleanness of sweet abstinence
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
A face not fearing light.
He thinks thrift and cleanness go well together, and likes strictness and method for their own sake. The worldlings false pride in licence offends him from the first. There is more self-complacency than penitence in a poem like The Size. From the first he is preoccupied with the thought of death, and hungers for eternity. Only at first the feeling is that he holds of God for two lives, and hopes to make improvement in both: it is affliction that convinces him that he must sacrifice everything in the present life. To the last his piety lacks wings: he is always tormenting himself that he does not love as he should; his fastidious imagination cannot stop short of the highest good, and then he finds that the imagination cannot carry the affections with it in its flight. He tries vainly to chide and argue himself into fervour: when the mood of fanciful exaltation becomes unattainable he trembles under a sense of deserved displeasure: he feels the pathos of his own ingratitude more keenly than he feels the majesty or the generosity of the Being he is trying to love. He is far too ingenious for the contagious passion of the great mystics: he moves us most when he subsides into meek wistful yearning, and then he is more interesting for himself than for his subject.
The intellectual interest is decidedly stronger in him than in two writers who in a sense belong to his school. Crashaw looks up to him as Faber looked up to Keble. Vaughan was still more strongly and directly influenced by him. Crashaw cannot be said to imitate Herbert, he only is encouraged by the example of a distinguished Cambridge man who had achieved a court and academical reputation as a sacred poet; Vaughan on the contrary is converted by Herbert, and, as we shall see, imitates him copiously. Either of them is perhaps more musically pious by nature than Herbert: at their best either excels him: Vaughans clear intensity and Crashaws glowing impetuosity alike make the laboured crabbed ingenuity of Herbert seem tame. And yet Herbert has always kept a larger place as a poet in the eyes of the public than Crashaw or Vaughan: he owes much of course to Waltons charming life, much to his own Country Parson, but after all The Temple is a book in a sense that Steps to the Temple or Silex Scintillans are not. The Williams MS. proves that Herbert corrected himself more severely in MS. than Vaughan in print, for the only change on the second edition of Silex Scintillans is the removal of a few crude naïvetés from one poem. Even Herbert tolerates much in style and metre that we wish away. Crashaw is smoother because more fluent, but Herberts poems have always a plan and substance, which those of his successors often lack. Crashaw is full of diffuseness and repetition; in the Wishes for his Mistress he puts in every fantastic way possible the hope that she will not paint; often the variations are so insignificant that he can hardly have read the poem through before sending it to press. As Pope observed, he wrote like a gentleman for his own amusement, and he wrote most at his ease when he was paraphrasing. Marino is his master, while Herbert is his patron and example; but though Marino was the Coryphaeus of that literature of conceits which travelled over Europe, his poem on the Massacre of the Innocents is continually surpassed by Crashaw, who always introduces a fancy when Marino is content for a moment to be plain.
Here are one or two specimens from those collected by Wilmott and Grosart:
He saw Heavn blossom with a new-born light,
On which as on a glorious stranger gazed
The golden eyes of night,
literally in Marino
He sees also shining from heaven,
With beauteous ray, the wondrous star.
When Alecto rises
The fields fair eyes saw her and said no more,
But shut their flowery lids for ever;
The flowers all round and the verdure appears
To feel the strength of the plague, the anger of winter.
Such imagery does not tax invention: one can put eyes everywhere and turn eyes into everything. We have only to turn to The Weeper, a poem upon St. Mary Magdalen which Pope read with interest. The saints eyes are
Heavens of ever falling stars.
Angels with crystal vials come
And draw from those full eyes of thine
Their Masters water, their own wine.
When sorrow would be seen
In her brightest majesty
(For she is a Queen),
Then is she drest by none but thee.
Then and only then she wears
Her proudest pearls: I mean, thy tears.
In the next stanzas we get something better:
Nowhere but here did ever meet
Sweetness so sad, sadness so sweet.
Gladness itself would be more glad
To be made so sweetly sad.
Even Crashaw meant these for alternatives, but he likes to linger; he spins the 23rd psalm into three dozen couplets. The Stabat Mater is very far from being the severest of mediæval hymns, but there is an appropriateness in Crashaws own title for his paraphrase A Pathetical descant on the devout Plain Song of the Church, as though he were a pianist performing variations upon a classical air. He extemporises at ease in his rooms at Peterhouse, then the ritualistic college of Cambridge. Like Herbert he was a piece of a courtier, but he did not go to court to seek his fortune, he found nothing there but materials for a sketch of the supposed mistress who never disturbed his pious vigils. Of the three he is the only one who seems to have known no inward struggles; he passes from Peterhouse to Loretto as pilgrims pass from one chapel to another in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There is no substantial difference between the tone of the poem to St. Theresa, written before his change of profession, and the two which he wrote after. If anything, the earlier poem is more serious and reverent. The wonderful close of the poem on the Flaming Heart is more wonderful because it comes after an atrocious and prolonged conceit to the effect that the saints heart would not be inflamed by the arrow of the seraph, but was fit to inflame that and all creatures beside.
Vaughan only began to be a poet when Crashaws career was over; and he did not continue to be a poet to any purpose long. Everything he wrote before or after the two parts of Silex Scintillans might be spared. He is a mystic, as Herbert is an ascetic and Crashaw a devotee. Herberts temptation is the world, Vaughans temptation is the flesh; the special service that Herbert does him is to lift his mind from profane love to sacred. He is quite pathetic in the preface to Silex Scintillans about his early loose love-poetry. He suppressed the worst of it, and adjures his reader to leave the sufficiently harmless collection which escaped him unread. When he was seven and twenty years older (he would not have thought wiser) he collected some more of his love verses equally innocent and rather insignificant. Amoret and Etesia are less interesting than Saccharissa and Althea and Castara. Perhaps Etesias name implies that she was good to love for a year and no longer. The long interval of twenty-two years between the second part of Silex Scintillans and Thalia Rediviva, is filled mainly by little translations of works of edification and a few original prayers. The prayers are rather too like sermons, and the title Silex Scintillans implies that his heart was a stone from which sparks might be struck now and then. He is as full as Herbert of the fluctuations of his own feelings, and as ready to interpret any failure of power as a judgment, as ready too to lecture upon his spiritual experience for the instruction of his reader. In both the lesson is the same, that external disappointments are good for the inner life. For Vaughan too rebelled against his circumstances: after Oxford and a riotous holiday in London, it was dull to settle down at Brecknock: the world had not promised so much to him as to Herbert, but it performed even less. The Mutiny reminds us of The Collar, as Rules and Maxims remind us of The Church Porch. The Tempest recalls Providence, and in Sundays the coincidence is even closer: again, The Queer, as we should now say The Riddle, is obviously suggested by The Quip. Even the complaint that men inflame themselves with a scarf or glove is borrowed from Herbert, who knew the world better than Vaughan, and gives pointed counsel and criticism, where Vaughan grumbles at the poverty of poets or the weight of a cloak. On the other hand, he knows nature much better. Herbert has no feeling for anything but the sweetness of flowers and sunshine, Vaughan feels the awe of the freshness of morning among the Welsh mountains. It is in morning walks that he meets God; early rising is the one original recommendation in Rules and Maxims. The sanctity and insight of childhood are more to him than even to Wordsworth. Many religious writers speak of this life as an exile, Vaughan carries the metaphor through: we are exiles not only from the home we seek but from the home we have left. He even suspects the stars may have something to do with the uncompensated misfortune of birth into a world of time and sense. His twin brother Thomas studied alchemy not as a means to the transmutation of metals, but as a key to the hidden unity of nature. In his own translations Henry Vaughan uses Neoplatonists quite as familiarly as Jesuits. His prose is rich and musical; his few Latin poems mostly insignificant, more pointless than Herberts and quite without the airy grace of Crashaws Bubble, of which Mr. Grosart has made a very pretty English poem. His translations from Ovid and Juvenal are rough and cumbrous; he writes decasyllabics very badly compared not only with Sandys but with Crashaw, whose description of a Religious House contains one line, Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep, worthy of Pope. His translations in octosyllabics from Casimir and Boethius are excellent, especially the poem on the Golden Age from Boethius.