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She felt it die a little every day,
Within her busy body the dead thing.' That is the story; with what masterly hand the teller of it is sketched, you must read to see. It is plain enough that here the instrument in the poet's hand is severely taxed; some of the lines are obscure, some awkward. The thing is done roughly, yet somehow it is done, and this woman, sipping gin by the bar, grows into a tragic figure, though in all her life nothing has happened that can be related as an event. The tragedy ceases to be squalid, and rises to the dignity of calm sorrow, hopeless if you will, yet not merciless; the framer of this creature has his opiates, and for those less unhappy there is the beauty of the world. There is still dawn and evening, still the wonder of created things, and for those who cannot feel them there is forgetfulness. What was said above must be repeated here; Mr. Phillips has caught in his opening lines the tragic atmosphere of this human moth trap; yet in a few more verses he renders the very spirit of breathing fields and dewy sky, and thought of the one renders the other endurable.
• The Wife,' his other tragic idyll of London streets, tells how a woman, left with her child and her sick husband starving in a bare garret, goes out to sell herself for bread, and, returning with it, finds her man dead. It is a material tragedy, as the other was spiritual; the mind can conceive of nothing more deeply tragic, and the story is told with the barest words. Here is the passage upon which one would insist :
• But at the door a moment did she quail,
And now with streaming face the door unlatched.' Everything is reduced to the baldest statement, and by delibe. rate choice the physical fact is insisted on with unrelenting vision. Once we think the method betrays Mr. Phillipsthe touch intended to convey the woman's hurried stooping gesture is hardly plain enough-and once it is worthy of Dante, in the line
Smiled at him with her lips, not with her eyes.' In the passage which follows the metre breaks into octosyllabics, and the writer strains language and grammar desperately in his effort to render the strange drift of human beings in the gaslit Strand, into which the woman passes on her dreadful going out, and her more dreadful return. Then comes the worst artistic mistake with which we have to charge Mr. Phillips. To the inevitable brutality of his subject he adds wanton brutality of words and ideas :
• With her right arm the door she pushed,
Dead ! Is he dead? But I will find him fast,
And old friends out of sadness have we grown."! The whole of that is ill written, violent, almost turgid, and, in our judgement, false. What follows makes amends wben the woman, like a stranger makes meek advances' to her own child, weeps over him, and pours out to his baby-ears her sorrow, thinking over past days till nature works upon her its terrible and soothing compulsion; though in the last line again the dreadful nakedness of phrase stamps the unspeakable tragedy:
So the mild beauty of old happiness
Mother and child that food together ate.' The volume of poems then showed upon the whole, one would say, an artist with imperfect but increasing technical mastery; an imagination, even in the region of pure fancy, as in the sun-god's speech, always fed with reality, not constructing dreams in vacuo, but vivified with the processes of life; and a mind not merely serious, but tragic in its cast, drawn to the soul of sorrow in things, apprehending to the uttermost the desperate issues of human existence. There was ripe work, and there were crudities ; but everywhere there was the strong sap of a new growth. Since then have appeared stray poems exhibiting the same genius and the same imperfection. Now there is published what is a new thing in the literature of England since the days of Shakespeare and his friends; a play written in close conformity with stage requirements, which is in every respect a poem. And it is on the strength of this work that we are bold not to predict, but claim for Mr. Phillips a place among the really great names in English poetry. The story is that of Giovanni Malatesta, tyrant of Rimini, who married Francesca, daughter to Polenta of Ravenna. As Arthur sent Lancelot, so Giovanni sent his brother Paolo to bring home his bride; and the new Lancelot and Guinevere fell under the old fate. Drawn together against their will, Giovanni
found them in each other's arms, and stabbed them eodem ictu, eodem gladio. For the rest, Dante tells their story in the most famous passage of all poetry, ancient or modern. It was, indeed, a bold man who dared to handle again in verse that scene of the lovers reading from one book; and the highest thing we can say of Mr. Phillips is that he stands justified of his daring.
The scene opens in the dark hall of the Malatesta castle where Giovanni, the warrior-statesman, dark, fierce, and humped like Richard, waits for his bride. Among the attendants stands chief a personage whom Mr. Phillips has invented -Lucrezia degl' Onesti, Giovanni's kinswoman-once, as it seems hinted, something nearer than that—but for years the ruler of his household. Giovanni speaks first in words that from the earliest syllable stamp the irony of the scene. For this is a story whose ending all the world knows, and we come as they did in Greece, to watch the poet unfold it. The opening word is 'Peace,' and the succeeding lines take up the irony:
• Peace to this house of Rimini, henceforth.
Between us an indissoluble bond.' The lines move stately and stiff; this is no marriage-hymn. And while Giovanni speaks, the chains fall at the gate-for this house is a fortress or a dungeon-a door opens, sunlight streams into the dark place, and down the ray comes Paolo leading Francesca by the hand. She kneels to her husband, he raises her, and her face is disclosed from the veil. The battered statesman 'beat with many blows, deathpale with gushing of much blood, and deaf with war,' speaks to her and to the assembly of himself and of his bride hither all dewy from her convent fetched. It is essential to visualise this scene, for the restraint which throughout Mr. Phillips observes bids him leave the contrast of youth and age, sunlight and prison-house to speak for itself. Then the girl too unfolds her story:
• My lord, my father gave me to you : I
The poet is not lavishing ornament; the last line is an image beautiful in itself, but cut down to the barest limit of suggestion. Giovanni calls his cousin, the woman'widowed and o childless' who ' has ruled till now this fort of soldiers'rough hostelry,' and bids his bride take counsel of her. And so the bride is brought home; her waiting-woman leaves her with a last word:
Be tender with her even as God hath been.'
Yet, before they go, Giovanni speaks, holding his bride by the hand before them all :
" Yet one word more--be sure That, though I sheathe the sword, I am not tamed. What I have snared, in that I set my teeth
And lose with agony.' And as he speaks, Lucrezia interrupts him; in the passion of his thought he has gripped the girl's hand till the tears stand in her eyes. It is an ugly omen. All depart except the central three, and Giovanni's first word is of affairs. Delegates from Pesaro expect his instant decision on the matter of some disputed tax, so with a word of excuse he leaves his bride for one more moment with his brotherwith the youth who has borne her company, and whom she does not fear. Instantly there comes a change. She shivers like a trapped beast-as Cassandra started and shivered when she entered the house of the Atridæ--and she speaks :
Paolo. Why do you ask ?
It is not sign or sound,
It is as though I battled with this air.' The house has its own atmosphere, and though she brought her sunlight with her into the dark, the dark is about it, strangling it; she fears, not knowing what she fears—hardly knowing what it is to fear. She is more child than woman ; she has not known the initiation of grief, and to Paolo's question—'You are not sad? '—she answers :
What is it to be sad ?