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ART. I.-The Child of the Islands. A Poem, by the Honourable Mrs. Norton. London. 8vo. 1845.
HIS brilliant volume has not materially softened our suspicion that the present purveyors of our popular literature are on a false tack. We still doubt whether any great good will come of this eternal reproduction in imaginative works, of the 'Condition of England Question.' Professors and preachers are beneficial, and ought to be acceptable; but we are in favour of confining them to their chairs and pulpits, lest their instruction, being trivially administered, should lose its chances of interesting, and therefore influencing, imperfect beings. Besides, it is satisfactory to be dealt with openly and candidly. We object to buying a song which turns out a sermon.' The late Lady Corke understood this feeling. When her invitation was on pink paper, you might expect people of this world-men who would mix no argumentation with the dowager's champaign-women who, not to mention their principles, could keep their passions in their pockets. If it was a blue billet, you knew your destiny: you were to have the company of the immortals-nectar and ambrosia of course.
According to the Almanac des Gourmands, the prime Amphitryon in Paris boasts that a dozen friends may eat through his most voluptuous bill of fare without the least fear of having to send for the apothecary next morning. His patés are blown-up pills. A bolus lurks in every entrée. He sacrifices his capon to Esculapius. We no longer blush to own that French cookery seemed to us, from our youth upward, detestable. We thought so once and now we know it.' But even in a doctorial point of view the system is bad. One man's medicine may be another man's poison. We object to the wholesale as well as to the underhand style of the physicking; and question more than ever M. Véry's right to the magnificent monument at Montmartre, inscribed Toute sa vie fut consacrée aux arts utiles.'
Whatever poem or novel we take up, we are sure of the same drift-and a doleful drift it is. Of all countries professing Christianity, ours is the one in which the grand universal rule of Christian practice is most flagrantly violated. England is the
VOL. LXXVI. NO. CLI.
wealthiest of nations-our capital is understood to be increasing at the rate of fifty millions per annum or thereabouts—but in no other region of the civilized world is wealth so unequally distributed, and in none is there so little humanity-such a conspicuous lack of good feeling towards the poor on the part of the rich-the more opulent orders divided among themselves by such painful gaps of prejudice-in short, such a general dislocation of the body politic. Hence the necessity for this burst of admonitory rhyme and romance ;-and how fortunate that the sinful island should have had within her shores, at the crisis of mischief, such a band of geniuses able and willing to combine in the chorus of remonstrance and rebuke-each of them entitled to lecture the nation, and put it to us as one having authority, whether we have or have not been deficient in our several spheres in meekness, humility, patience, long-suffering-in brotherly sympathy for all about or below us-in the active exercise of all self-denying virtues and graces! One may doubt whether their premises are correct; but there ought to be no doubt surely as to the earnestness of their convictions-the purity of their motives—the singlehearted fervour of their zeal. At the same time they should remember that they have occupied a high and delicate position, and that all observers are not quite disposed to do them justice. Some complain of the very unanimity as a suspicious thing-they whisper that it looks like drilling for stage effect. Others, with remarkable memories, object that earlier performances were in a different vein-whence the change?-what occasioned the conversion? Some again scrutinize what is immediately before them with an unfair sharpness-they say they are disturbed every now and then, amidst the clamour of harmony, by catching a false note. They cannot away with coming, in productions so excellently ethical, on some sudden flaw-some rent or crack, as it were, suggestive to these too critical persons, of bad habit, bad temper, bad passion-arrogance or lewdness, for example, peeping out in a picture of ascetic holiness-some thread of vulgar coxcombry, spleen, spite, envy, checkering a well-trumpeted tissue of refined and heroical philanthropy.
Mrs. Norton's new poem will not afford any pretext for such minor cavils. She has been for years devoting her abilities to the cause which she now maintains ;-none can have forgotten, in particular, her verses on the factory children, nor her letters on mendicancy in the public journals, though her claim to these last may have been unsuspected until her present avowal. Nor will Zoilus be able to point out any sentiment in these cantos at variance with the simplicity and generosity of their apparent scope and purpose. Our general objections remain. We, in the first
place, although admitting and deploring the existence of much guilt and much distress, by no means believe that the Nation is either so wicked or so unhappy as it is the fashion to assume. We believe that the upper classes are not more negligent of their inferiors than in any former age-but, on the contrary, more generally attentive to their duties than they ever were; and that the existing hardships and distresses in this country seem greater and worse than heretofore, chiefly because the public press fixes attention on individual cases to an extent never before dreamt of, and very frequently exaggerates them besides. We have got a solar microscope which reveals ugly things that are by no means new, by magnifying them into monsters. Secondly, as respects the humane influence of imaginative literature, we believe that the most effective lessons of sympathy and charity have been and will be given in poems and novels that do not proclaim their specific moral intention-nay, that have no ambition but to reflect life and teach as well-observed life itself teaches. Let genius of this order lend to the less gifted the use of its seeing eye and hearing ear-and its part is done.
We suppose one thing will be conceded-namely, that in all the didactic poems and novels produced in ages before our own, the thesis and its corollaries owe what they have kept of vitality to accompaniments-by which, in most instances perhaps, the authors themselves set comparatively little store. Nearly such, we anticipate, will be the fate of Mrs. Norton's work. It will be enjoyed now and remembered in honour hereafter, not because of its formal doctrine, but for the sake of its vivid and varied transcripts of human life and passion-pictures which would, we suspect, have been still more likely to further the artist's views, had her graceful drawing and rich colouring dispensed with the texts and commentaries now blazoned round them on too conspicuous frames.
The 'Child of the Islands' is the infant Prince of Wales, and the inscription to his royal highness is also the motto of the title-page
'As half in shade, and half in sun,
This world along its course advances,
May that side the Sun's upon
Be all that e'er shall meet thy glances!'
But though no one will doubt the sincerity of Mrs. Norton's loyal wishes, it must be owned that Mr. Moore's pretty stanza is not, logically speaking, a well-chosen motto for her poem; some of the most striking passages in which proclaim that in the highest of this earth's places there can be no unmixed felicity—or as old Menander says::
'To outward semblance godlike are the great:
The Poem being divided into four sections, inscribed Spring' 'Summer'. 'Autumn'. 'Winter'—and closing with this couplet:
'BROTHERS! be gentle to this one appeal ;
WANT is the only woe God gives you power to heal!'
it will be conjectured that the cantos are occupied mainly with arguments and elucidations drawn from the different circumstances under which the successive seasons of the year find the Brothers and Sisters to whom the appeal addresses itself and those on whose behalf it is made.
Having already ventured to confess our opinion that the main charm lies in the episodes, we shall not go into further investigation of the plan. There can be no question that the performance bears throughout the stamp of extraordinary ability-the sense of easy power very rarely deserts us. But we pause on the bursts of genius; and they are many.
Not one has haunted us more than the Gipsy Girl of Windsor Forest in Summer.' It needs hardly fear a comparison with anything on this picturesque race that occurs in English poetry— even in him who had most studied them, Crabbe.
"Wild Nomades of our civilised calm land! Whose Eastern origin is still betrayed
By the swart beauty of the slender hand,
Eyes flashing forth from over-arching shade,
How oft, beguiled by you, the maiden looks
For love her fancy ne'er before portrayed,
And, slighting village swains and shepherd-crooks,
Dreams of proud youths, dark spells, and wondrous magic books!
Lo! in the confines of a dungeon cell,
(Sore weary of its silence and its gloom)
One of this race: who yet deserveth well
Left the round outline of her sunny cheek;
Vagrant, and prowling Thief;-no chance, no room
Therefore the avenging law its punishment must wreak.
And oft she turns her feverish, restless head,
* Εξωθεν ἔισιν οι δοκουντες ευτυχειν
Λαμπροι, τα δένδον πασιν ἀνθρωποις ἰσοι.