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And munch at ease his leek and bread,
And English Harold alive or dead.'
It will be admitted that Mr Hewlett's is a cheerful eye; nd, little as it may recommend a serious work to say so, he has easily avoided a carefully nourished gloom and would fain see both past and future in the simplest morning light. There is, in truth, in his work a real implicity and candour of view, an honest disdain of making times and things appear worse than they are, and a steady refusal, in spite of all untowardness, to affect a philosophic despair which is not in his own nature.
Remarkable is the skill with which the plain facts of the text-books are expressed in the brief rhythms of Mr Hewlett's verse. The text-book, for all that it deals with human affairs, can be very dull, but this versechronicle never succeeds in being dull. It must be confessed that it is not always perfectly easy reading. Compression of incident, curtness of phrase, oddity of rhythm, archaistic vocabulary, rapidity of allusion, startling modernity of style-these are found sometimes here, sometimes there, and sometimes all together; and thus the reading becomes at times an excitement of the brain as much as an unloosening of the imagination. Mr Hewlett's highly individualised prose style is familiar to all readers—its swiftness, its masterful and whimsical energy, its staccato abruptness and often excessive emphasis-and now and then the worst as well as the best qualities of the prose are audible in the more sensitive medium of his verse. But his faults are casual and not constant. He escapes that most common of narrative defects, languor; and, even apart from the lyrical upsoarings already noted, there is the abundant reward of felicitous and vivid verse.
The precise form of that verse is, I believe, new in English poetry-the terza rima of Dante in Italian and of Shelley in English, abridged from a ten to an eightsyllable line, and written paragraphically (as blank verse must be written) rather than in the form of stanzas. It is a bold experiment, for hitherto there has not been a long English poem of high quality in terza rima; and,
though others should fail to make good use of the form, Mr Hewlett has certainly justified the violence with which he has wrenched it to his own admirable purpose, and diminished the elegiac gravity into which the decasyllabic terza rima tends to fall in English hands. But of technique this is more than enough, all that might be remarked further being the rather curious fact that for the recital of the plain story of Hodge and his masters our author should have had recourse to a new arrangement of a foreign verse form, instead of relying, as he might so lightly have done, upon traditional English metres. I think his invention was a wise one, since it is a harmony of his own mind and since by its means he escapes the monotony which is apt to beset a long narrative poem.
I spoke a moment ago of the skill with which the plain facts of the text-books had been expressed in this quick and nervous verse; and there are certain facts, indeed, which in that verse assume a higher emotional quality than can well be suggested by the sober pacings of historians' prose. To take a ready instance, the calamity of the Black Death is conveyed in such prose passages as might dutifully attempt to sustain the horror which was felt in 1918 when the Registrar-General's statistics told the story of the influenza epidemic.
'In the years which followed the battle of Crecy, England, in common with Europe in general, was visited by the appalling pestilence known as the Black Death. It appeared in England in 1347 and 1348, and recurred at intervals during the next twenty years. So terrible was the visitation that in the rural districts it may be estimated from the evidence that not less than one-third-perhaps a full half-of the population was swept away. The fields were left untilled, and there was a terrible scarcity of food.'
And the advantage of the poetic method is seen when the full consequence of the Black Death comes to be remarked, for in this chronicle it is the soul's as well as the body's weariness that urges the Peasants' Revolt, and a spiritual as well as a physical ease that follows the revolt.
'As in the woodland after rain
So rising from his fever and pain
Tuneth good Hodge a mellower throat.'
True that the method is inadequate when the story is of Houses and Monarchs, and regrettably inadequate when Elizabeth's whole reign, its immediate splendour and ultimate influence, are dismissed in a few lines with a few names; for Hodge too had his part, though Mr Hewlett believes that
'Hodge knew you not, nor guessed the alarms
That flew about your island hold;
He had his griefs for his own harms,
Of lessening wages, stinted room.'
It is our author himself who is stinting room here, but it is only fair to remember nevertheless that it is the peasant and not the prince that is his hero. In justification of an equally cursory treatment of the Stuarts and the Protector he is able to plead, in his admirable notes, the obliteration of the peasant during that anarchic time; but the reader may be excused for thinking that there is something too summary in the mere curt recapitulation, for example, of a few facts of Charles the Second's reign, and a characterisation so formal as that of the Wastrel' whose heart was 'as fond, untrue and vile as even a Stuart's can be.' The entire period from the death of Elizabeth to the accession of George the Third is compressed within six hundred lines, and no skill in contraction can make the result an adequate relation. The Revolution, for instance, had an inevitable influence upon social conditions, for it was in every sense a revolution and left nothing untouched by its deep-moving wave. What is lost by Mr Hewlett's excessive concision, in fact, is the sense of continuity in change, even the sense of change itself; and, although this may be less a part of history than of what is loosely called the philosophy of history, it is a part which the chronicler cannot fairly ignore. Mr Hewlett contents himself with observing of Dutch William that he died 'and left us where we stood rigid in constitutional bars.' Even less is vouchsafed of Queen Anne, and no word of
the colonial expansion which was going on all the time, and had a significance, both instant and distant, for Hodge and his lord alike.
It is to be concluded from these ungracious cavils that our author is so completely possessed by a single aspect of his theme that the obliteration of the peasant which he asserts seems almost to involve a brief eclipse of the poet-a misadventure which I am bound to lament. Beautiful, then, is the quick reaction of such a passage as that beginning:
'When winds are high and lands adust,
And day no longer than the night,
When grass-spears dimple the earth's crust,
George Fox and Bunyan and Wesley, to whom our author's impulsive homage is given, are become the peasant's priests and prophets in Book IX, of which these are the opening lines; and Mr Hewlett's method is seen approaching its best exercise in the ardour of his contrast of them with 'the high world' of the Walpoles and the Gunnings, and quite at its best in the harmony of historic fact with the liberty of poetry in the tenth Book, 'The Last Theft.'. The iniquities of Enclosure Acts may seem dull matter for the Muse, but what is not dull in Cobbett's prose is assuredly not dull in our author's indignant verse; and this Book at least is exempt from the defect of which I have now to speak.
For, as the chronicle draws nearer to modern times, to that great glory or great disaster, the transformation to industrialism, it is inevitable that difficulties should darken the author's path; his problem being always, I take it, to preserve his story as a romance and prevent its degradation into a verse tract, since a narrative poem without the touch of romance would be as a smoky town lacking the winnowing of the winds. It is a serious problem for a poet facing the stark social conditions of the 18th and 19th centuries, and it is easy to note passages where the dangers have pressed irresistibly.
'When Arthur Young,
Concerned with economic ruin,
Which in hedg'd land your yield quadruples,
This was no age for reverent scruples;
Saint Use-and-Wont was dying or dead.'
The Muse, he says, abridges all that we need not understand, and the abridgment here can hardly be too severe for the ends of poetry, yet easily too severe for the purposes of the political 'case.' The heading of Book XI is Waterloo and Peterloo, and there is far more romance in Waterloo than in Peterloo; but Mr Hewlett's scheme demands that Peterloo shall be predominant. Hence there is a somewhat close and dusty air of defunct politicians and faded issues in this Book. Even when he speaks of the great figures it is with a desire to dismiss them quickly, as in his disdainful phrase of 'the wooden Duke,' the scorner of those who served him; although it is true that adoration speaks when he turns from Wellington to another:
'Happier was Nelson, whose pure flame
Spir'd upwards one short hour supreme,
What, in a word, he has failed to do is to convince us that it is possible to treat strictly political issues in any manner of poetry but satirical; for the idealism which is so active in the earlier Books of 'The Song of the Plow' is defeated in the political murkiness of the 18th and 19th centuries. He opens his twelfth Book exquisitely with:
'O quiet land I love so well,
By woody holt or grassy swell,
Or where the sun strikes new-turn'd loam
To gleaming bronze, or by the shore
And see the wrinkl'd sand grow frore.'
But can he lyricise the breaking up of the old Poor Law, or the tyranny of the Trade Unions, or the contentions of Free Trade and Tariff Reform? It is even