Page images
PDF
EPUB

470

LATER LIFE OF KNOWLES.

no mean authority on a point of dramatic criticism—“Virginius” was Macready's greatest character. William Tell; The Beggar of Bethnal Green; The Hunchback; The Wife, a Tale of Mantua; Love; and several other popular and successful plays, added, during the next twenty-three years, to the fame that Knowles had already won. In many of these he played the leading character himself. Crossing the Atlantic in 1836, he found in America the warmest welcome and the kindest appreciation of his professional talent.

When his health began to fail, application having been made to the Government by a number of dramatic authors, and also by some Glasgow merchants, a pension of £200 a year was granted to him in 1849.

Since the close of his professional life he has written a couple of novels, of which we shall say no more than that they are unworthy of his earlier fame; and has also displayed his controversial power in two works, The Rock of Rome, and The Idol Demolished by its own Priest. So long as his health permitted, he acted of late years as a lay preacher of the Baptist persuasion; and we believe that at present he is living at or near Torquay in Devonshire, a frail but cheerful old man.

The dramatic style of Sheridan Knowles was modelled after the Elizabethan plays, especially those of Philip Massinger. And here, with all our admiration for the effectiveness and artistic construction of Virginius and Tell, we must confess that the model seems at times to peep out too plainly, and that we would rather have Knowles writing in his own proper and natural manner than be obliged to look upon him sometimes as a second-hand Massinger, revived on the stage of the nineteenth century, but speaking after the fashion of those days when the Globe and the Rose were in all their primitive glory. The poetry of Knowles is not of the intense school, but "sparkles through his plays, mildly and agreeably; seldom impeding with useless glitter the progress and development of incident and character, but mingling itself with them, and raising them pleasantly above the prosaic level of common life.”

SPECIMEN OF KNOWLES' VERSE.

471

FROM "WILLIAM TELL."

Scaling yonder peak,
I saw an eagle wheeling near its brow,
O'er the abyss. His broad expanded wings
Lay calm and motionless upon the air,
As if he floated there, without their aid,
By the sole act of his unlorded will,
That buoyed him proudly up. Instinctively
I bent my bow: yet kept he rounding still
His airy circle, as in the delight
Of measuring the ample range beneath
And round about; absorbed, he heeded not
The death that threatened him, I could not shoot
'Twas Liberty! I turned my bow aside,
And let him soar away.

IIeavens! with what pride I used
To walk these hills, and look up to my God,
And think the land was free. Yes, it was free-
From end to end, from cliff to lake, 'twas free-
Free as our torrents are that leap our rocks
And plough our valleys without asking leave;
Or as our peaks that wear their caps of snow
In very presence of the regal sun.
How happy was I then! I loved
Its very storms. Yes, I have ofter sat
In

my boat at night, when midway o'er the lake-
The stars went out, and down the mountain-gorge
The wind came roaring. I have sat and eyed
The thunder breaking from his cloud, and smiled
To see him shake his lightnings o'er any head,
And think I had no master save his own.
-On the wild jutting cliff, o'ertaken oft
By the mountain-blast, I've laid me flat along ;
And while gust followed gust more furiously,
As if to sweep me o'er the horrid brink,
Then I have thought of other lands, whose storms
Are summer flaws to those of mine, and just
Have wished me there;—the thought that mine was free
Has checked that wish ; and I have raised my head,
And cried in thraldom to that furious wind,
Blow on!-this is the land of Liberty !

[blocks in formation]

Not always has the Laurel been given to him most worthy of that royal honour; but when the reverend brow of Wordsworth drooped in death, there was none fitter to succeed “the old man eloquent” than the English gentleman who now wears the wreath. By consent of all, Alfred Tennyson stands at the head of English poets in the passing generation. In his own department of literature he is the representative man of the age-caressed by critics, admired by all, imitated by not a few. Rare are the poems published now-a-days untouched with the light of this master-mind, whose pure and steady radiance has been diffusing itself in everwidening circles for more than thirty years.

A Lincolnshire clergyman, rector of Somersby, had three sons—Frederick, Charles, and Alfred. All have written poetry, the third and greatest of the three being the present Laureate. Tennyson's poetic career may be said to have begun in 1829, when, as an undergraduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, he won the Chancellor's medal for a poem in English blank-verse upon the somewhat unpromising theme of Timbuctoo. About the same time he joined his brother Charles in the publication of Poems by two Brothers. But in 1830 a bolder step was taken. A Cornhill publisher

announced a modest volume, bearing on its title-page the 1830

words Poems, chiefly Lyrical, by Alfred Tennyson, in which A.D.

such pieces as Mariana in the Moated Grange, Claribel, and The Ballad of Oriana, showed that a minstrel of brilliant

THE GROWTH OF POETIC FAME.

473

promise was trying his 'prentice hand upon the lyre of English song.

Undaunted by the frigid reception of his first venture, Tennyson published a second volume in 1833, containing, besides corrected reprints of some former poems, many new compositions, which marked a striking advance both in thought and style. Those who then read for the first time The Lady of Shalott, The Miller's Daughter, Ænone, The Lotus Eaters, and, above all, The Queen of the May, an exquisitely touching picture of a pretty wilful village girl fading away amid the brightening blossoms of an English spring, felt that a new well of poetic thought had burst out to gladden and make green the arid roads of modern life. One part of a poet's lofty mission is to battle with that tendency to the common-place and the matter-of-fact, which belongs to a moneygetting age, by affording such nutriment to the imagination as may keep its fair shoots from withering away in the hot and dusty struggle of our daily lives. And no English poet of modern days has more nobly fulfilled this exalted function than he who has given us the sweet fruits of genius that have just been named.

The critics of 1833 were unkind and unjust to the youthful singer; and for nine years the sweet voice was silent. But it was not the silence of an idle life. Locksley Hall was unfolding its pathetic and passionate beauty. The Gardener's Daughter and Dora were budding into life. Lady Clara Vere de Vere, one of the sternest rebukes ever levelled at the cold arrogance and deadly cruelty of high-born beauty, was in preparation. And such fraginentary poems as Morte d'Arthur and Godiva, dealing with the chivalrous and feudal times of old England, were giving earnest of what the minstrel might do in some future day, should he choose his theme from that dim past, through whose mists we see in broken outline, with here and there a glimpse of brilliant colour shining through a rift, confused groups of giant men, whose life was summed

up in the battle, the tilt-yard, the chase, and the carouse. When in 1842 appeared two volumes, containing the poems to which we have referred with many others of remark- 1842 able beauty, the victory was won. Another King Alfred A.D.

[blocks in formation]

was crowned in England, whose realm has wider bounds and whose sceptre has another power than the sceptre and the realm of the illustrious Saxon,

Tennyson’s next work was published in 1847,—a fanciful poem of the epic class, written in blank-verse, entitled The Princess, a Medley. At a little pic-nic on the grassy turf within a ruin, seven college men tell the tale in turn, and

“The women sang Between the rougher voices of the men,

Like linnets in the pauses of the wind.” A prince and princess are betrothed, but have never met. He loves the unseen beauty; she, influenced by two strong-minded widows, hates the thoughts of marriage, and founds a University for girls. Disguised in female dress, the prince and two friends don the academic robe of lilac silk, and mingle with the gentle under-graduates. All goes well—lectures are duly attended-until upon a geological excursion the princess falls into a whirling river, and is snatched from the brink of a cataract by her lover, The secret being thus discovered, the pretenders are expelled, in spite of a life saved. Then comes war between the kingdoms; the prince is struck senseless in the strife; and as Ida, the Head of the College, moves round the sick-bed, where he lies hovering between life and death, a new light dawns upon her.

She begins to feel that the gentle ministrations of home are a fitter study for her sex than the quadrature of the circle or the properties of amygdaloid. By degrees

« A closer interest flourished up,
Tenderness touch by touch, and last, to these,
Love, like an Alpine harebell hung with tears
By some cold morning glacier; frail at first
And feeble, all unconscious of itself,
But such as gathered colour day by day.”

We never think of characterizing the poem by adjectives like “sublime” or “magnificent,” for it pretends to no such qualities as these

express. “Exquisite," “ beautiful," " graceful," " tender," are rather the words we choose. A delicate playfulness runs

« PreviousContinue »