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No character has ever puzzled the world so much as that of the poet. It is to this day an unfailing field of inquiry for the half-fledged critic, and has been, since ever letters were, a matter of dispute among all those who, without belonging to the magic circle, hovered round the borders of it, and were dazzled by its glory. The laws of nature by which this strange phenomenon managed to get itself developed the particular circumstances favourable for its growth -whether by any artificial means it were possible to produce the creature at will, and, being produced, what was its natural history, its anatomical construction -- those features of peculiar individuality which distinguished it from all the rest of the race have been the inquiry of so many generations, that it is clear enough there must be pleasure in the investigation, though there is no great amount of profit. For it unfortunately happens that no sooner have those capricious splendours been properly classified and identified, and the world arrived at a tolerably unanimous opinion as to the poetic character, than some undiscovered member of the family suddenly starts up under the very hands of the inquirers, shivering the pretty hypothesis into a hundred fragments, and proving with magnificent contempt that a poet may be the very antipodes of the poet upon whose attributes everybody has decided, and that no circumstances can smother, and no qualities of mind obscure, that divine gift which falls here and there rarely, yet without distinction, upon all kinds and degrees of men, with the splendid impartiality of heaven.
It is not an uncommon weakness with common people-neither is it always an unamiable one-to conclude that the poetic faculty disables its possessors for the ordinary traffic of the world. Indeed, the most of us are much disposed to believe, that for every unusual gift a man has, he must naturally lack something of the everyday provision which
carries us through our usual trials. Kindness itself, the general affection which poets have great luck in winning, strengthens this delusion. One thinks with enthusiasm how fit it would be to strew the path of our minstrel with flowers, and ward off from his delicate perceptions the harsh assaults of fortune; how he ought to be guarded and nursed and taken care of, out of a universal tenderness and gratitude, in humble requital of all he does for us; and so an ideal grows upon us, born of admiration and not of envy -a delicate, ethereal, tender soul, which feels every pin-point like a dagger, which is above the commonplace persistence of common labour, and from which such vulgar qualities as foresight or prudence are no more to be expected than from a child or an angel. This is the poet of poems, of romances, of tender imaginationsthe pet and favourite of a superficial fancy; but it is rather hard to point out an example where this ethereal creature has blossomed into real life.
And there is another side of the question. If it is not true that Genius needs crutches when it alights from its Pegasus, is it true that the vision and the faculty divine elevates every man who possesses it, in every particular, shoulder-high above his fellows, a king of men?-that Burns, for example, following his plough "in glory and in joy," was the sole Titan of his generation, able, if the world had but known it, to rule his country and period, as some persons of genius choose to say? One cannot help doubting it mightily when one remembers how that glorious unfortunate managed himself, the kingdom which lay nearest to his hand. Providence seldom makes those mistakes which our superior skill discovers in its working. After all, people commonly succeed to a certain point in doing what it is in them to do, and seldom go far astray out of their vocation. man may be a great poet, and withal a person of extreme good sense and the intensest respectability; or he may be, it is sad to say, a great poet and
a vagabond; or he may be a highly speculative and troublesome individual, and yet have a gift of the sublimest melody known to man. In short, the family of poets shows as many and as unaccountable features of diversity as any other handful of undistinguished men taken at random from the general race.
This is rather unfortunate, because it is so comfortable to be arbitrary and make classifications; instead of which agreeable exercise of skill, we are obliged to confess humbly that we know no infallible characteristic of poets save their poetry; that even in their poetry it is not always possible to read their lives; and that, behind the dazzling veil in which they have the power of enveloping themselves at their pleasure, each one sits solitary, not a member of a class, but an individual man.
"Of what importance is it to great poets to leave the history of their lives to posterity?" asks Beranger in the opening sentence of his Autobiography. It is not easy to answer the question. Unhappily, this present period is the end of an age of poets, who leave their deaths and their biographies, rather than their lives and labours, for the distinction of these latter years. Can anybody tell what the better Wordsworth is for his biography, or Southey for his ?-or even in the glory of so many big volumes that unhappy little songster, who did not know how his noble executor meant to take his life? Biography is a fashion of the time; but it seems indeed very doubtful how far it is an advantage to those who have no public acts to explain, and no particular legacy of belief or knowledge to leave to the world. The life of a political leader is important to history; it throws special illumination upon special points of policy, and sometimes enlightens us in respect to the great machinery of the government under which we live. But the poet has said what he has to say infinitely better, in all probability, than either his life itself, or the narrative of it, can do. A man whose life is a poem, is a being to be approached tenderly and at arm's length. Detail takes the bloom off his sublimity, and dinner-parties
when one is approached with awe, and adoring little audiences, where one repeats one's own verses, and all the walks one takes, and the how-d'ye - do's one utters, are very apt, unless with very delicate treatment, to make a somewhat vulgar commentary upon that most perfect expression of human intellect and sentiment, the work of a great poet.
The lives of great poets, accordingly, turn out, for the most part, extremely unsatisfactory performances. It is in their nature to be so, more or less, because we are already familiar with the quintessence and glory of that life which, notwithstanding, we persevere in hoping to find as perfect as its productions. And it is important to remark, besides, that every man who is born a poet does not strange oversight of Providence! have a brother, or a son, or a nephew, who is born a biographist, to attend the steps of the loftier spirit, and record them for the advantage of posterity. Could nothing be done, does any one think, to provide a Boswell or a Defoe in all the future families of poets? It seems the only way in which the inevitable memoir could be accomplished with advantage to the world.
What it pleases a poet to say of himself and of his own life is a different matter. Heaven bless the craft! There is certainly one thing beyond their poetry which poets have in common, and that is a certain consciousness in their hearts that everybody loves them; that they are free to speak as friends to multitudes of listeners; that the personal ring of their voices somehow warms the hearts of their audience; and that the man who makes our profoundest emotions articulate, may, if he chooses, speak to us in his own person, with a familiarity, a simplicity, even a homeliness, which no other man is privileged to use.
It is impossible not to think thus in opening the modest volume which contains all that he himself thought necessary to transmit to posterity of the life of Beranger. The life of a poet, the life of a Frenchman-the history of a man of popularity so universal, that we know no parallel
to it among ourselves-a man born in the ancient regime, living through "the Terror," the Consulate, the Empire, the Restoration, and all the hurricanes of State thereafter-who has seen three times over the throne of the Bourbons vacated, and two Napoleons conquer the imperial crown. What times to live in! What an age for a poet! Yet by dint of doing it himself, and by the aid of excellent good sense, and a disposition (for a Frenchman) unusually modest, Beranger confines his record of more than seventy years within little more than three hundred pages-the boards of a single volume. Such examples are rare indeed in an age of bookmaking-though perhaps it is true that one is naturally inclined to brevity when one has something to tell; where there are no incidents, what can people do but bring in words to fill the vacant place?
A poet who lives to the age of Beranger realises for himself what men less fortunate have to commit to the hands of posterity. This favourite of our lively neighbours has had his fate and fame decided years ago. An interval of trial is not necessary between his death and his canonisation. The avocat de diable has said all he could to keep the new saint out of the firmament ever so long ago, and has been as unsuccessful as that unfortunate officer generally is in such cases. It seems unnecessary now to discuss the qualities which have elevated the chansonnier to the high rank which he holds, not only in France, but in the world. Yet he is perhaps the most remarkable modern instance of a celebrity so great, so just, and so unquestionable, which rests only upon those compositions commonly accounted the lightest and least important of all the efforts of poetry. His fame is like the fairy palace of an Arabian dream. It rests upon a multitude of little gleaming columns, polished and perfect every one, twinkling in innumerable vistas, as tiny as the elves, and as multitudinous. In our language we find no parallel either to his work or his success. Moore is the songster of drawing-rooms and society, and, even then, takes half his value from the
old music native to his country, which his smooth verses brought into fashion. Burns has such matters as the "Saturday Night" and "Tam o' Shanter" to add to his claims as a lyricist; but Beranger sings always, sings perpetually, throws himself by nature and choice into those refrains which everybody sings after him; limits himself with a natural instinct; is never too long, never too ponderous for the popular voice and fancy; and, indeed, makes few verses which do not sing themselves, whether their reader wills or no. The gift is perfectly peculiar and individual. It is not the chant of narrative, the old music which is the original of all poetry, and which in every primitive society holds listeners enchained, by the hour, while the minstrel chants the deeds of their forefathers. It is more of the nature of those songs which spring up, no one knows how, natural productions of the country, like its flowers and its rivers-stray verses, of which no one can tell the author. Yet it differs also from those poetical aborigines. It is the voice of a man whose temperament is the prevailing temperament of his country, whose thoughts are lively and rapid, who feels the national necessity for communicating them, and is restless in possession of an idea till he has shared it with his neighbours. He has neither time, nor reticence, nor self-command enough to hoard up his imaginations for anything of greater effort. When a fancy takes possession of his brain, it bursts forth immediately in a natural efflorescence, sets himself singing in the first place, breaks into a social chorus, catches everybody's ear with an infallible attraction, and goes singing on its way over a whole country, as light and tiny as a bird, before the excitement of its creation is well over in the mind from which it came. There are no abrupt breaks in the songs of Beranger. They are not a succession of verses cut into arbitrary bits, but dainty little separate existences, tuning their periods with an intuitive music, long enough to interest the fancy, and not too long to burden it. And they are not songs of passion. This extraordinary chansonnier, of all things in the world, thinks proper
to confess that he has never had the luck to know the love of romances and poets, and his verses accordingly lack that charm; but if they are not love-songs, they are, what is still better for their purpose, songs about everything-sparks struck on the moment from every passing blaze of popular emotion, from every event in one of the most crowded chapters of history; and it becomes possible to understand, through the interpretation of Beranger, the real weight of that saying, which does not seem to have much application to our literature and country, though it is perpetually quoted in regard to them, "Let who will make the laws, if I make the songs."
This fundamental difference, however, makes it very strange that any one should call Beranger the Burns of France. It would be almost as just to call him the Milton. The burning heart of the Ayrshire peasant bears as little resemblance to the lively intellect of the Parisian bourgeois as the lightning does to the lamp. True, they have both written songs; but the songs of the Scot are songs of passion, fiery effusions of an exuberant and overflowing ardour— words that burn. There is an effusion, an abandon (strange that we
should find names for this wild overflooding exuberance in a language which produces so few examples of it!) a plunge of the entire spirit into the utterance in the verses of Burns, which does not exist, nor a shadow of it, in Beranger. Wild mirth, wild love, wild despair, all the big passions of a giant, glow in the songs of the ploughman; but as for the Parisian, he has not very much to do with passions. He is not a Burns, startling the quiet with his great emotions. He is not an Anacreon, rosecrowned and flushed with wine. Rich in the power and inspiration of a poet, he is, nevertheless, simply a citizen, living as everybody else does, thinking as everybody else thinks, throwing his sentiments about everything freely from him in lively and melodious verses, in happy refrains, in delightful turns of expression, which one loves to take into one's lips, as a child does a bonbon. is not lovers, it is not pleasure
seekers who find expression for their fancies provided to their hand by the chansonnier. It is everybody who lives in the same age, who sees the same event, who shares with him in the universal sentiment. He is not seeking popularity by a choice of popular themes; but, living in the midst of the common world, he sings what he thinks about what he sees, and the people, whom the same events have moved perhaps to similar fancies, crowd round him in delighted surprise, taking the chorus from his lips. He, too, thinks just as we have been thinking. Vive Beranger! It is the secret of his fame.
This running comment upon things in general, embodied as it is in language rich with many of the happiest graces of poetry, does not exist in this country. We have love-songs, we have drinking-songs, we have patriotic anthems and rebellious ballads-and we have, if such things can be named even in the very lowest limit of literature, innumerable piles of the rubbish called fashionable songs, which are generally about nothing at all; but we have no songs of the time like those which have established so great and important a place for themselves in the literature of France. That there is scope and audience for them is apparent enough when one remembers how even such a bald production as "A good time coming" rang through all our streets a few years ago, and how the kindred platitude of "Cheer, boys, cheer," even caught a momentary glory from the fact that our poor soldiers, for want of better, sang it under their tents in the Crimea, where even such very poor cheer had some comfort in it. But it is no fault of Dr Charles Mackay that he is not Beranger-and it seems quite doubtful whether anybody could do in English what Beranger has done in his own land.
For our neighbours across the Channel, who do things avec effusion -who rush into each other's arms, when we only shake hands-who are in despair when we are simply annoyed-who deal in ecstasies and agonies with the most lavish prodigality-have, it is strange to say, though their speech abounds with
phrases expressive of all those superlative sensations, a language which is not adapted, as ours is, for the vehement and impetuous tide of passion. They have, instead, a voice which can be elegant, spirituelle, dainty, epigrammatic, and antithetical, beyond anything which we can attain to. The very genius of their speech is order, precision, neatness; their words balance each other with an instinct of propriety foreign to our wilder syllables; even their tragic muse marches heroically upon the stilts of rhyme. French is the special language of bon-mots, of sayings, of those little gleaming arrows of talk which carry the point of a dagger or a needle in their innocent-seeming there is no latitude for a tumult of half-expressed thoughts in this wellordered language; everything must be sharply and clearly cut, distinct in conception, and precise in word. The very power of double entendre for which it is famous, depends upon this extreme regularity and balance of speech; for it is only here that the separate meanings of which a word is capable are so distinctly yet delicately individualised. And this completest of tongues has its own virtues and its own defects consequent upon its nature. The greatest genius in the world could scarcely find in it that torrent of glowing and exuberant expression, overflowing all bounds, in which languages more primitive pour forth the strong passions of humanity, the wild human outcry of great hope or overwhelming despair; but for all the emotions which are less than the greatest-for lively sensations, vivid thoughts, incidents of pathos, all the superficial sentiments which stir us with pleasure or with melancholy, but do not stir us very deeply, there is no language equal to this language of points and epigrams-this native air of dialogue and syllogism, this tongue which is so happily adapted, not for song, but for songs.
In our language-especially in that which is the native tongue of Maga, our dear vernacular, which she does not employ so much as she once did -we have songs as perfect and as popular as ever have issued from the lips of any people. Like Beranger
in this respect, Burns has taken hold of his entire nation. There are some of his songs which everybody sings everywhere; there is scarcely an individual to whom one or two at least among them are not as familiar as his own thoughts-but these are almost all songs peculiar, personal, and passionate songs of love, of grief, or of that old enthusiastic patriotism, unreasoning and ardent, which once made every boy in Scotland worship the names of Bruce and Wallace. But let us once get clear of passion, of riotous mirth, or of that patriotic emotion which, more serious than effusive, strikes with us a note too lofty and too solemn for everyday choruses, and we have no expression left for the secondary poetries of life. Dibdin's songs are so nearly dead that the present generation knows little of them; but the fact is certain, that verses made about ordinary events in these days-or even about events extraordinary, such as unfortunately our present history abounds in-fall infinitely below the level of the sparkling and graceful chanson, in which Monsieur our neighbour sings to himself his own sentiment and his poet's. The Times contained not long ago sundry marvellous lines of doggrel, professing to describe the march of General Havelock, and enshrined in the midst of the musical ovation with which it pleased M. Jullien and his constituency to honour the name of that great soldier. It seems something scarcely conceivable that any human creature could be so far left to him or her-self as to speak, much less write, anything so nonsensical; and the idea of a workman in his workshop, or a needlewoman in her garret, singing such doleful rubbish, is enough to disgust one for ever with the hitherto cheerful and kindly fancy of labour lightened by song. No! in this island, this truth is certainwhen we sing, we either sing something striking direct from one of the great primitive emotions of humanity -a poem rather than a song-or we sing nonsense, popularly known as "the words" to such and such an air. The chanson, as it lives and flourishes in France, has no existence among us. In these times of war, where is our war-song? It is "Come