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blame him, as Mr. Symonds has blamed Alfieri for introducing the modern passion into the relations between Antigone and Haemon. To my mind, this very act shows Alfieri and Metastasio to be poets and not pedants. They were writing in Italian for an Italian audience of the eighteenth century; they were not preparing trilogies to delight Periclean Athens. Metastasio's Deidamia once accepted as un Hellenic in the sense that Cressida is un Hellenic, Achilles is a gallant Greek enough, and the wise Odysseus would not be ashamed to recognise himself in the Ulysses whose eloquence stirs the disguised son of Peleus to martial ardour. The scene where Ulysses dilates to Arcas upon the statues of heroes in the hearing of the disguised Achilles is one of the finest scenes in all eighteenth-century drama. Metastasio was not a great dramatic poet in the sense that our chief Elizabethans were great dramatic poets, in the sense that Goethe and Schiller are great dramatic poets, but he had great ideas and noble thoughts. His faults are the faults of his age, his merits the merits of great poets of all times.
JUSTIN H. MCCARTHY.
THE BIRDS OF POETRY.
IT is a sufficiently grave charge against our British poets that they
I have completely neglected to utilise all the splendid wealth of material which “foreign" ornithology places at their disposal; and, in considering the question why the poet's range is so unnecessarily and injudiciously limited in this respect, we must either accuse them of some worse alternative, or else put it down to mere ignorance. But in the case of many of them this ignorance was their misfortune, not their fault, for in their day the door to the natural world was only put ajar. But, though we can hardly quarrel with a poet for not writing about birds he did not know of, we can quarrel with him for not knowing about birds which he did write of. And so, putting out of court the inadequate recognition in the British bards of certain large groups of indigenous birds (notably the seafowl and birds of prey), as well as their absolute neglect of the ornithology (with a few immaterial exceptions) of all Asia, Africa, and America ; and dismissing for the present their apparent want of sympathy with certain individual species, such as the crow, owl, goose, and raven (being both domestic and foreign), which are the most “unpopular” birds in the poets' repertory, I am left with some fifty kinds, which together comprise the professedly “popular” Birds of Poetry.
For the larger half of these, which live in verse only by a single epithet or solitary phrase, a very few lines will suffice to pass them in review. Thus “the mellow bullfinch,” that “whistles soft a flutelike note”; “the prudent crane,” that “ steers an embody'd flight”; the “clamouring” crake, “among the clover hay"; "the sooty" coot, " that dives merry in the lake"; the “screaming” curlew; the " timorous ” field-fare (supposed by Scott to nest in Scotland); the goldfinch, “music's gayest child,” and reproved by the poets for its pride in its “gaudy” feathers; the greenfinch, “in its green
1 Viz., bullfinch, crane, corncrake, coot, curlew, fieldsare, goldfinch, green. finch, martin, ousel, rook, stork, swist, wren, blackbird and thrush, cuckoo, doves, eagles, heron, kingfisher, larks, linnets, nightingale, robin, swan, swallow, sparrow, woodpecker, game-birds.
array"; the “dingy" martin, “by children, till of late, held sacred”; the ousel, "peering through a wave," and singing a “sad” ditty ; the stork, “in serious assembly," " consulting deep and various"; the “amusive" swift, in "giddy, rapid flight"; and “the soft wren,” “ light rustling among sere leaves and twigs.” But among the remainder are some important fowls—important both from their overwhelming frequency in the poets' pages and from their pertinence to my present purpose.
All the British poets then (down to Tennyson and Morris, who are always tender and therefore true to Nature and “the speechless world”) have, I venture to complain, neglected Nature as represented in the bird-world, and have confined themselves within an ornithological range much too limited ; and, with these same two conspicuous modern, and one or two earlier, exceptions, the whole range of British poetry seems to me to betray a systematised lack of sympathy with the natural world which is expressed in formulated principles. Whereas American poetry is always tender to things in fur and feathers; and this, too, with such an engaging pitifulness, that I hope to devote a special paper to the illustration of this Buddhistic kindliness and its probable explanation.
In the mean time, I have the British poets and their treatment of their favourite birds before me. These are (excluding those already reviewed above) the blackbird and thrush, farmyard poultry, gamebirds, doves and eagles, nightingale, cuckoo, larks and linnets, robin, swan and swallow; so that this short list includes no fewer than six out of the eight species that we may call the poets' "stock-in-trade birds,” and the greater proportion, therefore, of their everyday working ornithology.
Whenever a dash of the country has to be added to a poem, one or other of these six is sure to be called upon, and every poet therefore keeps on hand a white-necked swan to sing before it dies, and a proud, fierce eagle to stare at the sun and grasp thunder, a melancholy dove (by preference a “ turtle ") to bemoan its widowhood, a blithe lark to “upspring," and a lorn nightingale to tell her sorrows to the moon, and a linnet-to make itself generally useful, whenever there are bushes about.
But though the poets avail themselves thus liberally of these birds, they do not deal liberally by them. For not only do they offend them by depreciatory errors of fact—which in no way benefit their verse ; but they are often singularly inadequate in their general
Dove, lark, linnet, nightingale, eagle, swan-and the owl and raven, which are "unpopular" birds and only used designedly to illustrate the darker sides of life.
treatment of them—which undeniably injures it. Shelley, by himself, has exhausted the skylark, and the poets, between them, have superadded a beauty to the nightingale and a dignity to the eagle. But with these exceptions, every one of the popular birds lias, it seems to me, some ground of complaint.
To notice first those who suffer most from neglect—are there no lessons to be taught by the bustard, or the heron, or the osprey, or the stormy petrel ? or is there no “ soul of beauty” in the kingfisher, and the curlew, and the woodpecker, that the poets should avoid them? Surely the heron, as being solitary, would sometimes give more to a line than “stock-dove,” and the curlew, as sadly lamenting, more than “ the turtle.” Scott had heard the curlews scream, and Burns too, but (except Gilbert White) I would not be certain that any other poet beautifies a line with this bird's picturesque and suggestive name. Or, for wild proud freedom, what feathered thing have the British Isles ever had to compare with the bustard ? Yet, except as a course in Prior's dinner, I have not met with it among the bards. The coot, an ugly name, perhaps, is significant of sequestered water-ways and all the stillness of undisturbed pools-artists delight in it—but, except Scott and Burns, no poets use it. Or, as expressing all the spirit of the warm stillness of the summer evening, what is so vivid as the corncrake's name? Yet how often shall we find it outside of Scotch clover in the poems of Burns and Grahame? Or, as expressing the quiet gloom of the woodland in the moth-time, what more striking than the word " night-jar”? Yet only once in Gilbert White, a naturalist) do we find it, finely supplementing the worn-out old owl. Fortunately for the kingfisher, it is also “the halcyon," or it would have been as nameless as that fantastic dryad, the woodpecker, one of the most poetical of English birds. We have volumes about the obtrusive (and delightful) skylark, but barely a page about its peerless kinsman, the modest and exquisite wood-lark. It is the most beautiful songster that we can call English, and the one and only bird to whom the nightingale himself cannot give a note or presume to suggest a beauty. In short, without going further into the inquiry, I confess it very difficult to admit that “sensibility to natural beauty” is an essential for the production of poetry; and, while allowing that the possession of imagination may supersede in great part the necessity for observation ; that it emancipates the poet from many trammels ; that it often transfigures and beautifies the prosaic; that it does all this, and very much more,—I am reluctant to concede to the poets the prerogative of ignoring, or the privilege of misinterpreting, the suggestions of Nature. She sings too plainly and too truly to be misunderstood or improved upon.
Everybody in the British Isles knows “the lyric blackbird," and has at one time or another admired its “carol” as being “blithe,” and heard it “warble clear and strong.” But the poets, with that exceptional sympathy with Nature which they claim, might almost have been expected to express in their verse some larger measure of admiration than the vulgar thus easily attain to. They know it as a “summer bird,” and have observed it in the “ thorny brake," “ the woodland,” and“ the vale.” But is it not a spring and an autumn, and, above all, a winter bird too—thereby setting the vagrant nightingale an example ? And does it not beautify with its winning ways and rich song the orchard, and shrubbery, and lawn, as well as those wild places which the nightingale and other songsters haunt? Surely, from these divine resources the poets might have had a better word to say for this lovely bird, which flutes as exquisitely to the brick-and-mortar heart of London as to its own fragrant thicket; this pet of the poor, that may be heard shaking out its voice from the garret-window of a slum, like some evangelist from a happier life, until the impure air seems to lift from about its cage and the full-throated captive makes a clear blue sky above itself and calls up all the gracious pomp of the woodland round it. The blackbird is the very model of what a poet himself should be. Yet the poets, though consistent and kindly towards this bird, are commonplace and inadequate. Its name, “ the merle,” is itself a sweet symphony, and often helps the bards to a grace ; while every line borrows an echo of melody from the mere reference to its song.
With the thrush, also, most British poets are on intimate terms. This beautiful bird, however, seems to be too often only the other half of the blackbird, as it were-its counterfoil and complement. The blackbird throws a thrush shadow, and the mavis' song is chiefly admired as in antiphony to the merle's. But I am not at all sure that this relative subordination is fair to either individual. In nature, it is true,"blackbirds and thrushes” are very constantly together, and so far the poets are justified, but lovers of nature will as soon acquiesce in the immersion of the thrush in the blackbird, or vice versâ, as in the consumption of either as food. Was ever the sweet nightingale so wickedly abused as in Sardinia, where they use it as a pickle for thrushes !
Chanticleer! How the bards delight in "the princely bird,” “noblest of the feathered kind,” who, "single in his domain,” “lists shrill his lofty clarion " "to proclaim the crimson dawn”; who