Read CHAPTER XII - PRAED of Essays in English Literature‚ 1780-1860 , free online book, by George Saintsbury, on

It was not till half a century after his death that Praed, who is loved by those who love him perhaps as sincerely as most greater writers, had his works presented to the public in a form which may be called complete. This is of itself rather a cautious statement in appearance, but I am not sure that it ought not to be made more cautious still.  The completeness is not complete, though it is in one respect rather more than complete; and the form is exceedingly informal.  Neither in size, nor in print, nor in character of editing and arrangement do the two little fat volumes which were ushered into the world by Derwent Coleridge in 1864, and the one little thin volume which appeared in 1887 under Sir George Young’s name with no notes and not much introduction, and the very creditable edition of the political poems which appeared a year later under the same care but better cared for, agree together.  But this, though a nuisance to those who love not a set of odd volumes, would matter comparatively little if the discrepancies were not equally great in a much more important matter than that of mere externals.  Only the last of the four volumes and three books just enumerated can be said to have been really edited, and though that is edited very well, it is the least important.  Sir George Young, who has thus done a pious work to his uncle’s memory, was concerned not merely in the previous cheap issue of the prose, but in the more elaborate issue of the poems in 1864.  But either his green unknowing youth did not at that time know what editing meant, or he was under the restraint of some higher powers.  Except that the issue of 1864 has that well-known page-look of “Moxon’s,” which is identified to all lovers of poetry with associations of Shelley, of Lord Tennyson, and of other masters, and that the pieces are duly dated, it is difficult to say any good thing of the book.  There are no notes; and Praed is an author who is much in need of annotation.  With singular injudiciousness, a great deal of album and other verse is included which was evidently not intended for publication, which does not display the writer at his best, or even in his characteristic vein at all, while the memoir is meagre in fact and decidedly feeble in criticism.  As for the prose, though Sir George Young has prefixed an introduction good as far as it goes, there is no index, no table even of contents, and the separate papers are not dated, nor is any indication given of their origin ­a defect which, for reasons to be indicated shortly, is especially troublesome in Praed’s case.  Accordingly anything like a critical study of the poet is beset with very unusual difficulties, and the mere reading of him, if it were less agreeable in itself, could not be said to be exactly easy.  Luckily Praed is a writer so eminently engaging to the mere reader, as well as so interesting in divers ways to the personage whom some one has politely called “the gelid critic,” that no sins or shortcomings of his editors can do him much harm, so long as they let him be read at all.

Winthrop Mackworth was the third son of Serjeant Praed, Chairman of the Board of Audit, and, though his family was both by extraction and by actual seat Devonian, he was born in John Street, Bedford Row, on 26th June 1802, the year of the birth of Victor Hugo, who was perhaps about as unlike Praed in every conceivable point, except metrical mastery, as two men possessing poetic faculty can be unlike one another.  John Street may not appear as meet a nurse for a poetic child as Besancon, especially now when it has settled down into the usual office-and-chambers state of Bloomsbury.  But it is unusually wide for a London street; it has trees ­those of the Foundling Hospital and those of Gray’s Inn ­at either end, and all about it cluster memories of the Bedford Row conspiracy, and of that immortal dinner which was given by the Briefless One and his timid partner to Mr. Goldmore, and of Sydney Smith’s sojourn in Doughty Street, and of divers other pleasant things.  In connection, however, with Praed himself, we do not hear much more of John Street.  It was soon exchanged for the more cheerful locality of Teignmouth, where his father (who was a member of the old western family of Mackworth, Praed being an added surname) had a country house.  Serjeant Praed encouraged, if he did not positively teach, the boy to write English verse at a very early age:  a practice which I should be rather slow to approve, but which has been credited, perhaps justly, with the very remarkable formal accuracy and metrical ease of Praed’s after-work.  Winthrop lost his mother early, was sent to a private school at eight years old, and to Eton in the year 1814.  Public schools in their effect of allegiance on public schoolboys have counted for much in English history, literary and other, and Eton has counted for more than any of them.  But hardly in any case has it counted for so much with the general reader as in Praed’s.  A friend of mine, who, while entertaining high and lofty views on principle, takes low ones by a kind of natural attraction, says that the straightforward title of The Etonian and Praed’s connection with it are enough to account for this.  There you have a cardinal fact easy to seize and easy to remember.  “Praed?  Oh! yes, the man who wrote The Etonian; he must have been an Eton man,” says the general reader.  This is cynicism, and cannot be too strongly reprehended.  But unluckily, as in other cases, a kind of critical deduction or reaction from this view has also taken place, and there are persons who maintain that Praed’s merit is a kind of coterie-merit, a thing which Eton men are bound, and others are not bound but the reverse, to uphold.  This is an old, but apparently still effective trick.  I read not long ago a somewhat elaborate attempt to make out that the people who admire Mr. Matthew Arnold’s poems admire them because they, the people, are Oxford men.  Now this form of “ruling out” is undoubtedly ingenious.  “You admire Mr. Arnold’s poems?” ­“Yes, I do.” ­“You are an Oxford man?” ­“Yes, I am.” ­“Ah!  I see.”  And it is perfectly useless for the victim to argue that his admiration of the poet and his allegiance to the University have nothing to do with each other.  In the present case I, at least, am free from this illogical but damaging disqualification.  I do not think that any one living admires Praed more than I do; and neither Eton nor Cambridge, which may be said to have divided influence on him, claims any allegiance from me.  On Praed himself, however, the influence of Eton was certainly great, if not of the greatest.  Here he began in school periodicals ("Apis Matina” a bee buzzing in manuscript only, preceded The Etonian) his prose and, to some though a less extent, his verse-exercises in finished literature.  Here he made the beginnings of that circle of friends (afterwards slightly enlarged at Cambridge by the addition of non-Etonians and including one or two Oxford men who had been at Eton) which practically formed the staff of The Etonian itself and of the subsequent Knight’s Quarterly and Brazen Head.  The greatest of them all, Macaulay, belonged to the later Trinity set; but the Etonians proper included divers men of mark.  There has been, I believe, a frequent idea that boys who contribute to school-magazines never do anything else.  Praed certainly could not be produced as an instance.  He was not a great athlete, partly because his health was always weak, partly because athletics were then in their infancy.  But he is said to have been a good player at fives and tennis, an amateur actor of merit, expert at chess and whist, and latterly a debater of promise, while, in the well-known way of his own school and University, he was more than a sufficient scholar.  He went to Trinity in October 1821, and in the three following years won the Browne Medals for Greek verse four times and the Chancellor’s Medal for English verse twice.  He was third in the Classical Tripos, was elected to a Fellowship at his college in 1827, and in 1830 obtained the Seatonian Prize with a piece, “The Ascent of Elijah,” which is remarkable for the extraordinary facility with which it catches the notes of the just published Christian Year.  He was a great speaker at the Union, and, as has been hinted, he made a fresh circle of literary friends for himself, the chief ornaments whereof were Macaulay and Charles Austin.  It was also during his sojourn at Cambridge that the short-lived but brilliant venture of Knight’s Quarterly was launched.  He was about four years resident at Trinity in the first instance; after which, according to a practice then common enough but now, I believe, obsolete, he returned to Eton as private and particular tutor to Lord Ernest Bruce.  This employment kept him for two years.  He then read law, was called to the Bar in 1829, and in 1830 was elected to Parliament for the moribund borough of St. Germans.  He was re-elected next year, contested St. Ives, when St. Germans lost its members, but was beaten, was elected in 1834 for Great Yarmouth, and in 1837 for Aylesbury, which last seat he held to his death.  During the whole of this time he sat as a Conservative, becoming a more thorough one as time went on; and as he had been at Cambridge a very decided Whig, and had before his actual entrance on public life written many pointed and some bitter lampoons against the Tories, the change, in the language of his amiable and partial friend and biographer, “occasioned considerable surprise.”  Of this also more presently:  for it is well to get merely biographical details over with as little digression as possible.  Surprise or no surprise, he won good opinions from both sides, acquired considerable reputation as a debater and a man of business, was in the confidence both of the Duke of Wellington and of Sir Robert Peel, was made Secretary of the Board of Control in 1834, married in 1835, was appointed Deputy-High Steward of his University (a mysterious appointment, of the duties of which I have no notion), and died of disease of the lungs on 15th July 1839.  Not very much has been published about Praed personally; but in what has been published, and in what I have heard, I cannot remember a single unfriendly sentence.

Notwithstanding his reputation as an “inspired schoolboy,” I do not know that sober criticism would call him a really precocious writer, especially in verse.  The pieces by which he is best known and which have most individuality, date in no case very early, and in almost all cases after his five-and-twentieth year.  What does date very early (and unluckily it has been printed with a copiousness betokening more affection than judgment, considering that the author had more sense than to print it at all) is scarcely distinguishable from any other verses of any other clever boy.  It is impossible to augur any future excellence from such stuff as

    Emilia often sheds the tear       But affectation bids it flow,

or as

    From breasts which feel compassion’s glow       Solicit mild the kind relief;

and, for one’s own part, one is inclined to solicit mild the kind relief of not having to read it.  Even when Praed had become, at least technically, a man, there is no very great improvement as a whole, though here and there one may see, looking backwards from the finished examples, faint beginnings of his peculiar touches, especially of that pleasant trick of repeating the same word or phrase with a different and slightly altered sense which, as Mr. Austin Dobson has suggested, may have been taken from Burns.  The Cambridge prize poems are quite authentic and respectable examples of that style which has received its final criticism in

    Ply battleaxe and hurtling catapult:      Jerusalem is ours! Id Deus vult, ­

though they do not contain anything so nice as that, or as its great author’s more famous couplet respecting Africa and the men thereof.  The longer romances of the same date, “Gog,” “Lilian,” “The Troubadour,” are little more than clever reminiscences sometimes of Scott, Byron, Moore, and other contemporaries, sometimes of Prior and the vers de société of the eighteenth century.  The best passage by far of all this is the close of “How to Rhyme with Love,” and this, as it seems to me, is the only passage of even moderate length which, in the poems dating before Praed took his degree, in the least foretells the poet of “The Red Fisherman,” “The Vicar,” the “Letters from Teignmouth,” the “Fourteenth of February” (earliest in date and not least charming fruit of the true vein), “Good-night to the Season,” and best and most delightful of all, the peerless “Letter of Advice,” which is as much the very best thing of its own kind as the “Divine Comedy.”

In prose Praed was a little earlier, but not very much. The Etonian itself was, even in its earliest numbers, written at an age when many, perhaps most, men have already left school; and the earlier numbers are as imitative, of the Spectator and its late and now little read followers of the eighteenth century, as is the verse above quoted.  The youthful boisterousness of Blackwood gave Praed a more congenial because a fresher cue; and in the style of which Maginn, as Adjutant O’Doherty, had set the example in his Latinisings of popular verse, and which was to be worked to death by Father Prout, there are few things better than the “Musae O’Connorianae” which celebrates the great fight of Mac Nevis and Mac Twolter.  But there is here still the distinct following of a model the taint of the school-exercise.  Very much more original is “The Knight and the Knave:”  indeed I should call this the first original thing, though it be a parody, that Praed did.  To say that it reminds one in more than subject of Rebecca and Rowena, and that it was written some twenty years earlier, is to say a very great deal.  Even here, however, the writer’s ground is rented, not freehold.  It is very different in such papers as “Old Boots” and “The Country Curate,” while in the later prose contributed to Knight’s Quarterly the improvement in originality is marked.  “The Union Club” is amusing enough all through:  but considering that it was written in 1823, two years before Jeffrey asked the author of a certain essay on Milton “where he got that style,” one passage of the speech put in the mouth of Macaulay is positively startling.  “The Best Bat in the School” is quite delightful, and “My First Folly,” though very unequal, contains in the introduction scene, between Vyvian Joyeuse and Margaret Orleans, a specimen of a kind of dialogue nowhere to be found before, so far as I know, and giving proof that, if Praed had set himself to it, he might have started a new kind of novel.

It does not appear, however, that his fancy led him with any decided bent to prose composition, and he very early deserted it for verse; though he is said to have, at a comparatively late period of his short life, worked in harness as a regular leader-writer for the Morning Post during more than a year.  No examples of this work of his have been reprinted, nor, so far as I know, does any means of identifying them exist, though I personally should like to examine them.  He was still at Cambridge when he drifted into another channel, which was still not his own channel, but in which he feathered his oars under two different flags with no small skill and dexterity.  Sir George Young has a very high idea of his uncle’s political verse, and places him “first among English writers, before Prior, before Canning, before the authors of the ‘Rolliad,’ and far before Moore or any of the still anonymous contributors to the later London press.”  I cannot subscribe to this.  Neither as Whig nor as Tory, neither as satirist of George the Fourth nor as satirist of the Reform Bill, does Praed seem to me to have been within a hundred miles of that elder schoolfellow of his who wrote

    All creeping creatures, venomous and low,     Still blasphemous or blackguard, praise Lepaux.

He has nothing for sustained wit and ease equal to the best pieces of the “Fudge Family” and the “Two-penny Postbag”; and (for I do not know why one should not praise a man because he happens to be alive and one’s friend) I do not think he has the touch of the true political satirist as Mr. Traill has it in “Professor Baloonatics Craniocracs,” or in that admirable satire on democracy which is addressed to the “Philosopher Crazed, from the Island of Crazes.”

Indeed, by mentioning Prior, Sir George seems to put himself rather out of court.  Praed is very nearly if not quite Prior’s equal, but the sphere of neither was politics.  Prior’s political pieces are thin and poor beside his social verse, and with rare exceptions I could not put anything political of Praed’s higher than the shoe-string of “Araminta.”  Neither of these two charming poets seems to have felt seriously enough for political satire.  Matthew, we know, played the traitor; and though Mackworth ratted to my own side, I fear it must be confessed that he did rat.  I can only discover in his political verse two fixed principles, both of which no doubt did him credit, but which hardly, even when taken together, amount to a sufficient political creed.  The one was fidelity to Canning and his memory:  the other was impatience of the cant of the reformers.  He could make admirable fun of Joseph Hume, and of still smaller fry like Waithman; he could attack Lord Grey’s nepotism and doctrinairism fiercely enough.  Once or twice, or, to be fair, more than once or twice, he struck out a happy, indeed a brilliant flash.  He was admirable at what Sir George Young calls, justly enough, “political patter songs” such as,

    Young widowhood shall lose its weeds,       Old kings shall loathe the Tories,     And monks be tired of telling beads,       And Blues of telling stories;     And titled suitors shall be crossed,       And famished poets married,     And Canning’s motion shall be lost,       And Hume’s amendment carried;     And Chancery shall cease to doubt,       And Algebra to prove,     And hoops come in, and gas go out       Before I cease to love.

He hit off an exceedingly savage and certainly not wholly just “Epitaph on the King of the Sandwich Islands” which puts the conception of George the Fourth that Thackeray afterwards made popular, and contains these felicitous lines: 

    The people in his happy reign,       Were blessed beyond all other nations:      Unharmed by foreign axe and chain,       Unhealed by civic innovations;     They served the usual logs and stones,       With all the usual rites and terrors,     And swallowed all their fathers’ bones,       And swallowed all their fathers’ errors.

    When the fierce mob, with clubs and knives,       All swore that nothing should prevent them,     But that their representatives       Should actually represent them,     He interposed the proper checks,       By sending troops, with drums and banners,     To cut their speeches short, and necks,       And break their heads, to mend their manners.

Occasionally in a sort of middle vein between politics and society he wrote in the “patter” style just noticed quite admirable things like “Twenty-eight and Twenty-nine.”  Throughout the great debates on Reform he rallied the reformers with the same complete and apparently useless superiority of wit and sense which has often, if not invariably, been shown at similar crises on the losing side.  And once, on an ever-memorable occasion, he broke into those famous and most touching “Stanzas on seeing the Speaker Asleep” which affect one almost to tears by their grace of form and by the perennial and indeed ever-increasing applicability of their matter.

    Sleep, Mr. Speaker:  it’s surely fair,     If you don’t in your bed, that you should in your chair:      Longer and longer still they grow,     Tory and Radical, Aye and No;     Talking by night and talking by day;     Sleep, Mr. Speaker; sleep, sleep while you may.

    Sleep, Mr. Speaker:  slumber lies     Light and brief on a Speaker’s eyes ­     Fielden or Finn, in a minute or two,     Some disorderly thing will do;     Riot will chase repose away;     Sleep, Mr. Speaker; sleep, sleep while you may.

    Sleep, Mr. Speaker; Cobbett will soon     Move to abolish the sun and moon;     Hume, no doubt, will be taking the sense     Of the House on a saving of thirteen-pence;     Grattan will growl or Baldwin bray;     Sleep, Mr. Speaker; sleep, sleep while you may.

    Sleep, Mr. Speaker:  dream of the time     When loyalty was not quite a crime,     When Grant was a pupil in Canning’s school,     And Palmerston fancied Wood a fool.      Lord, how principles pass away!      Sleep, Mr. Speaker; sleep, sleep while you may.

    Sleep, Mr. Speaker; sweet to men     Is the sleep that comes but now and then;     Sweet to the sorrowful, sweet to the ill,     Sweet to the children who work in a mill.      You have more need of sleep than they,     Sleep, Mr. Speaker; sleep, sleep while you may.

But the chief merit of Praed’s political verse as a whole seems to me to be that it kept his hand in, and enabled him to develop and refine the trick, above referred to, of playing on words so as to give a graceful turn to verse composed in his true vocation.

Of the verse so composed there are more kinds than one; though perhaps only in two kinds is the author absolutely at his best.  There is first a certain class of pieces which strongly recall Macaulay’s “Lays” and may have had some connexion of origin with them.  Of course those who are foolish enough to affect to see nothing good in “The Battle of the Lake Regillus,” or “Ivry,” or “The Armada,” will not like “Cassandra,” or “Sir Nicholas at Marston Moor,” or the “Covenanter’s Lament for Bothwell Brigg,” or “Arminius.”  Nevertheless they are fine in their way.  “Arminius” is too long, and it suffers from the obvious comparison with Cowper’s far finer “Boadicea.”  But its best lines, such as the well-known

    I curse him by our country’s gods,       The terrible, the dark,     The scatterers of the Roman rods,       The quellers of the bark,

are excellent in the style, and “Sir Nicholas” is charming.  But not here either did Apollo seriously wait for Praed.  The later romances or tales are far better than the earlier.  “The Legend of the Haunted Tree” shows in full swing that happy compound and contrast of sentiment and humour in which the writer excelled.  And “The Teufelhaus” is, except “The Red Fisherman” perhaps, the best thing of its kind in English.  These lines are good enough for anything: 

    But little he cared, that stripling pale,     For the sinking sun or the rising gale;     For he, as he rode, was dreaming now,     Poor youth, of a woman’s broken vow,     Of the cup dashed down, ere the wine was tasted,     Of eloquent speeches sadly wasted,     Of a gallant heart all burnt to ashes,     And the Baron of Katzberg’s long moustaches.

And these: 

    Swift as the rush of an eagle’s wing,     Or the flight of a shaft from Tartar string,     Into the wood Sir Rudolph went:      Not with more joy the schoolboys run     To the gay green fields when their task is done;     Not with more haste the members fly,     When Hume has caught the Speaker’s eye.

But in “The Red Fisherman” itself there is nothing that is not good.  It is very short, ten small pages only of some five-and-twenty lines each.  But there is not a weak place in it from the moment when “the Abbot arose and closed his book” to the account of his lamentable and yet lucky fate and punishment whereof “none but he and the fisherman could tell the reason why.”  Neither of the two other practitioners who may be called the masters of this style, Hood and Barham, nor Praed himself elsewhere, nor any of his and their imitators has trodden the breadthless line between real terror and mere burlesque with so steady a foot.

Still not here was his “farthest,” as the geographers say, nor in the considerable mass of smaller poems which practically defy classification.  In them, as so often elsewhere in Praed, one comes across odd notes, stray flashes of genius which he never seems to have cared to combine or follow out, such as the unwontedly solemn “Time’s Song,” the best wholly serious thing that he has done, and the charming “L’Inconnue.”  But we find the perfect Praed, and we find him only, in the verses of society proper, the second part of the “Poems of Life and Manners” as they are headed, which began, as far as one can make out, to be written about 1826, and the gift of which Praed never lost, though he practised it little in the very last years of his life.  Here, in a hundred pages, with a few to be added from elsewhere, are to be found some of the best-bred and best-natured verse within the English language, some of the most original and remarkable metrical experiments, a profusion of the liveliest fancy, a rush of the gayest rhyme.  They begin with “The Vicar,” vir nulla non donandus lauru.

    [Whose] talk was like a stream, which runs       With rapid change from rocks to roses:      It slipped from politics to puns,       It passed from Mahomet to Moses;     Beginning with the laws which keep       The planets in their radiant courses,     And ending with some precept deep       For dressing eels, or shoeing horses.

Three of the Vicar’s companion “Everyday Characters” are good, but I think not so good as he; the fifth piece, however, “The Portrait of a Lady,” is quite his equal.

    You’ll be forgotten ­as old debts       By persons who are used to borrow;     Forgotten ­as the sun that sets,       When shines a new one on the morrow;     Forgotten ­like the luscious peach       That blessed the schoolboy last September;     Forgotten ­like a maiden speech,       Which all men praise, but none remember.

    Yet ere you sink into the stream       That whelms alike sage, saint, and martyr,     And soldier’s sword, and minstrel’s theme,       And Canning’s wit, and Gatton’s charter,     Here, of the fortunes of your youth,       My fancy weaves her dim conjectures,     Which have, perhaps, as much of truth       As passion’s vows, or Cobbett’s lectures.

Here, and perhaps here first, at least in the order of the published poems, appears that curious mixture of pathos and quizzing, sentiment and satire, which has never been mastered more fully or communicated more happily than by Praed.  But not even yet do we meet with it in its happiest form:  nor is that form to be found in “Josephine” which is much better in substance than in manner, or in the half-social, half-political patter of “The Brazen Head,” or in “Twenty-eight and Twenty-nine.”  It sounds first in the “Song for the Fourteenth of February.”  No one, so far as I know, has traced any exact original for the altogether admirable metre which, improved and glorified later in “The Letter of Advice,” appears first in lighter matter still like this: 

    Shall I kneel to a Sylvia or Celia,       Whom no one e’er saw, or may see,     A fancy-drawn Laura Amelia,       An ad libit Anna Marie?      Shall I court an initial with stars to it,       Go mad for a G. or a J.,     Get Bishop to put a few bars to it,     And print it on Valentine’s Day?

But every competent critic has seen in it the origin of the more gorgeous and full-mouthed, if not more accomplished and dexterous, rhythm in which Mr. Swinburne has written “Dolores,” and the even more masterly dedication of the first “Poems and Ballads.”  The shortening of the last line which the later poet has introduced is a touch of genius, but not perhaps greater than Praed’s own recognition of the extraordinarily vivid and ringing qualities of the stanza.  I profoundly believe that metrical quality is, other things being tolerably equal, the great secret of the enduring attraction of verse:  and nowhere, not in the greatest lyrics, is that quality more unmistakable than in the “Letter of Advice.”  I really do not know how many times I have read it; but I never can read it to this day without being forced to read it out loud like a schoolboy and mark with accompaniment of hand-beat such lines as

Remember the thrilling romances We read on the bank in the glen:  Remember the suitors our fancies Would picture for both of us then.  They wore the red cross on their shoulder, They had vanquished and pardoned their foe ­ Sweet friend, are you wiser or colder?  My own Araminta, say “No!”

. . . . .

He must walk ­like a god of old story Come down from the home of his rest; He must smile ­like the sun in his glory, On the buds he loves ever the best; And oh! from its ivory portal Like music his soft speech must flow!  If he speak, smile, or walk like a mortal, My own Araminta, say “No!”

There are, metrically speaking, few finer couplets in English than the first of that second stanza.  Looked at from another point of view, the mixture of the comic and the serious in the piece is remarkable enough; but not so remarkable, I think, as its extraordinary metrical accomplishment.  There is not a note or a syllable wrong in the whole thing, but every sound and every cadence comes exactly where it ought to come, so as to be, in a delightful phrase of Southey’s, “necessary and voluptuous and right.”

It is no wonder that when Praed had discovered such a medium he should have worked it freely.  But he never impressed on it such a combination of majesty and grace as in this letter of Medora Trevilian.  As far as the metre goes I think the eight-lined stanzas of this piece better suited to it than the twelve-lined ones of “Good Night to the Season” and the first “Letter from Teignmouth,” but both are very delightful.  Perhaps the first is the best known of all Praed’s poems, and certainly some things in it, such as

    The ice of her ladyship’s manners,     The ice of his lordship’s champagne,

are among the most quoted.  But this antithetical trick, of which Praed was so fond, is repeated a little often in it; and it seems to me to lack the freshness as well as the fire of the “Advice.”  On the other hand, the “Letter from Teignmouth” is the best thing that even Praed has ever done for combined grace and tenderness.

    You once could be pleased with our ballads ­       To-day you have critical ears;     You once could be charmed with our salads ­       Alas! you’ve been dining with Peers;     You trifled and flirted with many ­       You’ve forgotten the when and the how;     There was one you liked better than any ­       Perhaps you’ve forgotten her now.      But of those you remember most newly,       Of those who delight or enthral,     None love you a quarter so truly       As some you will find at our Ball.

    They tell me you’ve many who flatter,       Because of your wit and your song:      They tell me ­and what does it matter? ­       You like to be praised by the throng:      They tell me you’re shadowed with laurel:        They tell me you’re loved by a Blue:      They tell me you’re sadly immoral ­       Dear Clarence, that cannot be true!      But to me, you are still what I found you,       Before you grew clever and tall;     And you’ll think of the spell that once bound you;       And you’ll come ­won’t you come? ­to our Ball!

Is not that perfectly charming?

It is perhaps a matter of mere taste whether it is or is not more charming than pieces like “School and Schoolfellows” (the best of Praed’s purely Eton poems) and “Marriage Chimes,” in which, if not Eton, the Etonian set also comes in.  If I like these latter pieces less, it is not so much because of their more personal and less universal subjects as because their style is much less individual.  The resemblance to Hood cannot be missed, and though I believe there is some dispute as to which of the two poets actually hit upon the particular style first, there can be little doubt that Hood attained to the greater excellence in it.  The real sense and savingness of that doctrine of the “principal and most excellent things,” which has sometimes been preached rather corruptly and narrowly, is that the best things that a man does are those that he does best.  Now though

    I wondered what they meant by stock,       I wrote delightful Sapphics,


    With no hard work but Bovney stream,       No chill except Long Morning,

are very nice things, I do not think they are so good in their kind as the other things that I have quoted; and this, though the poem contains the following wholly delightful stanza in the style of the “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Clapham Academy”: 

    Tom Mill was used to blacken eyes       Without the fear of sessions;     Charles Medlar loathed false quantities       As much as false professions;     Now Mill keeps order in the land,       A magistrate pedantic;     And Medlar’s feet repose unscanned       Beneath the wide Atlantic.

The same may even be said of “Utopia,” a much-praised, often-quoted, and certainly very amusing poem, of “I’m not a Lover now,” and of others, which are also, though less exactly, in Hood’s manner.  To attempt to distinguish between that manner and the manner which is Praed’s own is a rather perilous attempt; and the people who hate all attempts at reducing criticism to principle, and who think that a critic should only say clever things about his subject, will of course dislike me for it.  But that I cannot help.  I should say then that Hood had the advantage of Praed in purely serious poetry; for Araminta’s bard never did anything at all approaching “The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies,” “The Haunted House,” or a score of other things.  He had also the advantage in pure broad humour.  But where Praed excelled was in the mixed style, not of sharp contrast as in Hood’s “Lay of the Desert Born” and “Demon Ship,” where from real pity and real terror the reader suddenly stumbles into pure burlesque, but of wholly blended and tempered humour and pathos.  It is this mixed style in which I think his note is to be found as it is to be found in no other poet, and as it could hardly be found in any but one with Praed’s peculiar talent and temper combined with his peculiar advantages of education, fortune, and social atmosphere.  He never had to “pump out sheets of fun” on a sick-bed for the printer’s devil, like his less well-fated but assuredly not less well-gifted rival; and as his scholarship was exactly of the kind to refine, temper, and adjust his literary manner, so his society and circumstances were exactly of the kind to repress, or at least not to encourage, exuberance or boisterousness in his literary matter.  There are I believe who call him trivial, even frivolous; and if this be done sincerely by any careful readers of “The Red Fisherman” and the “Letter of Advice” I fear I must peremptorily disable their judgment.  But this appearance of levity is in great part due exactly to the perfect modulation and adjustment of his various notes.  He never shrieks or guffaws:  there is no horse-play in him, just as there is no tearing a passion to tatters.  His slight mannerisms, more than once referred to, rarely exceed what is justified by good literary manners.  His points are very often so delicate, so little insisted on or underlined, that a careless reader may miss them altogether; his “questionings” are so little “obstinate” that a careless reader may think them empty.

    Will it come with a rose or a brier?        Will it come with a blessing or curse?      Will its bonnets be lower or higher?        Will its morals be better or worse?

The author of this perhaps seems to some a mere jesting Pilate, and if he does, they are quite right not to even try to like him.

I have seen disdainful remarks on those critics who, however warily, admire a considerable number of authors, as though they were coarse and omnivorous persons, unfit to rank with the delicates who can only relish one or two things in literature.  But this is a foolish mistake.  “One to one” is not “cursedly confined” in the relation of book and reader; and a man need not be a Don Juan of letters to have a list of almost mille e tre loves in that department.  He must indeed love the best or those among the best only, in the almost innumerable kinds, which is not a very severe restriction.  And Praed is of this so fortunately numerous company.  I do not agree with those who lament his early death on the ground of its depriving literature or politics of his future greatness.  In politics he would most probably not have become anything greater than an industrious and respectable official; and in letters his best work was pretty certainly done.  For it was a work that could only be done in youth.  In his scholarly but not frigidly correct form, in his irregular sallies and flashes of a genius really individual as far as it went but never perhaps likely to go much farther, in the freshness of his imitations, in the imperfection of his originalities, Praed was the most perfect representative we have had or ever are likely to have of what has been called, with a perhaps reprehensible parody on great words, “the eternal undergraduate within us, who rejoices before life.”  He is thus at the very antipodes of Wertherism and Byronism, a light but gallant champion of cheerfulness and the joy of living.  Although there is about him absolutely nothing artificial ­the curse of the lighter poetry as a rule ­and though he attains to deep pathos now and then, and once or twice (notably in “The Red Fisherman”) to a kind of grim earnestness, neither of these things is his real forte.  Playing with literature and with life, not frivolously or without heart, but with no very deep cares and no very passionate feeling, is Praed’s attitude whenever he is at his best.  And he does not play at playing as many writers do:  it is all perfectly genuine.  Even Prior has not excelled such lines as these in one of his early and by no means his best poems (an adaptation too), for mingled jest and earnest ­

    But Isabel, by accident,       Was wandering by that minute;     She opened that dark monument       And found her slave within it;     The clergy said the Mass in vain,       The College could not save me:      But life, she swears, returned again       With the first kiss she gave me.

Hardly, if at all, could he have kept up this attitude towards life after he had come to forty year; and he might have become either a merely intelligent and respectable person, which is most probable, or an elderly youth, which is of all things most detestable, or a caterwauler, or a cynic, or a preacher.  From all these fates the gods mercifully saved him, and he abides with us (the presentation being but slightly marred by the injudicious prodigality of his editors) only as the poet of Medora’s musical despair lest Araminta should derogate, of the Abbot’s nightmare sufferings at the hands of the Red Fisherman, of the plaintive appeal after much lively gossip ­

    And you’ll come ­won’t you come? ­to our Ball,

of all the pleasures, and the jests, and the tastes, and the studies, and the woes, provided only they are healthy and manly, of Twenty-five.  Unhappy is the person of whom it can be said that he neither has been, is, nor ever will be in the temper and circumstances of which Praed’s verse is the exact and consummate expression; not much less unhappy he for whom that verse does not perform the best perhaps of all the offices of literature, and call up, it may be in happier guise than that in which they once really existed, the many beloved shadows of the past.