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Art. 7.-THE ENGLISH' POEMS OF MAURICE HEWLETT.
1. The Song of the Plow. Being the English Chronicle. Heinemann, 1916.
2. The Village Wife's Lament. Secker, 1918.
3. Flowers in the Grass (Wiltshire Plainsong). Constable, 1920.
FOR many years narrative poetry in this country has been neglected for lyrical poetry, the best work of the present generation having taken quite naturally a lyric form for reasons which it would be interesting to ponder and very difficult to determine. One reason may be postulated, a reason founded in the movement and psychology of the time-that the burdens which oppress the minds of men have driven them into seeking means of escape; and hence there have been sudden aspirations and upleapings in which temporal bonds are broken or forgotten, and the imagination moves entranced in a world of its unique creation, knowing no music but that of its own voice and wings, and no constraint but that of loyalty to its own severe though uncodified law. The narrative tradition of English poetry died a lingering, certain death in the immense collection of Tennyson's verse, for Swinburne's narratives were but extravagant lyrics; and, when English poetry revived and spoke once more of obstinate questionings or questionings put by, the lyric form triumphed and narrative was reserved for the inferiorities of prose minds that hankered after verse. The sombre imaginations of Mr Thomas Hardy had for many many years found expression in prose narrative, but when the custom of prose gave place at length to the instinct of verse, it was not narrative but lyrical verse that became his best medium; for even the too-sardonic meditations and tart gibes-such as seem, in 'Satires of Circumstance,' to have little of the maturity and nothing of the serenity of art-do not fall into a patient discovery of incident and character, but are set forth nakedly as unrelated incidents. It is true that we have been asked to admire certain other brisk recitals of incident by other authors, but they are palpably inferior efforts and meant merely to please a
reader quickly tired by serious things. They hardly affect the suggestion now put forward which, in terms of scientific cacophony, may be stated as the neglect of the objective for the subjective, in the poetry of the present generation.
It is because the chief recent attempt at a narrative in verse has been overlooked that the reader is now asked to consider certain poems by Mr Maurice Hewlett; and it may seem strange to speak of any of Mr Hewlett's work as having been overlooked when it is remembered that he is one of the most widely welcomed of modern novelists, an essayist of a singular quality, and a poet whose verse on classical themes has commanded respect without winning a very prompt affection. But the very variety of interest is itself a possible hindrance to the appreciation of the rarest aspect of Mr Hewlett's genius. Other men have written admirable romances, others have achieved at least an equal intimacy in essays, and others again have recast ancient myths in modern shape; but it is Mr Hewlett's praise that he has done something better than his best in these forms. Nor is it a question of form alone, for the poems we are now to look at have another distinction; a distinction inherent in their subject and in the manner of presenting that subject to readers ready to welcome it, if only the true character and scope of the poems be recognised.
They are poems, then, of a completely English character, presenting their theme with the frankness and urgency of a gospel or a political tract, yet never wholly denying their imaginative origin. There is a great deal of poetry, from Chaucer's to Meredith's, in which the English landscape is rendered with imaginative fondness and fidelity; and no lover of the native country, or of native poetry, can fail to perceive in greater and lesser English poets alike-in Shakespeare and Pope, Keats and Marvell, Milton and Mr Bridges-not simply the affection but also the very features of the land itself, the special quality of hills and hedge-rows and streams and woods, which these poets have mysteriously evoked, renewed and re-inspired. How large a part the English landscape has taken in forming the English spirit, we who are naturally intimate with both cannot easily decide; but the long experience of the war, with its
memories of painful exile and reverting desire, has helped us to apprehend a little consciously, perhaps, the strength of this most ancient of affinities. Keats, when he wrote 'Endymion,' was unaware of any desire but the desire to approach or create beauty, his own passion turning quite simply to the simplest and subtlest observation of the beauty of woods and meadows; but in his relation of all that he thus discovered he achieved something beyond his own intention, creating an image of the physical and spiritual character of the English landscape as surely as did Constable in another medium, or any water-colourist of the great age. And Keats is but one of a score of instances, which it would be easy and delightful to recount, of the same imaginative loyalty. Iand creativeness.
Hitherto, however, there has been a singular deficiency in all this activity. The image thus reflected, or the landscape thus presented, has been strangely silent or solitary; it has been strangely unhistoried. Birds' voices are heard there but not men's; cattle are seen moving, but not labourers; spiritual visions sweep the hills, but visions of the human past have seldom been recorded. It is as though trees were more enduring than men, thoughts more significant than actions, dreams of the future more potent than continuous memories of the past. The physical character of their native landscape has entered deeply into the English poets, and their apprehension of it has become half mystical; until at length it might be said that their primary power is manifest in a lyrical meditation upon the beauty of the English country, and the imaginative exaltation of that beauty into a pure spiritual aura.
I do not suggest this as a fault but as a special feature of English poetry, and I pass on to another suggestionthat Mr Hewlett is the most eminent if not quite the only one of modern poets by whom this tradition has been broken, in his return to an older tradition. The Song of the Plow,' his longest and finest poem, does not lack the sudden lyricism of landscape beautifully rendered, but it is not to this that his powers are most freely given. He calls his poem the English chronicle, and himself suggests that his point of view is novel, showing it succinctly in the briefest of arguments':
'A certain man, being in bondage to a proud Conqueror, maintained his customs, nourisht his virtues, obeyed his tyrants, and at the end of a thousand years found himself worse off than he was in the beginning of his servitude. He then lifted his head, lookt his master in the face, and his chains fell off him.'
Expanding the argument, he points out that this country holds two classes of persons, a governing class and a governed class; and he sees these, indeed, not simply as separate classes but as separate nations. He does not mean this politically, but emphasises the distinction in saying that by race the governed are British, with a strong English mixture of blood, while the governing race is even yet preponderatingly LatinFrench with a Scandinavian admixture. All the apparatus and circumstance of government are still Norman.
Now his poem is a passionate historical survey of the subordinate people from the time of the conquest by the Norman race, which has never ceased to be foreign to the governed race; and his own point of view throughout is that of the subordinate multitude. Indeed, he humorously remarks that only a sense of decorum forbade his entitling 'The Song of the Plow' by a more literal title The Hodgiad.' But, although his hero is Hodge the conquered, he has shunned the merely pathetic interest which the simple annals of the poor might so easily sustain; and in this he is again distinguished from such another sincere poet as Crabbe, whose eye was all for the individual and not in the least for the general. It is a somewhat odd circumstance that this English chronicle of a subject race should not have been written by an unredeemed member of that race; but a high intelligence and knowledge, as well as instinctive sympathy, were needed for the task, and it is not unfitting that the assertion of the rights of the subject race should come from one who has enjoyed a larger freedom than theirs. Crabbe had not the imaginative view of the past which is essential to this task, and for all his sympathy (sympathy tinctured with satire and always narrowly sombre) he had little but pity for individual griefs and no sense at all of what his own time was beginning to term the rights of man. For us to-day his poetry survives less by its human
sympathy than by its power of presenting landscape, thus maintaining, if with a sharply individual difference, the tradition at which we have glanced. More precisely it is when his sad and savage landscape is used for the frame of saturnine characters-characters frequently presented with scientific coldness and acuteness-that his poetry makes its strongest appeal.
Mr Hewlett might have become another George Crabbe, another chronicler of village life, but for his nimbler spirit and larger sense of history; for his shorter narrative, 'The Village Wife's Lament,' shows that it is not because his mind is cold that the merely pathetic interest has been avoided in 'The Song of the Plow.' But pathos would have been an infelicity in a chronicle beginning:
'I sing the Man, I sing the Plow
a chronicle meant to show the passing years as they might have appeared to Hodge himself, misty and full of dim rumours, with occasional remote flashes of things in the doing.' It is not our author's purpose to exclude the greater things in the doing, or to speak as an apostate of the true glories of the English achievement; but all these are seen not through the eyes of king or cardinal or ambassador, but through the eyes of the humblest of subjects.
'I sing the grumbled low refrain,
The broken heartstrings' undertones.'
But you may not forget that it is a poet that speaks, one feeling Hodge's wrongs as his own while still remaining a poet; and hence this chronicle, which might have been unendurably desolate or unendurably dull, has the quality of poetry which alone may sweeten such a story with a touch of immortality.
'Yet in the village you might muse
As in days when his shrine was bright.