Page images

Still on his milestone, feeling the peace
Of the level evening light,
His stick between his gnarly knees,
Gaffer sits in hempen smock
With clear blue eyes for all he sees
’Neath craggy brows like weather'd rock:
Small white houses about a green,
Dust behind from a homing flock;
Ducks on the pond's edge nibble and preen
Their necks; in the great elm's heavy shade

A dim couple, the king and queen
Of life-to-come, young man, young maid.'

Constantly is the strictness of the narrative thus lyrically relieved, but the strictness of history is more closely observed. Readers will not want an assurance that Mr Hewlett knows a great deal of history; and his chronicle, though it is called a song, is quite truly a chronicle, beginning (after an exquisitely-stopped prelude) with the year 1066, stepping on the whole faithfully down to the end of the 19th century, and ending in a magnificent envoy of nearer and darker days. From Senlac to New Domesday the burden is the same, an undersong of oppression, labour, endurance and hope; the great events sweeping by like waves that draw the weedy depths all one way yet are themselves obscurely shapen by the unchanging obstacles beneath the surface. The events flow over-a succession of battles, ambitions, intrigues, laws and law-breakings; but, as they flow on, one giving place to another, the ancient figure of this epic narrative abides, slowly adding dignity to strength, consciousness to unconsciousness, voice to passion, and emerging at length, incompletely but recognisably, into the morning which this poet, if no other, looks upon with eyes teased equally by certitude and impatience.

The great vision unfolds, at first dusky and dubious, clung to with obstinate faith and at last proclaimed with the assurance of old prophecy; and it is this clear visionary quality above all that makes the chronicle a poem, the narrative a song. Whether the vision appears a radiance or a mockery now, the character of the poem is untouched; for that character is based, as every true vision and every true poem must be based, upon the spiritual apprehension of the poet. In 1916 it was easier



to share in the radiance than it is in 1921, when the mockery seems all that we know of hope; but the charge is to be made against the time, against its sickness and dismay, rather than against the heralds of ultimate strength and brightness. It is to be remembered, too, that this narrative is not dramatic, nor is it concerned with the uprising, in our modern sense, of mass against class. The hero is Hodge and not an indistinguishable multitude, the agricultural labourer and not the industrial serf or industrial dictator. Mr Hewlett's interest is in rural England far more than in the industrial state of which we are all alike suddenly shocked into great fear. He might conceivably join with Dean Inge in deploring the herding of men into cities, and their strangely willing subdual to a social regimen of their own or their masters' making ; but questions of this kind are not his anxiety. His affection is given, as regards the distant past and the present equally, to the men he knows—the rural workers whose fight is with the elements on one hand, and a far older foe than industrialism on the other.

Over all kings one king was supreme, Immortal hunger,' that drove Hodge forth on Saint Calixtus' day 1066, and every day after.


• What's to him this Dance of Death,
Or this young man that jigs for his lord,
Young Taillefer, as the tale saith
What's it to him how the flood veers,
Spilling on Senlac's bare ledge?
'Tis nine by the sun, as it appears,
Time for nuncheon under the hedge.
Loose your kerchief of bread and porret,
Sit you down and cut you a wedge.'


The Norman Dance of Death dies away, and Hodge has but changed his old lord for a new; the saints of Holy Church are unchanged, and the cbief of saints for work. day stuff'is eternal, the saint whom Mr Hewlett smilingly insists is good Saint Use-Use-and-Wont or Custom, kindly more than unkindly Saint as you are persuaded in the notes to this poem :

Holding to him these days of dread,
Hodge the bondman may work at ease



And munch at ease his leek and bread,
Let rime or flower be on the thorn
And English Harold alive or dead.'

It will be admitted that Mr Hewlett's is a cheerful eye; and, little as it may recommend a serious work to say so, he has easily avoided a carefully nourished gloom and would fain see both past and future in the simplest morning light. There is, in truth, in his work a real simplicity and candour of view, an honest disdain of making times and things appear worse than they are, and a steady refusal, in spite of all untowardness, to affect a philosophic despair which is not in his own nature.

Remarkable is the skill with which the plain facts of the text-books are expressed in the brief rhythms of Mr Hewlett's verse. The text-book, for all that it deals with human affairs, can be very dull, but this versechronicle never succeeds in being dull. It must be confessed that it is not always perfectly easy reading. Compression of incident, curtness of phrase, oddity of rhythm, archaistic vocabulary, rapidity of allusion, startling modernity of style—these are found sometimes here, sometimes there, and sometimes all together; and thus the reading becomes at times an excitement of the brain as much as an unloosening of the imagination. Mr Hewlett's highly individualised prose style is familiar to all readers-its swiftness, its masterful and whimsical energy, its staccato abruptness and often excessive emphasis—and now and then the worst as well as the best qualities of the prose are audible in the more sensitive medium of his verse. But his faults are casual and not constant. He escapes that most common of narrative defects, languor; and, even apart from the lyrical upsoarings already noted, there is the abundant reward of felicitous and vivid verse.

The precise form of that verse is, I believe, new in English poetry-the terza rima of Dante in Italian and of Shelley in English, abridged from a ten to an eightsyllable line, and written paragraphically (as blank verse must be written) rather than in the form of stanzas. It is a bold experiment, for hitherto there has not been a long English poem of high quality in terza rima; and,

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]



though others should fail to make good use of the form, Mr Hewlett has certainly justified the violence with which he has wrenched it to his own admirable purpose, and diminished the elegiac gravity into which the decasyllabic terza rima tends to fall in English hands. But of technique this is more than enough, all that might be remarked further being the rather curious fact that for the recital of the plain story of Hodge and his masters our author should have had recourse to a new arrangement of a foreign verse form, instead of relying, as he might so lightly have done, upon traditional English metres. I think his invention was a wise one, since it is a harmony of his own mind and since by its means he escapes the monotony which is apt to beset a long narrative poem.

I spoke a moment ago of the skill with which the plain facts of the text-books had been expressed in this quick and nervous verse; and there are certain facts, indeed, which in that verse assume a higher emotional quality than can well be suggested by the sober pacings of historians' prose. To take a ready instance, the calamity of the Black Death is conveyed in such prose passages as might dutifully attempt to sustain the horror which was felt in 1918 when the Registrar-General's statistics told the story of the influenza epidemic.

[ocr errors]

In the years which followed the battle of Crecy, England, in common with Europe in general, was visited by the appalling pestilence known as the Black Death. It appeared in England in 1347 and 1348, and recurred at intervals during the next twenty years. So terrible was the visitation that in the rural districts it may be estimated from the evidence that not less than one-third-perhaps a full half-of the population was swept away. The fields were left untilled, and there was a terrible scarcity of food.'

And the advantage of the poetic method is seen when the full consequence of the Black Death comes to be remarked, for in this chronicle it is the soul's as well as the body's weariness that urges the Peasants' Revolt, and a spiritual as well as a physical ease that follows the revolt.

As in the woodland after rain
The birds pipe a more liquid note,
So rising from his fever and pain

Tuneth good Hodge a mellower throat.' True that the method is inadequate when the story is of Houses and Monarchs, and regrettably inadequate when Elizabeth's whole reign, its immediate splendour and ultimate influence, are dismissed in a few lines with a few names; for Hodge too had his part, though Mr Hewlett believes that

[ocr errors]

"Hodge knew you not, nor guessed the alarms
That flew about your island hold;
He had his griefs for his own harms,
Left to the penury and cold

Of lessening wages, stinted room.' It is our author himself who is stinting room here, but it is only fair to remember nevertheless that it is the peasant and not the prince that is his hero. In justification of an equally cursory treatment of the Stuarts and the Protector he is able to plead, in his admirable notes, the obliteration of the peasant during that anarchic time; but the reader may be excused for thinking that there is something too summary in the mere curt recapitulation, for example, of a few facts of Charles the Second's reign, and a characterisation so formal as that of the Wastrel' whose heart was as fond, untrue and vile as even a Stuart's can be.' The entire period from the death of Elizabeth to the accession of George the Third is compressed within six hundred lines, and no skill in contraction can make the result an adequate relation. The Revolution, for instance, had an inevitable influence upon social conditions, for it was in every sense a revolution and left nothing untouched by its deep-moving wave. What is lost by Mr Hewlett's excessive concision, in fact, is the sense of continuity in change, even the sense of change itself; and, although this may be less a part of history than of what is loosely called the philosophy of history, it is a part which the chronicler cannot fairly ignore. Mr Hewlett contents himself with observing of Dutch William that he died "and left us where we stood rigid in constitutional bars.' Even less is vouchsafed of Queen Anne, and no word of

« PreviousContinue »