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HEROINES OF MODERN
Heureuse la Beauté que le poete adore!
Heureux le nom qu'il a chanté !-DE LAMARTINE. It will be allowed, I think, that women have reason to be satisfied with the rank they hold in modern poetry; and that the homage which has been addressed to them, either directly and individually, or paid indirectly and generally, in the beautiful characters and portraits drawn of them, ought to satisfy equally female sentiment and female vanity. From the half ethereal forms which float amid moonbeams and gems, and odours and flowers, along the dazzling pages of Lalla Rookh, down to Phæbe Dawson, in the Parish Register :* from that loveliest gem of polished life, the young Aurora of Lord Byron, down to Wordsworth's poor Margaret weeping in her deserted cottage;t all the various aspects between these wide extremes of character and situation, under which we have been exhibited, have been, with few exceptions, just and favourable to our sex.
In the literature of the classical ages, we were debased into mere servants of pleasure, alternately the objects of loose incense or coarse invective. In the poetry of the Gothic ages, we all rank as queens. In the succeeding period, when the platonic philosophy was oddly mixed up with the institutions of chivalry, we were exalted into divinities;—"angels called, and angel-like adored." Then followed the age of French gallantry, tinged with classical elegance, and tainted with classical license, when we were caressed, complimented, wooed and satirized by coxcomb poets,
* Crabbe's Poems.
+ See the Excursion.
Who ever mix'd their song with light licentious toys. There was much expenditure of wit and of talent, but in an ill cause ;-for the feeling was, au fond, bad and false ;-" et il n'est guere plaisant d'étre empoisonné, même par l'esprit de rose.'
In the present time a better spirit prevails. We are not indeed sublimated into goddesses; but neither is it the fashion to degrade us into the playthings of fopling poets. We seem to have found, at length, our proper level in poetry, as in society; and take the place assigned to us
As crealures not too bright or good,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears and smiles !* We are represented as ruling by our feminine attractions, moral or exterior, the passions and imaginations of men ; as claiming, by our weakness, our delicacy, our devotion, —their protection, their tenderness, and their gratitude: and, since the minds of women have been more generally and highly cultivated; since a Madame de Staël, a Joanna Baillie, a Maria Edgeworth, and a hundred other names, now shining aloft like stars, have shed a reflected glory on the whole sex they belong to, we possess through them, a claim to admiration and respect for our mental capabilities. We assume the right of passing judgment on the poetical homage addressed to us, and our smiles alone can consecrate what our smiles first inspired.t
If we look over the mass of poetry produced during the last twenty-five years, whether Italian, French, German, or English, we shall find that the predominant feeling is honourable to women, and if not gallantry, is something better. It is too true, that the incense has not been
+ Even so the smile of woman stamps our fates,
Barry Cornwall. | See in particular Schiller’s odc, “Honour to Women," one of the niosl elegant tributes ever paid to us by a poet's enthusiasm. It may be fuund translated in Lord F. Gower's beautiful little volume of Miscel. lanies,
always perfectly pure. “Many light lays,-ah, wo is me therefore !"* have sounded from one gifted lyre, which has since been strung to songs of patriotism and tenderness. Moore, whom I am proud, for a thousand reasons, to claim as my countryman, began his literary and amatory career, fresh from the study of the classics, and the poets of Charles the Second's time; and too often through the thin undress of superficial refinement, we trace the grossness of his models. It is said, I know not how truly, that he has since made the amende honourable. He has possibly discovered, that women of sense and sentiment, who have a true feeling of what is due to them as women, are not fitly addressed in the style of Anacreon and Catullus; have no sympathies with bis equivocal Rosas, Fanny, and Julias, and are not flattered by being associated with tavern orgies and bumpers of wine, and such “ tipsy revelry.” Into themes like these he has, it is true, infused a buoyant spirit of gaiety, a tone of sentiment, and touches of tender and moral feeling, which would reconcile us to them, if any thing could; as in the beautiful songs, “When time, who steals our years away,"_“O think not my spirits are always as light,”—“Farewell! but whenever you think on the hour,"_" The Legacy,” and a hundred others. But how many more are there, in which the purity and earnestness of the feeling vie with the grace and delicacy of the expression! and in the difficult art (only to be appreciated by a singer) of marrying verse to sound, Moore was never excelled-never equalled--but by Burns. He seems to be gifted, as poet and musician, with a double instinct of harmony, peculiar to himself.
Barry Cornwall is another living poet who has drunk deep from the classics and from our elder writers; but with a finer taste and a better feeling, he has borrowed only what was decorative, graceful and accessory: the
* Many light lays (ah! wo is me the more)
In praise of that mad fit which fools call love,
pure stream of his sentiment flows unmingled and untainted,
Yet musical as when the waters run,
Lapsing through sylvan haunts deliciously.* It is not without reason that Barry Cornwall has been styled the “Poet of Woman,” par excellence. It enhances the value, it adds to the charm of every tender and beautiful passage addressed to us, that we know them to be sincere and heartfelt,
Not fable bred, But such as truest poets love to write. It is for the sake of one, beloved " beyond ambition and the light of song," -and worthy to be so loved, that he approaches all women with the most graceful, delicate, and reverential homage ever expressed in sweet poetry. His fancy is indeed so luxuriant, that he makes whatever he touches appear fanciful: but the beauty adorned by his verse, and adorning his home, is not imaginary; and though he has almost hidden his divinity behind a cloud of incense, she is not therefore less real.
The life Lord Byron led was not calculated to give him a good opinion of women, or to place before him
the best virtues of our sex. Of all modern poets, he has been the most generally popular among female readers; and he owes this enthusiasm not certainly to our obligations to him; for, as far as women are concerned, we may designate his works by a line borrowed from himself,
With much to excite, there's little to exalt. But who, like him, could administer to that " besoin de sentir," which I am afraid is an ingredient in the feminine character all over the world?
Lord Byron is really the Grand Turk of amatory
etry,-ardent in his love,-mean and merciless in his resentment: he could trace passion in characters of fire, but his caustic satire burns and blisters where it falls. Lovely as are some of his female portraits, and inimitably beautiful as are some of his lyrical effusions, it must be
* Marcian Colonna.
confessed there is something very Oriental in all his feelings and ideas about women; he seems to require nothing of us but beauty and submission. Please him—and he will crown you with the richest flowers of poetry, and heap the treasures of the universe at your feet, as trophies of his love; but once offend him, and you are lost,
There yawns the sack-and yonder rolls the sea! Campbell, ever elegant and tender, has hymned us all into divinities and through his sweet and varied page,
Where love pursues an ever devious race,
True to the winding lineaments of grace, we figure under every beautiful aspect that truth and feel. ing could inspire, or poetry depict.
Sir Walter Scott ought to have lived in the age of chivalry, (if we could endure the thoughts of his living in any other age but our own!) so touched with the true antique spirit of generous devotion to our sex are all his poetical portraits of women. I do not find that he has, like most other writers of the present day, mixed up his personal feelings and history with his poetry; or that any fair and distinguished object will be so thrice fortunate as to share his laurelled immortality. We must therefore treat him like Shakspeare, whom alone he resemblesand claim him for us all.
Then there is Rogers, whose compliments to us are so polished, so pointed, and so elegantly turned, and have such a drawing-room air, that they seem as if intended to be presented to Duchesses, by beaux in white kid gloves. And there is Coleridge who approaches women with a sort of feeling half earthly, half heavenly, like that with which an Italian devotee bends before his Madonna
And comes unto his courtship as his prayer. And there is Southey, in whose imagination we are all heroines and queens; and Wordsworth, lost in the depths of his own tenderness !
The time is not yet arrived, when the loves of the living poets, or of those lately dead, can be discussed individually,