Page images
PDF
EPUB

specimens of vers de société in any language, must be excluded on account of its length, which renders it much too important.

Every piece which has been selected for this volume cannot be expected to exhibit all the characteristics above enumerated, but the two qualities of brevity and buoyancy are absolutely essential. The poem may be tinctured with a well-bred philosophy, it may be gay and gallant, it may be playfully malicious or tenderly ironical, it may display lively banter, and it may be satirically facetious; it may even, considering it merely as a work of art, be pagan in its philosophy, or trifling in its tone, but it must never be ponderous or common-place.

Having thus fixed upon a definition, the Editor proceeded to put it to a practical use, by submitting it as a touchstone to the various pieces which came under his notice. In the first place it is scarcely necessary to say that all poetry of a strictly religious character, on account of the singleness and earnestness of its tone, is inadmissible in a collection where jest and earnest are inextricably intermingled. All pieces of quasi fashionable jingle have been excluded, because they are usually pretentious and vulgar. Some of our best writers of vers de société are not merely tinged with coarseness, they seem to revel in it, and often show

uch raciness in their revelry, but they are hardly ever vulgar. Vulgarity appears to be a rock on which so many would-be writers of this species of verse have suffered, and will continue to suffer, shipwreck.

Fables, prologues, rhymed anecdotes, and pieces of purely ephemeral interest, such as satirical or political squibs, have been generally avoided, as well as those specimens which expand into real song or crystallise into mere epigram, though in these cases, as already observed, the border line is often extremely difficult of definition. Riddles, paradoxes, and punning couplets are for the most part omitted ; not, as some readers may suppose, because they are contemptible, for nothing is contemptible that is really good of its kind; but because they do not, strictly speaking, come within the scope of this work. The few which are inserted possess a breadth of feeling, or a delicacy of treatment, which elevate them beyond the range of mere epigram, riddle, and parody.

Some epitaphs have been admitted, their epigrammatic character rendering them more elegant and ingenious than solemn or affecting; and a few pieces of gracefully turned nonsense will be found towards the end of the volume, of which “The Broken Dish” may be cited as a fair specimen. Mr. Hood was very happy in this kind of composition, where a conceit is built up on some pointed absurdity.

The chief merit of vers de société is, that it should seem to be entirely spontaneous : when the reader says to himself, “I could have written that, and easily too,” he pays the poet the highest possible compliment. At the same time it is right to observe, that this absence of effort, as recognised in most works of real excellence, is only apparent; the writing of vers

de société is a difficult accomplishment, and no one has fully succeeded in it without possessing a certain gift of irony, which is not only a much rarer quality than humour, or even wit, but is altogether less commonly met with than is sometimes imagined. At the same time this description of poetry seems so easy to write that a long catalogue of authors, both famous and obscure, have attempted it, but in the great majority of cases with very indifferent success. This frequent liability to failure will excite less surprise if it be borne in mind that the possession of the true poetic faculty is not sufficient of itself to guarantee capacity for this inferior branch of the art of versification. The writer of vers de société, in order to be genuinely successful, must not only be more or less of a poet, but he must also be a man of the world, in the most liberal sense of the expression; he must have mixed throughout his life with the most refined and cultivated members of his species, not merely as an idle bystander, but as a busy actor in the throng. A professed poet, however exalted his faculty, will seldom write the best vers de société, just because writing is the business of his life ; for it appears to be an essential characteristic of these brilliant trifles, that they should be thrown off in the leisure moments of men whose lives are devoted to graver pursuits. Swift was an ardent politician; Prior a zealous ambassador; Suckling, Praed, and Landor were essentially men of action ; even Cowper was no recluse, but a man of the world, forced by mental suffering into a state of modified seclusion. Indeed, it may be affirmed of most of the authors quoted in this volume—and it is curious to see what a large proportion of them are men of a certain social position—that they submitted their intellects to the monotonous grindstone of worldly business, and that their poetical compositions were like the sparks which fly off and prove the generous quality of the metal thus applied ; and it must be remembered, to pursue the simile, that but for the dull grindstone, however finely tempered the metal might be, there would be no sparks at all : in other words, the writer of vers de société needs perpetual contact with the world.

The Editor trusts that he has gathered together nearly all the vers de société of real merit in the English language, at the same time he almost hopes that the cultivated reader will find hardly anything altogether unknown to him. The Editor is of opinion that verse of real excellence and buoyancy is seldom long lost sight of; in other words, that an unknown piece of vers de société probably does not deserve to become better known. The contents of the volume have been selected and winnowed from an enormous mass of inferior verse of the same kind, the great bulk of which did not appear of sufficient merit to deserve insertion.

Many pieces, however, have been pondered over, and at last discarded with regret. Several indeed have been found, whose rejection was especially tantalising, because, though otherwise perfect specimens, their aim and execution was just above the range of Thus,

“ The Milkmaid's Song,"

vers de société. commencing

Come live with me,

and be my love,”

verse.

appears to be too highly poetical for admission into this collection, while the less beautiful, but almost as charming “Reply,” has been admitted, because it is depressed to the requisite level by the tinge of worldly satire which runs through it. Something of the same kind may be said of Waller's “ Lines to a Rose," and his “Lines to a Girdle," and on this account only the last will be found here.

Isaac D’Israeli, in his Miscellanies, has some interesting remarks on vers de société. “ The passions of the poet,” he says, may form the subjects of his

It is in his writings he delineates himself; he reflects his tastes, his desires, his humours, his amours, and even his defects. In other poems the poet disappears under the feigned character he assumes : here alone he speaks, here he acts. He makes a confidant of the reader, interests him in his hopes, and his

We admire the poet, and conclude with esteeming the man. In these eff ons the love may not unsuccessfully urge his complaints. They may form a compliment for a patron or a congratulation for an artist, a vow of friendship or a hymn of gratitude ... It must not be supposed that because these productions are concise they have, therefore, the more facility ; we must not consider the genius of a poet diminutive because his pieces are so, nor must we cal

sorrows.

« PreviousContinue »