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expression; he must have associated throughout his life with the refined and cultivated members of his species, not merely as an idle bystander, but as a busy actor in the throng. A professional poet will seldom write the best vers de société, just because writing is the business of his life, and because he has something better to do. 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 more stirring 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 infirmity 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 such compositions needs perpetual contact with the world.
I will quote here what the late Rev. Dr. J. Hannah says, in the Preface to his 65
Courtly Poets,” for, in a measure, his remarks apply to the present collec
“ There are scarcely half-a-dozen pieces in this volume which we owe to poets by profession. Most
of these poems are little more than the comparatively idle words of busy men, whose end 'was not writing, even while they wrote;' these occasional sayings, in which the character often reveals itself more clearly than in studied language. There is a special charm in compositions which have amused the leisure of distinguished persons, who have won their spurs in very different fields; of statesmen, soldiers, students, and divines, who have used metre as the mere outlet for transitory feelings, to give grace to a compliment, or terseness to the expression of a sudden emotion, or point and beauty to a calm reflection. To a great extent, such poems are likely to be imitative; and in that aspect they form a curiously exact measure of the influence exerted by a style or fashion. But several of the pieces which are brought together here may claim a higher rank than this."
The Editor trusts that he has gathered together nearly all the Occasional Verse 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 hitherto verse of real excellence and buoyancy has been seldom very long lost sight of; in other words, that an unknown piece of such verse probably does not deserve to become better known. The contents of the volume have been selected and winnowed from an enormous mass of inferior rhyme of the same kind, the great bulk of which did not appear of sufficient merit to deserve special preservation.
Many pieces, however, have been pondered over, and at last discarded with regret. Several, indeed, have been found, whose rejection was especially tanta
lising, because, though otherwise perfect specimens, their aim and execution was just above the range of Occasional Verse. Thus, The Milkmaid's Song, commencing :
“Come live with me, and be my love,"
appears to be too poetical, while the less beautiful, but almost as charming Reply has been admitted, because it is depressed to the requisite level by the tone of worldly sentiment 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.
On the other hand several have been omitted or given with omissions, because their tone is hardly suited to the more refined taste of the present day.
Isaac D’Israeli, in his Miscellanies, has some interesting remarks on vers d'occasion. “ 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 confidant of the reader, interests him in his hopes and his sorrows. We admire the poet, and conclude with esteeming the man.
In these effusions the lover 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 call them, as a fine sonnet has been called, a difficult trifle. A circle may be very small, yet it may be as mathematically beautiful and perfect as a larger one. To such compositions we may apply the observation of an ancient critic, that although a little thing gives perfection, yet perfection is not a little thing.
“The poet, to succeed in these hazardous pieces, must be alike polished by an intercourse with the world, as with the studies of taste, to whom labour is negligence, refinement' a science, and art a nature. Genius will not always be sufficient to impart that grace of amenity which seems peculiar to those who are accumstomed to elegant society. .
.. These productions are more the effusions of taste than genius, and it is not sufficient that the poet is inspired by the Muse, he must also suffer his concise page to be polished by the hand of the Graces."
A reviewer in The Times newspaper has made the following noteworthy remarks on the subject of Social Verse, more especially in its exacter and narrower sense, as cultivated by Praed: “It is the poetry of men who belong to society, who have a keen sympathy with the lightsome tone and airy jesting of fashion ; who are not disturbed by the flippances of small talk, but, on the contrary, can see the gracefulness of which it is capable, and who, nevertheless, amid all this froth of society, feel that there are depths in our nature which even in the gaiety of drawing-rooms cannot be forgotten. Theirs is the poetry of bitter-sweet, of sentiment that breaks into humour, and of solemn thought, which, lest it should be too solemn, plunges into laughter ; it is in an especial sense the verse of
society. When society ceases to be simple, it becomes sceptical. Nor are we utterly to condemn this sceptical temper as a sign of corruption. It is assumed in self-defence, and becomes a necessity of rapid conversation. When society becomes refined, it begins to dread the exhibition of strong feeling, no matter whether real or simulated. If real, it disturbs the level of conversation and of manners-if simulated, so much the worse. In such an atmosphere, emotion takes refuge in jest, and passion hides itself in scepticism of passion : we are not going to wear our hearts upon our sleeves, rather than that we shall pretend to have no heart at all ; and if, perchance, a bit of it should peep out, we shall hide it again as quickly as possible, and laugh at the exposure as a good joke.”
In his introduction to W. M. Praed, in Ward's " English Poets," Mr. Austin Dobson makes some remarks upon Social Verse in general, and that of Praed in particular, which are equally suitable for quotation here.
“As a writer of Society Verse in its exacter sense,” says Mr. Dobson, “Praed is justly acknowledged to be supreme. We say exacter sense because it has of late become the fashion to apply this vague term in the vaguest possible way, so as, indeed, to include almost all verse but the highest and the lowest. This is manisestly a mistake. “Society Verse,' as Praed understood it, and as we understand it in Praed, treats almost exclusively of the votum, timor, ira, voluptas (and especially of the voluptas), of that charmed circle of uncertain limits, known conventionally as good society'--those latter-day Athenians, who, in town or country, spend their time in telling or hearing some new