Page images


too entirely simple and natural ; while the Rape of the Lock,' which would otherwise be one of the finest specimens of vers de société in any language, must be excluded on account of its length, which renders it much too important. Every piece selected for a volume of this kind 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 commonplace. ....

“ 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 recognized 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 humor, 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 z'ers de société, in order to be genuinely successsul, 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 sociéti, just because writ. ing is the business of his life ; for it appears to be an essential characteristic of these brilliant trilles, that they should be thrown off in the leisure moments of men whose lives are devoted to graver pursuits."

A reviewer in a late number of the London Times makes the following noteworthy remarks on the subject of vers de société, more especially of a certain kind, which supplement in a graceful way the forego. ing observations of Mr. Locker : “ It is the poetry of men who belong to society, who have a keen sym


pathy with the lightsome tone and airy jesting of fashion; who are not disturbed by the flippancies of small-talk, bui, 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 depthis in our nature, which even in the gayety of drawing-rooms cannot be forgotten. Theirs is the poetry of bitter-sweet, of sentiment that breaks into humor, 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-it 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 cur 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 as quickly as possible, and laugh at the exposure as a good joke. . . In the poets who represent this social mood there is a delicious piquancy, and the way they play at bo. peep with their feelings makes them a class by themselves.”

The following collection, as the reader will observe, attempts to represent only that portion of ter's de société for which we are indebted to modern poets, in other words, to poets who have written in that distinctively modern spirit of which Praed is perhaps the earliest and most typical example. The Editor believes that his collection represents fairly and with at least an approach to completeness the best vers de société from about the beginning of the century to our own time. If some pieces are omitted which would seem entitled to a place in such a work, it must be attributed to the necessary limitations as to space ; and if others are included which bring into prominence a number of authors comparatively little known, it must be attributed to a natural desire on the part of the Editor, when two or more pieces of equal merit offered themselves, to present that one with which the reader is least likely to be already familiar.

It can hardly be necessary to state that the prominence assigned to the different authors in this book is not intended to indicate their relative position as poets, but merely as writers of this particular kind of verse. Longfellow and Lowell, for instance, are naturally expected to fill a large space in any collection of recent poetry which includes American

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small]

authors; but their Muse has seldom led them in the direction of vers de société-though readers of “ Without and Within” will regret that Lowell at least has not made more frequent excursions into this field. It is pleasant, however, to be able to add that Mr. Locker assigns the first place among living writers of vers de société to Dr. Holmes; and that another English poet, who worthily contests the precedence with Mr. Locker, has, in a private letter, expressed the same opinion.

Thanks are due to the proprietors of the copyright pieces by American authors (in particular to Messrs. J. R. Osgood & Co., Buston) for their courtesy and liberality in allowing their insertion.

C. H. J.

« PreviousContinue »