Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: Ch. 9

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Chapter IX: Poetry and Poets

In the history of individuals, as well as in that of nations, there is often a period of sudden blossoming—a short luxuriant summer, not without its tornadoes and thunder-glooms, in which all the buried seeds of past observation leap forth together into life, and form, and beauty. And such with me were the two years that followed. I thought—I talked poetry to myself all day long. I wrote nightly on my return from work. I am astonished, on looking back, at the variety and quantity of my productions during that short time. My subjects were intentionally and professedly cockney ones. I had taken Mackaye at his word. I had made up my mind, that if I had any poetic powers I must do my duty therewith in that station of life to which it had pleased God to call me, and look at everything simply and faithfully as a London artizan. To this, I suppose, is to be attributed the little geniality and originality for which the public have kindly praised my verses—a geniality which sprung, not from the atmosphere whence I drew, but from the honesty and single-mindedness with which, I hope, I laboured. Not from the atmosphere, indeed,—that was ungenial enough; crime and poverty, all-devouring competition, and hopeless struggles against Mammon and Moloch, amid the roar of wheels, the ceaseless stream of pale, hard faces, intent on gain, or brooding over woe; amid endless prison walls of brick, beneath a lurid, crushing sky of smoke and mist. It was a dark, noisy, thunderous element that London life; a troubled sea that cannot rest, casting up mire and dirt; resonant of the clanking of chains, the grinding of remorseless machinery, the wail of lost spirits from the pit. And it did its work upon me; it gave a gloomy colouring, a glare as of some Dantean "Inferno," to all my utterances. It did not excite me or make me fierce—I was too much inured to it—but it crushed and saddened me; it deepened in me that peculiar melancholy of intellectual youth, which Mr. Carlyle has christened for ever by one of his immortal nicknames—"Werterism"; I battened on my own melancholy. I believed, I loved to believe, that every face I passed bore the traces of discontent as deep as was my own—and was I so far wrong? Was I so far wrong either in the gloomy tone of my own poetry? Should not a London poet's work just now be to cry, like the Jew of old, about the walls of Jerusalem, "Woe, woe to this city!" Is this a time to listen to the voices of singing men and singing women? or to cry, "Oh! that my head were a fountain of tears, that I might weep for the sins of my people"? Is it not noteworthy, also, that it is in this vein that the London poets have always been greatest? Which of poor Hood's lyrics have an equal chance of immortality with "The Song of the Shirt" and "The Bridge of Sighs," rising, as they do, right out of the depths of that Inferno, sublime from their very simplicity? Which of Charles Mackay's lyrics can compare for a moment with the Eschylean grandeur, the terrible rhythmic lilt of his "Cholera Chant"—

  Dense on the stream the vapours lay,
  Thick as wool on the cold highway;
  Spungy and dim each lonely lamp
  Shone o'er the streets so dull and damp;
  The moonbeams could not pierce the cloud
  That swathed the city like a shroud;
  There stood three shapes on the bridge alone,
  Three figures by the coping-stone;
  Gaunt and tall and undefined,
  Spectres built of mist and wind.
  * * * * *
  I see his footmarks east and west—
  I hear his tread in the silence fall—
  He shall not sleep, he shall not rest—
  He comes to aid us one and all.
  Were men as wise as men might be,
  They would not work for you, for me,
  For him that cometh over the sea;
  But they will not hear the warning voice:
  The Cholera comes,—Rejoice! rejoice!
  He shall be lord of the swarming town!
  And mow them down, and mow them down!
  * * * * *

Not that I neglected, on the other hand, every means of extending the wanderings of my spirit into sunnier and more verdant pathways. If I had to tell the gay ones above of the gloom around me, I had also to go forth into the sunshine, to bring home if it were but a wild-flower garland to those that sit in darkness and the shadow of death. That was all that I could offer them. The reader shall judge, when he has read this book throughout, whether I did not at last find for them something better than even all the beauties of nature.