IONICA. Smith Elder & Co., 65, Cornhill. 1858.
Good poetry seems to be almost as indestructible as diamonds. You throw it out of the window into the roar of London, it disappears in a deep brown slush, the omnibus and the growler pass over it, and by and by it turns up again somewhere uninjured, with all the pure fire lambent in its facets. No doubt thoroughly good specimens of prose do get lost, dragged down the vortex of a change of fashion, and never thrown back again to light. But the quantity of excellent verse produced in any generation is not merely limited, but keeps very fairly within the same proportions. The verse-market is never really glutted, and while popular masses of what Robert Browning calls "deciduous trash" survive their own generation, only to be carted away, the little excellent, unnoticed book gradually pushes its path up silently into fame.
These reflections are not inappropriate in dealing with the small volume of 116 pages called Ionica, long ago ushered into the world so silently that its publication did not cause a single ripple on the sea of literature. Gradually this book has become first a rarity and then a famous possession, so that at the present moment there is perhaps no volume of recent English verse so diminutive which commands so high a price among collectors. When the library of Mr. Henry Bradshaw was dispersed in November 1886, book-buyers thought that they had a chance of securing this treasure at a reasonable price, for it was known that the late Librarian of Cambridge University, an old friend of the author, had no fewer than three copies. But at the sale two of these copies went for three pounds fifteen and three pounds ten, respectively, and the third was knocked down for a guinea, because it was discovered to lack the title-page and the index. (I do not myself think it right to encourage the sale of imperfect books, and would not have spent half a crown on the rarest of volumes if I could not have the title-page. But this is only an aside, and does not interfere with the value of Ionica.)
The little book has no name on the title-page, but it is known that the author was Mr. William Johnson, formerly a master at Eton and a fellow of King's College, Cambridge. It is understood that this gentleman was born about 1823, and died in 1892. On coming into property, as I have heard, in the west of England, he took the name of Cory, So that he is doubly concealed as a poet, the anonymous-pseudonymous. As Mr. William Cory he wrote history, but there is but slight trace there of the author of Ionica. In face of the extreme rarity of his early book, friends urged upon Mr. Cory its republication, and he consented. Probably he would have done well to refuse, for the book is rather delicate and exquisite than forcible, and to reprint it was to draw public attention to its inequality. Perhaps I speak with the narrow-mindedness of the collector who possesses a treasure; but I think the appreciators of Ionica will always be few in number, and it seems good for those few to have some difficulties thrown in the way of their delights.
Shortly after Ionica appeared great developments took place in English verse. In 1858 there was no Rossetti, no Swinburne; we may say that, as far as the general public was concerned, there was no Matthew Arnold and no William Morris. This fact has to be taken into consideration in dealing with the tender humanism of Mr. Johnson's verses. They are less coruscating and flamboyant than what we became accustomed to later on. The tone is extremely pensive, sensitive, and melancholy. But where the author is at his best, he is not only, as it seems to me, very original, but singularly perfect, with the perfection of a Greek carver of gems. The book is addressed to and intended for scholars, and the following piece, although really a translation, has no statement to that effect. Before I quote it, perhaps I may remind the ladies that the original is an epigram in the Greek Anthology, and that it was written by the great Alexandrian poet Callimachus on hearing the news that his dear friend, the poet Heraclitus–not to be confounded with the philosopher–was dead.
They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead;
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed
I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.
And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but these he cannot take.
No translation ever smelt less of the lamp, and more of the violet than this. It is an exquisite addition to a branch of English literature, which is already very rich, the poetry of elegiacal regret. I do not know where there is to be found a sweeter or tenderer expression of a poet's grief at the death of a poet-friend, grief mitigated only by the knowledge that the dead man's songs, his "nightingales," are outliving him. It is the requiem of friendship, the reward of one who, in Keats's wonderful phrase, has left "great verse unto a little clan," the last service for the dead to whom it was enough to be "unheard, save of the quiet primrose, and the span of heaven, and few ears." To modern vulgarity, whose ideal of Parnassus is a tap-room of howling politicians, there is nothing so offensive, as there is nothing so incredible, as the notion that a poet may hold his own comrade something dearer than the public. The author of Ionica would deserve well of his country if he had done no more than draw this piece of aromatic calamus-root from the Greek waters.
Among the lyrics which are entirely original, there are several not less exquisite than this memory of Callimachus. But the author is not very safe on modern ground. I confess that I shudder when I read:
"Oh, look at his jacket, I know him afar;
How nice," cry the ladies, "looks yonder Hussar!"
It needs a peculiar lightness of hand to give grace to these colloquial numbers, and the author of Ionica is more at home in the dryad-haunted forest with Comatas. In combining classic sentiment with purely English landscape he is wonderfully happy.
There is not a jarring image or discordant syllable to break the glassy surface of this plaintive Dirge:
Naiad, hid beneath the bank
By the willowy river-side,
Where Narcissus gently sank,
Where unmarried Echo died,
Unto thy serene repose
Waft the stricken Anterôs.
Where the tranquil swan is borne,
Imaged in a watery glass,
Where the sprays of fresh pink thorn
Stoop to catch the boats that pass,
Where the earliest orchis grows,
Bury thou fair Anterôs.
On a flickering wave we gaze,
Not upon his answering eyes:
Flower and bird we scarce can praise,
Having lost his sweet replies:
Cold and mute the river flows
With our tears for Anterôs.
We know well where this place of burial is to be. Not in some glade of Attica or by Sicilian streams, but where a homelier river gushes through the swollen lock at Bray, or shaves the smooth pastoral meadows at Boveney, where Thames begins to draw a longer breath for his passage between Eton and Windsor.
The prevailing sentiment of these poems is a wistful clinging to this present life, a Pagan optimism which finds no fault with human existence save that it is so brief. It gains various expression in words that seem hot on a young man's lips, and warm on the same lips even when no longer young:
I'll borrow life, and not grow old;
And nightingales and trees
Shall keep me, though the veins be cold,
As young as Sophocles.
And again, in poignant notes:
You promise heavens free from strife,
Pure truth, and perfect change of will;
But sweet, sweet is this human life,
So sweet, I fain would breathe it still;
Your chilly stars I can forego,
This warm, kind world is all I know.
This last quotation is from the poem called Mimnermus in Church. In this odd title he seems to refer to elegies of the Colophonian poet, who was famous in antiquity for the plaintive stress which he laid on the necessity of extracting from life all it had to offer, since there was nothing beyond mortal love, which was the life of life. The author of Ionica seems to bring the old Greek fatalist to modern England, and to conduct him to church upon a Sunday morning. But Mimnermus is impenitent. He confesses that the preacher is right when he says that all earthly pleasures are fugitive. He has always confessed as much at home under the olive tree; it was because they were fugitive that he clung to them:
All beauteous things for which we live
By laws of time and space decay.
But oh! the very reason why
I clasp them, is because they die.
There is perhaps no modern book of verse in which a certain melancholy phase of ancient thought is better reproduced than in Ionica, and this gives its slight verses their lasting charm. We have had numerous resuscitations of ancient manners and landscape in modern poetry since the days of Keats and André Chenier. Many of these have been so brilliantly successful that only pedantry would deny their value. But in Ionica something is given which the others have not known how to give, the murmur of antiquity, the sigh in the grass of meadows dedicated to Persephone. It seems to help us to comprehend the little rites and playful superstitions of the Greeks; to see why Myro built a tomb for the grasshopper she loved and lost; why the shining hair of Lysidice, when she was drowned, should be hung up with songs of pity and reproach in the dreadful vestibule of Aphrodite. The noisy blasphemers of the newest Paris strike the reader as Christian fanatics turned inside out; for all their vehemence they can never lose the experience of their religious birth. The same thing is true of the would-be Pagans of a milder sensuous type. The Cross prevailed at their nativity, and has thrown its shadow over their conscience. But in the midst of the throng there walks this plaintive poet of the Ionica, the one genuine Pagan, absolutely untouched by the traditions of the Christian past. I do not commend the fact; I merely note it as giving a strange interest to these forlorn and unpopular poems.
Twenty years after the publication of Ionica, and when that little book had become famous among the elect, the author printed at Cambridge a second part, without a title-page, and without punctuation, one of the most eccentric looking pamphlets I ever saw. The enthusiastic amateur will probably regard his collection incomplete without Ionica II., but he must be prepared for a disappointment. There is a touch of the old skill here and there, as in such stanzas as this:
With half a moon, and clouds rose-pink,
And water-lilies just in bud,
With iris on the river-brink,
And white weed-garlands on the mud,
And roses thin and pale as dreams,
And happy cygnets born in May,
No wonder if our country seems
Drest out for Freedom's natal day.
Peace lit upon a fluttering vein,
And self-forgetting on the brain;
On rifts by passion wrought again
Splashed from the sky of childhood rain,
And rid of afterthought were we
And from foreboding sweetly free.
Now falls the apple, bleeds the vine,
And, moved by some autumnal sign,
I who in spring was glad repine
And ache without my anodyne;
Oh! things that were! Oh! things that are!
Oh! setting of my double star!
But these are rare, and the old unique Ionica of thirty years earlier is not repeated.