Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone




The chord of pastoral elegy, first struck by Bion in his Lament for Adonis, is one which through varying expansion and modification has kept its resonance down to the present day. The Lament for Bion by Moschus, the Lycidas of Milton, the Adonais of Shelley, the Thyrsis of Arnold, the Ave atque Vale of Swinburne, these all have their origin, more of less directly, in that brief and simple idyl. My purpose here is to seek out the relations existing between these poems, and to endeavor to indicate the development of this species of verse. Neither the purely subjective In Memoriam, nor the impersonal revery of the Elegy in a Country Churchyard falls within my scope, as neither adopts any part of the conventional framework upon which the pastoral elegy relies.

The form taught by Bion has shown itself adaptable and expansive. For the expression of a grief which is personal, but not too passionately so, and which is permitted to utter itself in panegyric, it has proved exactly fitted. A rapid inter-transition between subjective and objective treatment, a breadth of appeal, a reliance upon general sympathy, these are characteristics which endow this species of verse with its wonderful flexibility and freshness. The lines of its structure, moreover, admit of an almost indefinite degree of decoration, without an appearance of over-abundant and extrinsic detail, or departure from the unity of the design.

In the Lament for Adonis the design is marked by extreme simplicity. The singer vibrates between musical reiterations of his own sorrow and reiterations of the sorrow of Aphrodite. Her grief, together with the beauty and the fate of Adonis, is dwelt upon with a wealth of emotional description, and reverted to again and again, while in the intervals are heard lamentations from the rivers and the springs; from the hounds of the slain hunter, and the nymphs of his forest glades; from the mountains, the oak-trees, the flowers that redden for anguish; from the Loves who clip their locks, the Muses, the Graces, and Hymenæus with benignant torch extinguished. The most passionate passage in the poem comes from the mouth of Aphrodite herself; and even this, dramatic as it is in expression, is held strictly within the bounds of self-conscious and melodious utterance. Throbbing irregularly through the verse, as a peal of bells borne in between the pauses of the wind, now complete, now fragmentary and vanishing, come the notes of the refrain,

"Woe, woe for Adonis, the Loves join in the lament."

When we turn to the poem of Moschus, we see what an expansion has been wrought in the slender pastoral, and not with loss but with gain in unity and artistic effect. The advance is toward a more definite purpose in the use of reiteration, a more orderly evolution, a wider vision, a more vivid and human interest, and a substitution of the particular for the general. Here, in place of undistinguished springs and rivers, we find the "Dorian water," the fountain Arethusa, and Meles, "most melodious of streams." It is not the flowers in general that redden in their anguish, but each manifests its pain in its own fashion: the roses and the wind-flowers blush to a deeper crimson; the hyacinth breathes more poignantly the ai ai upon its petals, and the trees throw down their young fruit. It is no longer to the unnamed array of nymphs that appeal is made, but with far more potent spell to Galatea herself, to the Nymphs Bistonian, to the damsels of Æagria. The heifers reject their pasture, the ewes with-hold their milk, and the honey has dried up for sorrow in the wax. Apollo himself is added to the mourners, with the Satyrs and the Fauns. The illustrious among cities bring their tribute, Ascra lamenting more than for her Hesiod, Mitylene than for her Sappho; and Syracuse grieves through the lips of her Theocritus. The nightingales of Sicily join their song, and the Strymonian swans, and the bird of Memnon, the halycon, "the swallow on the long ranges of the hills," and in the sea the music-loving dolphins. Finally the poet, recalling the descent of Orpheus to Hades, and how his song there sped him, laments that he himself cannot travel the same path on like errand, and dreams that Persephone were already half won to grant his suit, seeing that she, too, is Sicilian, and skilled in the Dorian song. All this is development along the same lines as those laid down in the Lament for Adonis. The method is still almost wholly emotional and pictorial, but two or three new elements begin to hint their advent. The strain of philosophical meditation, later to assume a preponderating influence in this species of verse, here begins in a passage of exquisite loveliness, which is expanded from a single phrase in the Lament for Adonis. In the latter poem Cypris cries out to Persephone, "All lovely things drift down to thee." Observe what this becomes in the hands of Moschus:

"Ah me, when the mallows wither in the garden, and the green parsley, and the curled tendrils of the anise, on a later day they live again, and spring in another year, but we men, we the great and mighty and wise, when once we have died, in the hollow earth we sleep, gone down into silence; a right long, and endless, and unawakening sleep."

A new note, too, is that touched in the references to Homer, wherein a swift comparison is instituted between the epic and the idyl, and their respective sources of inspiration; and here is the first appearance of the autobiographic tendency, which in some later poems of the class becomes a prominent feature. In the matter of direct verbal borrowing Moschus seems to owe but little to his master, his indebtedness in this respect being as nothing in comparison with that of Milton and Shelley. The refrain ("Begin, Ye Sicilian Muses, begin the dirge"), as used by Moschus, has not quite the same functions as those allotted it by Bion. It is used with greater frequency and regularity, as a sort of solemnly sweet response marking off stanzaic divisions, and in its substance is not so interwoven with the body of the song.

In Lycidas the same lines are pursued through the greater portion of the poem. The personal note is intensified, which follows from the fact that the lament is for a friend no less than for a fellow-singer. The conventional disguise of the art of song under the homely shepherd’s trade is more insisted upon; it becomes now the basis of every detail, and the parallel is carried out to its limits. A higher degree of complexity is attained, but not without a loss in congruity and in clearness. The verse is not less responsive to the touch of external nature, but it has acquired a new susceptibility to the influences of learning, of morals, and of the tumultuous questions of the day. It cannot refrain from polemics, it allegorizes on the smallest excuse, and it indulges in an almost pedantic amount of abstruse and remote allusion. It is scholastic poetry; but informed, nevertheless, with such imaginative vigor, filled with such sympathy for nature, attuned to such sonorous harmonies, and modulated to cadences so subtle, as to surpass in all but simplicity the distinctive excellences of its models. The treatment is still frankly objective, transparently free from introspection, the atmosphere and coloring of a noonday vividness, the descriptions drawn at first-hand from that affluent landscape which the poet’s early manhood knew at Horton. As in its predecessors, the objects of familiar nature are appealed to, the "Dorian water" and other classic streams, the dolphins, the Nymphs, the Muses, and Apollo himself; but, by a strange anomaly, St. Peter, too, comes amid the pagan train, and pronounces a scathing diatribe against the opponents of Milton’s theological school of thought. This is a lesson learned of Dante, perhaps. And it is quite in keeping with later mediæval methods that the passage of most exalted spirituality which the poem affords should be placed on the lips of Apollo. An element which here makes its first appearance in the pastoral elegy is discovered in the lofty rejoicing of the conclusion. The note of hope was wanting in the pagan elegies, so their sorrow deepens to the end. But Lycidas is the expression of a confident immortality, and hence the temporal grief which it bewails passes at length into a solemn gladness of consolation.

In regard to style Milton has not conformed closely to his originals. The departure is from a direct to an indirect utterance, the singer being, ostensibly, not the poet himself, but the "uncouth swain" depicted in that matchless bit of purest Greek objectivity which, in terminating the poem, appears to throw it out into clear relief. The refrain has dwindled to nothing more than he unobtrusive repetition of a few phrases. And for the fluent, direct, pellucid Sicilian hexameters we have the measured and delaying pace of the Iambic pentameter. The measure is one of high and stately loveliness, but bearing little resemblance to the line of Bion and Moschus.

When we come to the Adonis, we find ourselves in another atmosphere. Hitherto our path has lain along the valleys and the gentle hill-slopes, where nature is all fertility and peace, where the winds are soft, the waters slow-winding, the meadows thick with flowers, and the sunshine heavy with fragrance. We have been in the region of the pipe, the safe flocks, the "azure pillars of the hearth." However much the strain may have been laden with allegory and with symbol, yet the joys recalled, the griefs lamented, the hopes and desires rehearsed, have all been definite, not only measurable but measured and stated. It is with material conceptions that the singer has occupied. But Shelley hurries us out upon the heights, where the air is keen and stimulating, and the horizon so vast that the gaze acquires a wide-eyed eagerness; where the more minute details of life are lost as the shifting pageantry of night and day is unrolled in dazzling nearness. The coloring is transparent, of a celestial purity, and ordered in strangely vivid contrasts, and, instead of a pastoral stillness, we have the unrest of winds, the aspiration of flame.

The many points of resemblance between the Adonais and its models, though obvious enough to force themselves upon the most casual attention, are yet far more superficial that those existing between the models themselves. So extraneous indeed is the likeness, that I am tempted to illustrate it by the comparison of a seed of grain which is easily recognizable after its germination because it carries with it, upon its expanding seed-leaf, the remnants of its husk. To identify it is a simple matter, but its transformation is none the less complete. In Adonais we find verbal borrowings so ingenuous and so abundant that the censor of literary morals has not breath enough to cry "stop thief." In truth, to change the figure, Shelley has not scrupled to appropriate the gold of his predecessors as a setting for his diamonds. In place of the Paphian goddess we now find Urania, the heavenly muse; instead of the Loves and Nymphs, the Desires, Adorations, and Dreams of the dead poet; and for the shepherds, under thin disguise, come the great contemporary singers, Byron, Moore, Hunt, Shelley himself. After the fashion of the Loves in Bion, a Dream seeks to break her bow and shafts, while another clips her locks; as in Moschus, Echo feeds on the dead singer’s music, and the trees cast down their expanding buds; and one of Shelley’s Ministers of Thought is heard to cry, with voice not all unlike that of the shepherd in Lycidas, "Our love, our hope, our sorrow is not dead." These parallels, and others like them, are sufficiently emphatic, but their little importance is to be estimated from the fact that they might all be obliterated without destroying the unity of the poem, without even making serious inroad upon its highest and most distinctive beauties. The material conceptions of his predecessors Shelley has adopted, but he has made them subservient to an intensely spiritualized emotion and aspiration. The very imagery of the poem is to a great extent psychological in its origin, yet as vivid as if derived from the most familiar of physical phenomena.

The height of attainment in the Adonais is not reached until the poet’s passion of thought has carried him clear of his models. So long as his song was of loss he was, perhaps, neither greater nor less than they, only more metaphysical, more fierce in invective, less serenely and temperately beautiful. But when he comes to speak of consolation, the theme, even in Lycidas, of only one brief passage, he straightway attains his full measure of inspiration. The whiteness to which this thought has kindled his imagination transfuses nearly every line of the concluding seventeen stanzas. This consolation is based upon a sort of spiritualized pantheism, vivified by a breath of the essence of Christian philosophy, and finds its fullest expression in stanzas xlii. and xlii:

"He is made one with Nature: there is heard
 His voice in all her music, from the moan
 Of thunder, to the voice of night’s sweet bird;
 He is a presence to be felt and known
 In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,
 Spreading itself where’er that Power may move
 Which has withdrawn his being to its own;
 Which wields the world with never wearied love,
 Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.

"He is a portion of the loveliness
 Which once he made more lovely: he doth bear
 His part, while the one Spirit’s plastic stress
 Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there,
 All new successions to the forms they wear;
 Torturing th’ unwilling dross that checks its flight
 To its own likeness, as each mass may bear;
 And bursting in its beauty and its might
 From trees and beasts and men into the Heaven’s light."

The unsatisfying element in this faith is compensated for by the creed of personal immortality, of inextinguishable identity, expressed in stanzas xliv., xlv., and xlvi.:

"The splendors of the firmament of time
 May be eclipsed, but are extinguished not;
 Like stars to their appointed height they climb,
 And death is a low mist which cannot blot
  The brightness it may veil."

*          *          *

"The inheritors of unfulfilled renown
 Rose from their thrones, built beyond mortal thought,
 Far in the Unapparent,

*          *         *

 Oblivion as they rose shrank like a thing reproved."

"And many more, whose names on Earth are dark,
 But whose transmitted effluence cannot die
 So long as fire outlives the parent spark,
 Rose, robed in dazzling immortality."

Then follows an inspired digression describing the loveliness of that last resting-place of the mortal vesture of Adonais—a loveliness suggesting the dead poet’s own utterance: "I have been half in love with easeful Death." And the poem concludes with a majesty which is thus admirably analyzed by Mr. Symonds:

     "Yet again the thought of Death as the deliverer, the revealer, the mystagogue, through whom the soul of man is reunited to the spirit of the universe, returns; and on this solemn note the poem closes. The symphony of exaltation which had greeted the passage of Adonais into the eternal world is here subdued to a grave key, as befits the mood of one whom mystery and mourning still oppress on earth. Yet even in the somewhat less than jubilant conclusion we feel that highest of all Shelley’s qualities, the liberation of incalculable energies, the emancipation and expansion of a force within the soul, victorious over circumstance, exhilarated and elevated by contact with such hopes as make a feebler spirit tremble."

"The breath whose might I have invoked in song
 Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven
 Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
 Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
 The massy earth and spherèd skies are riven!
 I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
 Whilst burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
 The soul of Adonais, like a star,
 Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are."

The Thyrsis of Mr. Arnold, in temper one of the most modern of poems, maintains, nevertheless, a closer relationship than does the Adonais to the work of the Sicilian elegists. With a far less degree of external resemblance, it makes at the same time a less marked spiritual departure from the field and scope of its models. The conventional metonymy of shepherd and pipe is still adhered to consistently; the names of Corydon and Daphnis still figure. But the heterogeneous train of mourners is gone; the solitary singer makes no call upon Nymphs of Loves, Dreams or Desires, Deities or the phenomena of Nature to assist his sorrow. The use of iteration still remains, much modified; but the refrain has vanished utterly; and, save for stanzas ix. and x., which read almost like an adorned and expanded paraphrase of the conclusion of the epitaph on Bion, there is scarcely an instance of adaptation or verbal borrowing. So much for external likeness and contrast. But a profound internal resemblance makes itself felt, I think, in a sense of something approaching finality in the mourner’s loss. There is, indeed, in Thyrsis a search made for consolation, but the result of the search is inadequate and slight. The consolation excites no such melodious fervor as does that found by Milton and by Shelley. Indeed, it seems scarcely to win the thorough confidence of even Mr. Arnold himself:

"Let in thy voice a whisper often come
     To chase fatigue and fear:
Why faintest thou? I wander’d till I died.
     Roam on! The light we sought is shining still.
     Dost thou ask proof? Our tree yet crowns the hill,
  Our Scholar travels yet the loved hill-side."

The proof is scarcely such as to carry conviction, and the faith it upholds is somewhat thin and pale after the creeds of Lycidas and the Adonais. Nevertheless, though cold, it is a high and severe philosophy which informs the Thyrsis:

"A fugitive and gracious light he seeks,
     Shy to illumine; and I seek it too.
          This does not come with houses or with gold,
     With place, with honor, and a flattering crew;
          ‘Tis not in the world’s market bought and sold—
               But the smooth-slipping weeks
  Drop by, and leave its seeker still untired;
     Out of the heed of mortals he is gone,
     He wends unfollowed, he must house alone;
  Yet on he fares, by his own heart inspired."

This goes beyond any motive or aspiration expressed by the Sicilian singers. But the philosophy lightly suggested in stanza viii. is not far from identical with that of the passage already quoted from Moschus; and the elysium claimed for Thyrsis ("within a folding of the Apennine," to hearken "the immortal chants of old") is not fundamentally different form that to which Adonis and Bion were snatched reluctant away.

I have spoken of the modern temper of the Thyrsis. This is to be found, I think, in its underlying scepticism, and in a profound consciousness of the weariness and the meagre rewards of struggle. The heroic and stimulating element in the poem consists in the lofty courage with which this depressing consciousness is held at bay, that it exert not its demoralizing influence on life and conduct. Another peculiarly modern quality is that which Mr. Hutton describes as a "craving after a reconciliation between the intellect of man and the magic of nature." The keen and ever-present perception of this magic of nature is the origin of that which constitutes perhaps the crowning excellence of the work, its faithful and yet not slavish realism, its minute yet inspired depictions. This is the sort of realism, interpretive, selective, imaginative, which forms the basis of all the most enduring and satisfying verse. In its most selective phase it pervades stanza vii., which furnishes an interesting parallel to the exquisite flower-passage in Lycidas.

A minor difference between the Thyrsis and its predecessors, yet a difference reaching far in its effects, is to be found in the quality of its color. This has little of the flooding sunlight and summer luxuriance to which Moschus and Milton introduced us; it has none of the iridescent and auroral splendors which steep the verse of Shelley. It is light, cool, and pure; most temperate in the use of strong tints, and matchless for its tenderness and its exquisite delicacy of gradation. This coloring contributes appreciably to what I take to be the central impression which the Thyrsis aims to convey—the impression of a serious and lofty calm, the result, not of joy attained, but of clear-sighted and unsanguine endurance.

Arriving at Mr. Swinburne’s Ave atque Vale, we seem to have rounded a cycle. While structural resemblances have all but vanished, in substance of consolation we stand once more where Bion stood, and Moschus. In motive there is a vast descent from the Thyrsis to this poem. No longer is there any high endurance to spiritualize the hopelessness of the mourner, and hold him above the reach of despair. Nothing but the negative prospect of a sort of perpetual coma, or, at most, the sensuous solace of a palely luxurious peace.

"It is enough; the end and the beginning
     Are one thing to thee, who art past the end.
     O hand unclasped of unbeholden friend!
  For thee no fruit to pluck, no palms for winning,
     No triumph and no labor and no lust,
     Only dead yew-leaves and a little dust.
  O quiet eyes wherein the light saith nought,
     Whereto the day is dumb, nor any night
     With obscure finger silences your sight,
  Nor in your speech the sudden soul speaks thought,
     Sleep, and have sleep for light."

But while motive lessened and conception lowered, execution was rising to an almost unsurpassable height. With the exception of the Lament for Bion, no one of the poems we have been considering can equal this in perfection of structure. In unity of effect, in strong continuity of impulse, it seems to me unexcelled. Never varying from its majestic restraint, it achieves such matchless verbal music as that of stanza ii., such serious breadth of imagination as is exemplified in stanza vi., and such haunting cadences of regret as these lines from stanza ix. express:

"Yet with some fancy, yet with some desire,
  Dreams pursue death as winds a flying fire,
Our dreams pursue our dead, and do not find.
  Still, and more swift than they, the thin flame flies,
  The low light fails us in elusive skies,
Still the foiled earnest ear is deaf, and blind
  Are still the eluded eyes."

Of what may be called the machinery of mourning, with which the Sicilians set out so well equipped, we find here little remaining. It has nearly all seemed superfluous to the later elegist. A remnant appears in stanza xi., and still

          "bending us-ward with memorial urns
The most high Muses that fulfil all ages

Still Apollo is present, and

     "Compassionate, with sad and sacred heart,
Mourns thee of many his children the last dead."

And Aphrodite keeps place among the mourners; but she is no longer either the spiritual Venus Urania, or the gladly fair and sanely passionate Cytherea of the Greeks. She has become that bastard conception of the Middle Ages, the Venus of the hollow hill, "a ghost, a bitter and luxurious god."

To conclude with a brief recapitulation: it would appear that the pastoral elegy, originated by Bion, reached its complete structural development in the hands of Moschus; and that, in its inner meaning, the work of these two poets was adequate to the spiritual stature of their day. The Lycidas was an inspired adaptation of like materials to the needs of a more complex period. In the Adonais we find the structure undergoing a violent expansion, and a new and vast departure made in the sphere of conception and motive. In hopefulness, in consolation, in exalted thought, in uplifting emotion, Shelley’s poem occupies the pinnacle of achievement for this species of verse. In the Thyrsis we see structural conformity diminishing, but at the same time a reapproach to the religious attitude of the Greek originals. The elements of spirituality and hope have declined, but to support us till the coming of "the morning-less and unawakening sleep," some inward consolation yet remains, in a spirit akin to that of the best wisdom of Greek philosophies. In this poem we discover, too, if not the complete contemporary adequacy of the work of Bion and Moschus, nevertheless a most sympathetic expression of the intellectual tendencies of the period.

Finally, in the Ave atque Vale, with a structural resemblance reduced to its lowest terms, we find a remarkable return to the spirit of the laments for Adonis and Bion. To the sorrow of this elegy there is no mitigation suggested. The goal it points to is but a form of annihilation, or such gray pretence of immortality as that of the ghosts in the abode of Hades. Nevertheless, though without spiritual sincerity or a stimulating faith, the poem is effectually redeemed from hollowness, and endowed, I believe, with a perpetual interest, by the sincerity of its lyric impulse, its passion for beauty, its imagination, and its flawless art.


"Pastoral Elegies," New Princeton Review 5:3, May 1888, 360-70; King's College Record 15: 137, March 1893, 64-68; and also published with minor variants as the Introduction to Shelley's Alastor and Adonais, ed. Charles G.D. Roberts (New York: Silver Burdett, 1902), 22-37 [back]