Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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


THE WORLD OF BOOKS: William Sharp*


Romantic Ballads and Poems of Phantasy. By William Sharp. London: Printed for the author the author by Walker Scott, 24 Warwick Lane.


Among us Canadians, and on this side the water generally, the poems of Mr. Sharp have been strangely overlooked. To all lovers of high verse, the loss is a serious one. The student of English literature moreover, can no longer afford to be ignorant of those younger singers, on whom it must devolve to sustain the supremacy of English song. Of these Mr. Sharp is not the most widely recognized, as yet; but he is, I think, the strongest and most genuinely inspired. His verse has not, for the most part, as captivating a melody as that of Mr. Gosse, but his genius seems to me more vital, more stimulating, more exuberant, and of a larger mould. This I say while yielding to no one in admiration for the true impulse, the technical mastery, the clarity and sweetness of Mr. Gosse’s verse. But Mr. Sharp seems to have perceived that English poetry is in need of some fresh motive, and his instinct has told him this fresh motive would be found in a return to Romance. A step, and a great step, in this return to Romance is the little volume before me;—which, by the way, though issued only a few months ago, is already become scarce and a treasure for the lovers of rare editions. Happy is the bibliophile who has possessed himself in time of this dainty parchment-bound volume, or who succeeds in picking up a copy at some remote bookstall.

Mr. Sharp’s feeling for the romantic, the supernatural, the heroic, the weirdly suggestive, does not lead him into any contempt for that vital and selective realism, which (as I have said on all possible occasions) must form the basis of all true art. All the external manifestations of Nature are scanned by this poet with a clear and sympathetic vision. The spirit of a scene is caught by his brooding observation, and then rendered with vivid fidelity in a few direct strokes. A distinctive quality in Mr. Sharp’s genius is felt in his first-hand rendering of nature and in the unhackneyed tone of his interpretations.

The present volume is, as its name implies, arranged in two sections. The first section, Romantic Ballads, contains four poems of the supernatural, which are of themselves sufficient to establish Mr. Sharp’s claim to be regarded as a powerful and original singer. They are permeated in every line with that unquestioning realization of the supernatural which gives such thrilling effect to "The Ancient Mariner" and "Christabel." I know of no more impressive poem of its kind in our language than "The Weird Michael Scott," which has all the sincerity, simplicity and ghostly horror of some of the old Scottish folk-songs, combined with a unity and concentration which heighten all the effects many times over, and which were generally beyond the reach of the early balladists. Mr. Sharp does not dilute his material. He remembers Keats’s injunction to "load every rift of his subject with ore." He has woven together, in the one wild ballad, several of the most terrifying legends of diablerie and Gothic witchcraft, and the blending is so skilful that one is carried on irresistibly, with ever-deepening fascination of strange terror, to the splendid and awful close. The case with which Mr. Sharp produces most nerve-thrilling effects is instanced in the following stanzas:

But as the darkness grew and made
Forest and mountain one vast shade,
Michael the Wizard moaned in dread—
  A long white moonbeam like a blade
Swept after him where’er he fled.

*          *           *

And through the wood there stole and crept,
And through the wood there raced and leapt,
A thing in semblance of a man;
A human look its wild eyes kept,
As howling through the night it ran.

"The Deith-Tide" is not a narrative but rather a lyrical ballad, shorter than its predecessors, but not less admirable. Its haunting cadences and weird refrains are not less fruitful of a creeping sense of awe, but there is something more alluring, more delicious in this fear than in that evoked by such work as the "Michael Scott." The lyric is a sort of ghostly and dreadful yet piercingly pathetic love-song.

In the "Poems of Phantasy" the note is sweeter, softer, less strenuous; but that strange and wide-eyed sense of the super-natural is not for a moment absent. The magic dealt with here, however, is more of white magic, the spells are those of fairy rather than of wizard, and the pervading atmosphere is of beauty and of tenderness. It is difficult to choose where all are well nigh flawless, but the two I quote will serve to give the tone of this section, and also, perhaps, to give colour to my claim that in this species of English verse Mr. Sharp is the greatest living master:

Last night through a haunted land I went,
Upon whose margins Ocean leant
   Waveless and soundless save for sighs
That with the twilight airs were blent.

And passing, hearing never stir
Of football, or the startled whirr
   Of birds, I said, "In this land lies
Sleep’s home, the secret haunt of her."

And then I came upon a stone
Whereon these words were writ alone,
   The soul who reads, its body dies
For hence, that moment, without moan.

And then I knew that I was dead,
And that the shadow overhead
   Was not the darkness of the skies,
But that form which my soul had fled.


They hear it in the sunless dale,
   It moans beside the stream,
They hear it when the woodlands wail,
   And when the storm winds scream.

They hear it—going from the fields
   Through the twilight shadows home—
It sighs across the silent wealds
   And far and wide doth roam.

It moans upon the wind,
No more
   The House of Malcolm stands:
It comes at dusk, and o’er and o’er
   Haunts Malcolm’s lands.

He rides down by the foaming lion—
   But hark! What is it calls
With faint, far voice, so shrill and thin,
   The House of Malcolm falls.

He lifts the revel cup at night—
   What makes him start and stare,
What makes his face blanch deadly white,
   What makes him spring from where

His comrades feast within the room,
   And through the darkness go—
What is that wailing cry of doom,
   That scream of woe!

No more sunless dells, or high
   On moorland way is heard the moan
Of the long wandering prophecy:—
   In moonlit nights alone

A shadowy shape is seen to stand
   Beside a ruined place:
It waves a wildly threatening hand,
   It hath a dreadful face.

Mr. Sharp is author of two other volumes of poems—The Human Inheritance, now out on print, and Earth’s Voices (London: Elliot Stock). He is also author of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Record and Study, of those altogether admirable brief biographies, Shelley and Heine— in the Great Writer’s series; and of several introductory essays, of special value, prefixed to works which he has edited.


"The World of Books: William Sharp," Progress 1:37 (Saint John, N.B.), 12 January 1889, 6 [back]