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ART. VI.-NEW POEMS BY BAILEY AND BROWNING.
1. The Angel World and other Poems. By Philip James Bailey, author of "Festus." London: W. Pickering.
2. Christmas Eve and Easter Day. A Poem, by Robert Browning. London: Chapman & Hall, 186, Strand.
RELIGIOUS Poetry is in danger of falling into two opposite vices, either that of dying away in mere moral or theological dissertation, in which case it becomes "dull and even dreary"—or that of using the mysteries, and infinitude of a divine theme, merely to enhance the interest and heighten the picturesque effects of a vivid and scenic imagination. The latter fault arises commonly from two very distinct causes, either from want of moral reverence in intellects of great power and depth that delight in the excitement of wonder, though they have little of the spirit or humility of worship-a class of minds that have been conspicuous lately in this country as disciples of Mr. Carlyle or on the other hand, from the mere want of moral sensitiveness and discrimination, which makes them identify physical things with spiritual, and represents the whole of religion to their minds according to the analogies of law and sensuous conceptions. All these faults are common enough in the religious poetry and poetic prose of our own day. The first of them simply makes a religious poem unreadable; the second inexpressibly painful and repulsive to reverential minds; the last makes it low-toned and disagreeable to all of higher perceptions. Mr. Bailey's new work is so far an improvement upon "Festus," that he never wearies with mere moral and theologic prosing in the short poem before us; and though in one place he gives us a short abstract of the very transcendental views which Wisdom was unfortunately accustomed to inculcate on her pupils, as when she taught
"The secret harmony of good and ill
yet he never troubles us with any very tedious reflections. In other respects he does not seem to us to be improved. The extreme richness of imagery remains the same, but there seems far less genuineness and earnestness of thought and feeling, and the utter spiritual poverty which is so often to be found in the religious poetry of the evangelical school is not concealed by the brilliant and too luxuriant ornaments of his style. In "Festus," as here, there was a keen appreciation and love of physical beauty, and a powerful delineation of a certain kind of unrefined character of a rather low moral order, but there was no dramatic power, and only that confused physical sort of thought which is forced upon a man of much ability by the constant necessity of self-defence in life. Where there is no imagery in "Festus," a well-regulated mind finds considerable exercise for the inalienable right of omission; but while employed on an earthly subject, Mr. Bailey was much more genuine and at home than he is in this angelworld of præternatural good and ill. Genuine Evangelical poetry is not pleasant on subjects of faith at all; at least when it passes beyond the mere depiction of guilt and penitence, its remedies are so gross, and its conceptions of purifying influences so unspiritual, and its tone of thought so shallow, that the whole beauty of poetry is destroyed by the poverty of the theme. It is only from natures rich in spiritual insight like Keeble, Montgomery, or Wesley, that we can draw pure religious poetry; and even with them the physical analogies of the lower orthodoxy are often made too prominent. But to make a poem on the celestial natures above man in any sense a high work of art, requires a depth of spiritual insight and power of conception far beyond the aim of Mr. Bailey's poem. The obvious danger is that of making a world very much brighter and more blessed, or, on the other hand, very much darker and more wretched than earth, without having characters at all on a corresponding difference of scale; so that the angels are likely to be kind, weak individuals, destitute of all reality,-mere forgiving phantoms in white,—and Heaven itself a brilliant scene of physical beauty and peace. Now this is the real way in which Mr. Bailey has gone astray. With all the brilliant metaphor of this poem, there is very little strength, depth, or reality of sentiment in
it, and in this respect it is, we think, inferior to "Festus." There is nothing more disagreeable, and even approaching in its tendency to vulgarity, than this disposition in writing of a spiritual world to show no appreciation of higher spiritual natures ;-than this betrayal, in fact, of a disproportion between the senses and the higher aspirations, so great, as to be satisfied to rest in the image of a brighter world, without spending any power in the conception and delineation of the higher life it should contain. It is the extreme difficulty of this task that has kept almost all poets from venturing on a sphere so tempting to a high and devout imagination, and it seems as though it were Mr. Bailey's blindness, not his superiority to its difficulty, which has induced him to undertake it. "In Festus" there is at least one real human character, impulsive, powerful, imaginative, self-confident, pompous and coarse, carried into nearly every scene, and there is no sort of failure in its delineation. But here we have no reality in character of any kind, and notwithstanding the brilliancy of its dress, the poem is felt to have no life; its peculiar theme only has the negative effect of suppressing the unrefinements and roughnesses of earth, without introducing any higher conditions of mind, and so, notwithstanding its orthodoxy, it is liable to the charge of a somewhat heathen tone, in entering on so sacred a subject without the exercise of a spiritual imagination, but only of physical fancy. It is exactly the absence of this defect which has given their immortality to the great works of Milton and Klopstock, where the moral and spiritual thought and feeling which suggested the scenery, breathes through the poem, and the beings are real beings, even though it be rather power and intensity of nature than any difference of kind, which removes them beyond the ordinary latitudes of human nature. Genuine poetry however of its kind, though not of the kind that the pretensions of the poem demand, there is here and there in this little volume, but it is only seldom that it is sufficiently connected with human want or feeling to elevate it above mere shining fancies. In the following passage, however, there is much beauty, though, as everywhere, too little simplicity :
Among that heavenly race
There dwelt two angel-sisters, nymphs divine,
The daughters of the Lord of gods and men,
The description, too, of the effect produced by the loveliness and falsehood of the evil angels is not without considerable beauty:
"No lack was there
Of direful sign and portent; chief was this
The falsehoods each one uttered, lie by lie,
Rolled into rings of darkness round their heads
With gathering shades the stranger spirits grew
Still lovelier, and, like light outletting flowers
The introduction of the "hugeous monster" (intended we suppose to impersonate Sin) with 100 heads, which speaks 10,000 tongues altogether, and is otherwise remarkable for his teeth and tail, is in the worst style of inflated grandeur. We need make no comment on the evangelical moral of this poem, because it is identical with that of "Festus," which was examined in a former Number: it is evidently written to defend the "purifying suffering of sin," and the whole pseudo-evangelical scheme of regarding guilt as a wise contrivance of predestinating wisdom, as a man of straw set up by the divine Being, purposely
that He might have the glory of subsequently overturning it:
"In this, too, God permitted them success,
And in far more, that at the close he might
Mr Bailey should avoid committing himself to moral and theological systems; his mind seems to have no intellectual subtlety and very little moral sensitiveness, so that the force of his character only leads him to throw himself with a very distressing fervour into the grossest forms of ethical and religious philosophy. There is nothing very remarkable in the few shorter poems, appended to the "Angel World;" in the piece on Autumn, there are a few beautiful lines.
Of Mr. Browning's poem we have little to say we only placed it at the head of this article because it affords an instructive comparison with Mr. Bailey's in arriving at any distinct views as to the peculiar mental characteristics of a poet. These new poems of Mr. Browning exhibit a higher intellectual power, a keener moral sensitiveness, and altogether a far more spiritual nature than Mr. Bailey's: still, though they are far more religious, they are, as it seems to us, decidedly less poetical, than the "Angel World." "Christmas Eve" is written apparently with the intention of showing that Christ blesses by his presence all the churches that earnestly and in truth desire to follow and love him, from the Roman Communion down to the intellectual audience of a German rationalist, whatever be their errors, and yet that the eclectic principle in religion is spurious and worthless, since the true faith lies in one view and in one only. In "Easter Day" he enters on the discussion of the relation between faith in Christ and moral acceptance with God, and connects the moral quality involved in faith with the intellectual fact of belief in this manner, that our doubts of the incarnation are mainly moral, arising from the feebleness of our own love, which renders it difficult, sometimes impossible, for men to believe that the divine love could ever have been so infinite as to lead God to put on for our sakes man's imperfect nature, and submit to the