Gerald Massey: Poems and Ballads

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Page IX




I do not like to write a Preface.  I do not think a volume of verse should need one.  But, as my Book has reached a Third Edition, and as almost as much has been said about myself as about my Book, perhaps I may be excused, even by the Preface-hater, if I do take this opportunity of saying a few words.  I have been considerably censured for the political opinions which it contains - as I expected to be.  Before printing, I was advised not to include the political pieces, as, it was urged, they would prove an obstacle to the success of my Poetry, and close the drawing-room door against me.  And if I had looked on the success of my Book in a poetical light alone, I should not have printed the greater portion of the political verses.  But that was not the sole point of view.  Those verses do not express what I think and feel now, since they were written some five or six years ago: yet they express what I thought and felt then, and what thousands beside me have thought and felt, and what thousands still think and feel.  They were the outcome of a peculiar and marked experience.  I printed the "Memoir," so that they might be read in the light, or gloom, of that experience, and the Book contain its own excuse.  They have not read me aright, who have not so interpreted it.  I have been blamed for the rebellious feelings to which the political pieces give utterance; but they were perfectly natural under the circumstances.  Indeed, I look upon those same rebellious feelings as my very deliverance from a fatal slough.  There are conditions in which many of the poor exist, where humanity must be either rebel or slave.  For the slave, degradation and moral death are certain; but for the rebel there is always a chance of becoming conqueror; and the force to resist is far better than the faculty to succumb.
    "It is not," says he, "that I seek to sow dissension between class and class, or fling firebrands among the combustibles of society; for when I smite the hearts of my fellows, I would rather they should gush with the healing waters of love, than with the fearful fires of hatred.  I yearn to raise them into loveable beings.  I would kindle in the hearts of the masses a sense of the beauty and grandeur of the universe, call forth the lineaments of Divinity in their poor worn faces; give them glimpses of the grace and glory of Love and the marvellous significance of Life, and elevate the standard of Humanity for all.  But strange wrongs are daily done in the land, bitter feelings are felt, and wild words will be spoken.  It was not for myself alone that I wrote these things: it was always the condition of others that so often made the mist rise up and cloud my vision.  Nor was it for myself that I have uncurtained some scenes of my life to the public gaze, but as an illustration of the lives of others, who suffer and toil on, 'die, and make no sign;' and because one's own personal experience is of more value than that of others taken upon hearsay."
    So I keep my political verses as memorials of my past, as one might keep some worn-out garment because he had passed through the furnace in it, nothing doubting that in the future they will often prove my passport to the hearts and homes of thousands of the poor, when the minstrel comes to their door with something better to bring them.  They will know that I have suffered their sufferings, wept their tears, thought their thoughts, and felt their feelings; and they will trust me.
    I have been congratulated by some correspondents on the
uses of suffering, and the riches I have wrung from Poverty: as though it were a blessed thing to be born in the condition in which I was, and surrounded with untoward circumstances as I have been.  My experience tells me that Poverty is inimical to the development of Humanity's noblest attributes.  Poverty is a never-ceasing struggle for the means of living, and it makes one hard and selfish.  To be sure, noble lives have been wrought out in the sternest poverty.  Many such are being wrought out now, by the unknown heroes and martyrs of the Poor.  I have known men and women in the very worst circumstances, to whom heroism seemed a heritage, and to be noble a natural way of living.  But they were so in spite of their poverty, not because of it.  What they might have been if the world had done better by them, I cannot tell; but if their minds had been enriched by culture, the world had been the gainer.  When Christ said "Blessed are they who suffer," he did not speak of those who suffer from want and hunger, and who always see the Bastile looming up and blotting out the sky of their future.  Such suffering brutalizes.  True natures ripen and strengthen in suffering; but it is that suffering which chastens and ennobles-that which clears the spiritual sight;not the anxiety lest work should fail and the want of daily bread.  The beauty of Suffering is not to be read in the face of Hunger.
Above all, Poverty is a cold place to write Poetry in.  It is not attractive to poetical influences.  The Muses do not like entertainment which is not fit for man or beast.  Nor do the best fruits of Poetry ripen in the rain and shade and wind alone: they want sunshine, warmth, and the open sky.  And should the heart of a poor man break into song, it is likely that his poverty may turn into hailstones that which might have fallen on the world in fructifying rain.  A poor man, fighting his battle of life, has little time for the rapture of repose which Poetry demands.  He cannot take Poetry, like a Bride, to his heart and home, and devote a life to her service.  He can only keep some innermost chamber of his heart sacred for her, from whence he gets occasional glimpses of her wondrous beauty, when he can steal away from the outward strife, like some child who has found a treasure, and steals aside to look on it in secret and alone, lest rude and importunate companions should snatch it from the possessor's hands.  Considering all things, it may appear madness for a poor man to attempt Poetry in the face of the barriers that surround him.  So many hearts have been broken, so many lives have been wasted, so many lions are in the way of the Gate Beautiful, and so many wrecks lie by the path!  And so it isa diseased madness, or a divine one.  If the disease, then there is no help for a man: if the divine, then there is no hindrance for him.
Who would not pity the poor versifier at the outset of his career?  But who would not also rejoice with him in the end, when the world crowns him a Poet with pæans of acclaim?  And, in spite of all things, there will be Poetry in the midst of poverty.  Even as there is scarcely a space in the world so barren but some plot of natural richness will be running all to flowers —some type of loveliness will be starting up from Earth's inner Sea of Beauty, even in waste and wilderness, on rock and ruin, in Alpine snows and sandy solitudesso is it with Poetry, the flower of Humanity.  It will continually be springing, in its own natural way, in the most bleak and barren bye-ways of the world, as well as in the richest and most cultivated pastures.  The winds of heaven, or the birds of God, will drop the seed, and the flower will follow, even though sown amid the bushes and brambles of the obscurest hamlet, or in the crevices of the city pavement.  Not that the wilderness, or the rock, or the snows, are the fittest places to rear flowers of most exquisite fragrance and beauty; neither are Poverty and Penury, with their hell of torture, and daily wrestle with grim Death, the fittest soil to grow and perfect the flower of Poetry.  The greatest original Genius can only develop itself according to the circumstances which environ it.  It needs food to nourish it, and time and opportunity to unfold it.  If it lack these, it must remain dwarfed and stunted, and perhaps wither and die.
Besides, it is not while the fight is raging, and the struggle is sore, that the Poet can sing.  He must first do battle and overcome, climb from the stir and strife, and be able to watch from his mountain where he dwells apart.  The fullest and rarest streams of Poetry only flow through a mind at peace.  The mirror of the Poet's soul must be calm and clear: else it will give forth distorted reflections and false imaginings.  Had I known, when I began to write verses, what I know now, I think I should have been intimidated, and not have begun at all.  So many and so glorious are the luminaries already up and shining, that one would pause before hoisting a rushlight.  But I was ignorant of these things.  And as I have begun, and conquered some preliminary difficulties, as I have been sweated down to the proper jockey-weight at which I can ride Pegasus with little danger of spraining his wings,and as a purpose has gradually and unconsciously grown upon me, I dare say I shall go on, making the best of my limited materials, with the view of writing some songs that may become dear to the hearts of the people, cheering them in their sorrows, voicing their aspirations, lighting them on the way up which they are groping darkly after better things, and saluting their triumphs with hymns of victory!
     I cannot conclude without thanking those Critics who have given me so generous a welcome.  And I would also thank those who have not spared my faults, or dwelt tenderly on ray failings.  They, also, have done me good, and I am grateful for it.  Friendly praise is somewhat like a warm bath, —apt to enervate, especially if we stay in too long; but friendly censure is like a cold bath, bracing and healthful, though we are always glad to get out of it.  Some of the Critics have called me a "Poet;" but that word is much too lightly spoken, much too freely bandied about.  I know what a Poet is too well to fancy that I am one yet.  It is a high standard that I set up myself, and I do not ask it to be lowered to reach my stature; nor would I have the Poet's awful crown diminished to mete my lesser brow.  I may have that something within which kindles flame-like at the breath of Love, or mounts into song in the presence of Beauty; but alas!  mine is a "jarring lyre."  If I were a Critic, I should be savagely severe on this subject.  The dearth of Poetry should be great in a country where we hail as Poets such as have been crowned of late.
    For myself, I have only entered the lists, and inscribed my name: the race has yet to be run.  Whether I shall run it, and win the Poet's crown, or not, time alone will prove, and not the prediction of friend or foe.  The crowns of Poetry are not in the keeping of Critics.  There have been many who have given some sign of promise,—just set a rainbow of hope in the dark cloud of their life,—and never fulfilled their promise; and the world has wondered why.  But it might not have been matter of wonder if the world could have read what was written behind the cloud.  Others, again, are songful in youth, like the nightingales in Spring, who soon cease to sing, because they have to build nests, rear their young, and provide for them; and so the songs grow silent, —the heart is full of cares, and the dreamer has no time to dream.  I hope that my future holds some happier fate.  I think there is a work for me to do, and I trust to accomplish it.

April, 1854.