The Ballad of Babe Christabel

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No. 1371,
th, 1854

The Ballad of Babe Christabel, with other Lyric Poems.*
By Gerald Massey (David Bogue, London)

THE name of Mr. Gerald Massey will be new, we think, to many of our readers.  Some of the poems here reprinted may have seen the light of day elsewhere; but the poet has been singing, like a bird in the night, with but few listeners to his strain, and these few of a class not always boasting of cultivated ears.  He is a workman, and he writes to his class.    His notes have been uttered on the confines of literature: no doubt they have sometimes made eloquent music, as bugles do in far-off mountain wilds, but their echoes have hitherto died in the obscure corners where they first arose.  At length the songster has been able to collect his scattered melodies, and bring them home to other readers in the pregnant and interesting little volume now before us.  It is low in price—slight in appearance.  Let not the reader pass it by on that account.  The oyster is not over fair to look upon; yet may it contain the pearl of price.  

    We have read these lyrics of love and these lays of freedom with the deepest interest.  We would introduce the author to our readers as a young poet—and as something more.  As an artist he is not to be despised.  The faculty divine is there.  In him we have a genuine songster: a man whose ear—though not yet tuned to the complete and glorious harmonies of our English tongue—is sensitive to rhythm, whose pulse and brain throb musically, whose imagination throws out images in sonorous words, each full and fitting to the other perfectly, so that sound and image seem identical.  But the artistic form is only part of what we find to ponder on, to study, and admire in these lyrics.  They contain a life.  Considered only as a poet,—tried by those high and abstract rules which ignore the man and refer exclusively to his work, which put Time, Circumstance, Antecedent out of court, and send imagination to the furthest limits of artistic excellence for models,—Mr. Massey would, no doubt, come off but poorly.  He is a true poet,—but he has grievous defects.  It would be very strange if he had not.  He lacks culture.  He requires taste.  His ear is defective.  He mistakes the meanings of words, —and occasionally he uses epithets which are quite absurd.  His images are sometimes worse for wear.  Indeed, his catalogue of faults is large and various:—the marvel is that it is not much larger, much more various than it is.  Yet with all, he has the true faculty of creative life.  The author of such lines—the producer of such images as these—is certainly a poet.

To his ladye love—

I lookt out on the sunny side of Life,
And saw thee summering like a blooming Vine
That reacheth globes of wine in at the lattice
By the ripe armful.

At the approach of love—

                            My life was set aflush,
As Roses redden when the Spring moves by.
                  *            *            *            *
As when the sap runs up the tingling trees,
Till all the sunny life laughs out in leaves.

Love in its fullness—

Love rays us round as glory swathes a star,
And, from the mystic touch of lips and palms,
Streams rosy warmth!

The hope of the future—

The Future, like a fruitfuller Summer, sits
Ripening her Eden silently.

The birth of a child—

Ah! bliss to make the brain reel wild!
        The Star new kindled in the dark—
        Life that had fluttered like a Lark—
Lay in her bosom a sweet Child!

How she had felt it drawing down
        Her nesting heart more close and close,—
        Her rosebud ripening to a Rose,
That she should one day see full-blown!

The uses of sorrow—

God's ichor fills the hearts that bleed;—
        The best fruit loads the broken bough;
        And in the wounds our sufferings plough,
Immortal Love sows sovereign seed.

Beauty that is only "skin-deep "

I plunged to clutch the pearl of her babbling beauty,
Like a swift dicer in a shallow stream,
That smites his life out on its heart of stone.

Or a plaint over the dead "Babe Christabel "—

With her white hands claspt she sleepeth, heart is husht,
                    and lips are cold;
Death shrouds up her heaven of beauty, and a weary
                    way I go,
Like the sheep without a Shepherd on the wintry norland
          With the face of Day shut out by blinding snow.

O'er its widow'd nest my heart sits moaning for its young
                    that's fled
From this world of wail and weeping, gone to join her
                    starry peers;
And my light of life's o'ershadow'd where the dear one
                    lieth dead,
          And I 'm crying in the dark with many fears.

All last night-tide she seemed near me, like a lost beloved
Beating at the lattice louder than the sobbing wind and
And I call'd across the night with tender name and fond-
                    ling word;
          And I yearn'd out thro' the darkness, all in vain.

Heart will plead, "Eyes cannot see her: they are blind
                    with tears of pain;"
And it climbeth up and straineth, for dear life, to look
                    and hark
While I call her once again: but there cometh no refrain,
          And it droppeth down, and dieth in the dark.

—Here we have illustrations won from Nature—images which are sound, beautiful and fresh.  We could easily multiply such extracts were they needed;—but we have quoted quite enough to indicate the presence in our new workman-poet of that fecund and creative quality of imagination, without which art is barren and labour lost.

    Mr. Gerald Massey has other claims on our attention.  As we have said—his lyrics contain a life.  They contain his own life, and inferentially the life of millions dwelling on the same social level with himself.  It is a subject little thought of by the wealthier classes; yet is it one which our churches, parliaments, and social bodies would do well, we think, to study.  Therefore it is that we introduce at some length to our readers the lyrics and the life now before us as a theme lying somewhat beyond the range of ordinary observation.

A slight memoir, added to the volume, lets us know some little of our poet's history:—

"He was born in May, 1828, and is, therefore, barely twenty-three years of age.  He first saw the light in a little stone hut near Tring, in Herts, one of those miserable abodes in which so many of our happy peasantry—their country's pride!—are condemned to live and die.  One shilling a week was the rent of this hovel, the roof of which was so low that a man could not stand upright in it.  Massey's father was, and still is, a canal boatman, earning the wage of ten shillings a week.   Like most other peasants in this 'highly-favoured Christian country,' he has had no opportunities of education, and never could write his own name.  But Gerald Massey was blessed in his mother, from whom he derived a finely-organized brain and a susceptible temperament.  Though quite illiterate like her husband, she had a firm, free spirit—it's broken now!—a tender yet courageous heart, and a pride of honest poverty which she never ceased to cherish.  But she needed all her strength and courage to bear up under the privations of her lot.  Sometimes the husband fell out of work; and there was no bread in the cupboard, except what was purchased by the labour of the elder children, some of whom were early sent to work in the neighbouring silk-mill.  Disease, too, often fell upon the family, cooped up in that unwholesome hovel: indeed, the wonder is, not that our peasantry should be diseased, and grow old and haggard before their time, but that they should exist at all in such lazar-houses and cesspools.  None of the children of this poor family were educated, in the common acceptance of the term.  Several of them were sent for a short time to a penny school, where the teacher and the taught were about on a par; but so soon as they were of age to work, the children were sent to the silk-mill.  The poor cannot afford to keep their children at school, if they are of an age to work and earn money.  They must help to eke out their parents' slender gains, even though it be only by a few pence weekly.  So, at eight years of age, Gerald Massey went into the silk-manufactory, rising at five o'clock in the morning, and toiling there till half-past six in the evening; up in the grey dawn, or in the winter before the daylight, and trudging to the factory through the wind or in the snow; seeing the sun only through the factory windows; breathing an atmosphere laden with rank oily vapour, his ears deafened by the roar of incessant wheels:—

"Still all the day the iron wheels go onward,
      Grinding life down from its mark;
  And the children's souls, which God is calling sunward,
      Spin on blindly in the dark."

—So sings Mrs. Browning in her most pathetic ballad 'The Cry of the Children'—a ballad, by the way, on account of which Manchester did not fail to visit her with severest penalties.

    The writer of the memoir tells us that "the mill was burned down and the children held jubilee over it.  The boy stood for twelve hours in the wind, and sleet, and mud, rejoicing in the conflagration which thus liberated him."  Mrs. Browning may have had such a factory child and such a scene in mind, when she wrote,—

"How long," they said, "how long, O cruel nation,
    Will you stand—to move the world—on a child's heart,
Stifle down with a mailed heel its palpitation,
    And tread onward to your throne amid the mart?
Our blond splashes upwards. O our tyrants,
    And your Purple shows your path;
But the child's sob curseth deeper in the silence
    Than the strong man in his wrath!"

The burning of the mill, however, brought no rest to the child.—

"Then he went to straw-plaiting,—as toilsome, and perhaps, more unwholesome than factory-work.  Without exercise, in a marshy district, the plaiters were constantly having racking attacks of ague.  The boy had the disease for three years, ending with tertian ague.  Sometimes four of the family, and the mother, lay ill at one time, all crying with thirst, with no one to give them drink, and each too weak to help the other."

Speaking of these early days, the artizan­poet says:—

"Having had to earn my own dear bread, by the eternal cheapening of flesh and blood thus early, I never knew what childhood meant.  I had no childhood.  Ever since I can remember, I have had the aching fear of want, throbbing in heart and brow.  The currents of my life were early poisoned, and few, methinks, would pass unscathed through the scenes and circumstances in which I have lived; none, if they were as curious and precocious as I was.  The child comes into the world like a new coin with the stamp of God upon it; and in like manner as the Jews sweat down sovereigns, by hustling them in a bag to get gold-dust out of them, so is the poor man's child hustled and sweated down in this bag of society to get wealth out of it; and even as the impress of the Queen is effaced by the Jewish process, so is the image of Gad worn from heart and brow, and day by day the child recedes devil-ward.  I look back now with wonder, not that so few escape, but that any escape at all, to win a nobler growth for their humanity.  So blighting are the influences which surround thousands in early life, to which I can bear such bitter testimony."

One other point in the history of this self-educated mind is sufficiently curious and to our purpose to justify quotation from the record:—his discovery in himself of the poetic faculty.—

"Now I began to think that the crown of all de­sire, and the sum of all existence, was to read and get knowledge.  Read! read! read!  I used to read at all possible times, and in all possible places; up in bed till two or three in the morning,—nothing daunted by once setting the bed on fire.  Greatly indebted was I also to the bookstalls, where I have read a great deal, often folding a leaf in a book, and returning the next day to continue the subject; but sometimes the book was gone, and then great was my grief!  When out of a situation, I have often gone without a meal to purchase a book.  Until I fell in love, and began to rhyme as a matter of consequence, I never had the least predilection for poetry.  In fact, I always eschewed it; if I ever met with any I instantly skipped it over, and passed on, as one does with the description of scenery, &c., in a novel.  I always loved the birds and flowers, the woods and the stars; I felt delight in being alone in a summer ­wood, with song, like a spirit, in the trees, and the golden sun-bursts glinting through the verdurous roof; and was conscious of a mysterious creeping of the blood, and tingling of the nerves, when standing alone in the starry midnight, as in God's own pre­sence-chamber.  But until I began to rhyme, I cared nothing for written poetry.  The first verses I ever made were upon 'Hope,' when I was utterly hope­less; and after I had begun, I never ceased for about four years, at the end of which time I rushed into print."

    Doubtless our readers will desire to know the result of this self-culture.  Here is a mind endowed with native force—a will that social barriers may oppose but cannot crush—placed in a labourer's but by accident of birth—an active, revolutionary power, capable of good or ill, according as society shall understand its true function and shall discharge its manifest duty towards it.  In a State—not necessarily a Utopia or a City of the Sun, but in a country where there is a social logic of any kind, perfect or imperfect—a village Milton, Hampden, or Cromwell would be no disturbing power.    Trained by the State in knowledge—cared for as a human being by those about him—taught betimes the great lessons of charity and kindly sentiment towards all—put in the way of taking his appointed place in the social system—it would be strange indeed if he should grow up into man a pining, wrathful, discontented being.  What does our present system do for such a man?  Gerald Massey is but one of many answers to this question.

    Our workman-poet has become a teacher to his class.  He speaks to them in passion—counsels, exhorts, inspires them with his own vehement and vigorous spirit.  Of the power of his appeal to their human sympathy all readers can now judge; of its success we have no doubt.  Like Elliott, Bamford, Nicoll, and many another poet of the people, he has made of his poetic power a political weapon.  "Poetry," said Elliot, "is impassioned truth; and why should we not utter it in the shape that touches our condition the most closely—the political?"  But the question still remains unanswered—what has this new poet learned in the school of social wrong—what are the doctrines which he teaches?  What is the social gospel which this self-ordained and self-invested prophet carries to the fireside of his comrades?

    A first glance down his page is, perhaps, a little startling. Democracy Socialism, are a few of the words which indicate strong opinions and extreme views.  Fierce and stirring words are addressed to the working men of England by the poet of their own order, some of which we are bound to quote.  We begin with an appeal to the Red Republicans, of which sect, we fear, there are more members in London, Manchester, and Glasgow than the Tapers and Tadpoles dream of.—

Fling out the red Banner, O Sons of the morning!
    Young spirits abiding to burst into wings,—
We stand shadow-crown'd, but sublime is the warning,
    All heaven 's grimly husht, and the Bird of Storm sings!
'All's well,' saith the Sentry on Tyranny's tower,
    While Hope by his watch-fire is grey and tear-blind;
Ay, all's well! Freedom's Altar burns hour by hour,
    Live brands for the fire-damp with which ye are mined.

Fling out the red Banner! the patriots perish,
    But where their bones whiten the seed striketh root;
Their blood hath run red the great harvest to cherish:
    Then gather ye, Reapers, and garner the fruit.
Victory! victory!  Tyrants are quaking!
    The Titan of Toil from the bloody thrall starts;
The slaves are awaking, the dawn-light is breaking,
    The foot-fall of Freedom beats quick at our hearts!

    Here, again, is Democracy in another of its extremest forms.—

Good People! put no faith in Kings, nor in your Princes
Who break your hearts for bread, and grind your faces in
            the dust!
The Palace Paupers look from lattice high and mock your
The Champions of the Christ are dumb, or golden bit they
O but to see ye bend no more to earth's crime-cursèd
Ye are God's Oracles; stand forth! be Nature's Priests and
Ye fight and bleed, while Fortune's darlings slink in
            splendid lair;
With lives that crawl, like worms through buried Beauty's
            golden hair!—
A tale of lives wrung out in tears their Grandeur's garb
And the last sobs of breaking hearts sound in their Chariot­
O league ye—crush the things that kill all love and
They are but Giants while we kneel:

    The 'Cry of the Unemployed' strikes another chord in the same scale.—

'Tis hard, 'tis hard to wander on through this bright world
            of ours,
Beneath a sky of smiling blue, on velvet paths of flowers,
With music in the woods, as there were nought but joy-
            aunce known,
Or Angels walkt earth's solitudes, and yet with want to
To see no beauty in the stars, nor in God's radiant smile,
To wail and wander misery-curst! willing, but cannot toil.
There's burning sickness at my heart, I sink down
God of the wretched, hear my prayer: I would that I were

Heaven droppeth down with manna still in many a golden
And feeds the leaves with fragrant breath, with silver dew
            the flow'r.
There's honeyed fruit for bee and bird, with bloom laughs
            out the tree,
And food for all God's happy  things;—but none gives food
            to me.
Earth, deckt with Plenty's garland-crown, smiles on my
            aching eye,
The purse-proud—swathed in luxury—disdainful pass me
I've eager hands, and earnest heart-but may not work for
God of the wretched, hear my prayer: I would that I were

Fierce invective-passionate remonstrance with the world—deep, steady, earnest discon­tent with men and things, with usages and institutions as they now exist—breathe, burn in almost every page of the workman-poet's verse.  Every line is laden with his sense of social wrongs: and many a line suggests—and many an image vivifies—the idea of a vast social re­volution as that which appears to him the natu­ral and inevitable path of issue into a better state.  Listen to this indignant cry!—

Smitten stones stones will talk with fiery tongues,
    And the worm when trodden on will turn;
But, Cowards, ye cringe to the cruellest wrongs,
    And answer with never a spurn.
Then torture, O Tyrants, the spiritless drove,
    Old England's Helots will bear:
There's no hell in their hatred, no God in their love,
    Nor shame in their dearth's despair.
For our Fathers are praying for Pauper-pay,
    Our Mothers with Death's kiss are white:
Our Sons are the rich man's Serfs by day,
    And our Daughters his Slaves by night.

The Tearless are drunk with our tears: have they driven
    The God of the poor man mad?
For we weary of waiting the help of Heaven,
    And the battle goes still with the bad.
O but death for death, and life for life,
    It were better to take and give,
With hand to throat, and knife to knife,
    Than die out as thousands live!
For our Fathers are praying for Pauper-pay,
    Our Mothers with Death's kiss are white;
Our Sons are the rich man's Serfs by day,
    And our Daughters his Slaves by night.

Fearless and few were the Heroes of old,
    Who play'd the peerless part:
We are fifty-fold, but the gangrene Gold
    Hath eaten out Hampden's heart;
With their faces to danger, like freemen they fought,
    With their daring, all heart and hand;
And the thunder-deed follow'd the lightning-thought,
    When they stood for their own good land.
Our Fathers are praying for Pauper-pay,
    Our Mothers with Death's kiss are white;
Our Sons are the rich man's Serfs by day,
    And our Daughters his Slaves by night.

The appeal is not, however, at all times in the form of invective.  The poet leans by the instinct of his art to a belief in the power of Beauty in the material—and of Charity in the moral-world.  Hence there is always light on his path—lurid light it may be now and then—but always light.  He sees, too, the office in the world of love.  We will quote one of his addresses to "The Chivalry of Labour"—less for its poetic merits than as an illustration of the teaching offered to and accepted by an impor­tant body of working men.—

Our world oft turns in gloom, and Life both many a perilous
Yet there's no path so desolate and thorny, cold and gray,
But Beauty like a beacon burns above the dark of strife,
And like an Alchemist eye turns all things to golden life.
On human hearts her presence droppeth precious manna
On human brows her glory gathers like a coming crown:
Her smile lights up Life's troubled stream, and Love, the
            swimmer! lives;
And O 'tis brave to battle for the guerdon that she gives!
Then let us worship Beauty with the knightly faith of old,
O Chivalry of Labour toiling for the Age of Gold!

*            *             *             *

Come, let us worship Beauty where the building Spring doth
And lush green leaves and grasses Bush out sweeter every
Or Summer's tide of splendour floods the lap o' the World
            once more,
With riches like a sea that surges jewels on its shore.
Come feel her ripening influence when Morning feasts our
Thro' open gates of glory—with a glimpse of Paradise:
Or queenly Night sits crowned, smiling down the purple
And Stars, like Heaven's fruitage, melt i' the glory of their
Come let us worship Beauty with the knightly faith of old,
O Chivalry of Labour toiling for the Age of Gold!

Come from the den of darkness and the city's soil of sin,
Put on your radiant Manhood, and the Angel's blessing
Where wealthier sunlight comes from Heaven, like welcome
            smiles of God,
And Earth's blind yearnings leap to life in flowers, from out
            the sod:
Come worship Beauty in the forest-temple, dim and hush,
Where stands Magnificence dreaming! and God burneth in
            the bush:
Or where the old hills worship with their silence for a
Or ocean's weary heart doth keep the sabbath of its calm.
Come, let us worship Beauty with the knightly faith of old,
O Chivalry of Labour toiling for the Age of Gold!

It would seem as if the poetic passion—the love of Beauty—the humanizing influence of the elder poetry—had kept our minstrel right.  If Society had been neglectful—Nature had been bountiful.  The harsh tone is nearly always softened by a gentler note in its immediate neighbourhood.  If there be much of hate in this gathering of strong lines, there is yet more of love.  Few poems in our recent outgrowth of poetic literature are finer than a few of the love-verses here intermingled with denunciation and Red Republicanism.  We quote, as an example, a few verses on Love waiting for its object.—

O many and many a day before we met,
I knew some spirit walkt the world alone,
Awaiting the Beloved from afar;
And I was the anointed chosen one
Of all the world to crown her queenly brows
With the imperial crown of human love,
And light its glory in her happy eyes.
I saw not with mine eyes so full of tears,
But heard Faith's low sweet singing in the night,
And, groping thro' the darkness, toucht God's hand.
I knew my sunshine somewhere warm'd the world,
Tho' I trode darkling in a perilous way;
And I should reach it in His own good time
Who sendeth sun, and dew, and love for all:
My heart might toil on blindly, but, like earth,
It kept sure fooling through the thickest gloom.
Earth, with her thousand voices, talkt of thee!—
Sweet winds, and whispering leaves, and piping birds;
The trickling sunlight, and the flashing dews;
Eve's crimson air and light of twinkling gold;
Spring's kindled greenery, and her breath of balm;
The happy hum and stir of summer woods,
And the light dropping of the silver rain.
Thine eyes oped with their rainy lights, and laughters,
In April's tearful heaven of tender blue,
With all the changeful beauty melting thro' them,
And Dawn and Sunset ended in thy face.
And standing as in God's own presence-chamber,
When silence lay like sleep upon the world,
And it seem'd rich to die, alone with Night,
Like Moses 'neath the kisses of God's lips!
Thee stars have trembled through the holy hush,
And smiled down tenderly, and read to me
The love hid for me in a budding breast,
Like incense folded in a young flower's heart.
Strong as a sea-swell came the wave of wings,
Strange trouble trembled thro' my inner depths,
And answering wings have sprung within my soul;
And from the dumb waste places of the dark,
A voice has breathed, "She comes!" and ebb'd again;
While all my life stood listening for thy coming,
O, I have guess'd thy presence out of sight,
And felt it in the beating of my heart.
When all was dark within, sweet thoughts would come,
As starry guests come golden down the gloom,
And, thro' Night's lattice, smile a rare delight:
While, lifted for the dear and distant Dawn,
The face of all things were a happy light,
Like those dream-smiles which are the speech of Sleep.
Thus Love lived on, and strengthen'd with the days,
Lit by its own true light within my heart,
Like a live diamond burning in the dark.

Some faint echoes of another song and an earlier singer will have been detected in the cadences of the above; but its sentiment and its imagery are mainly new and fresh,—caught up from Nature, not from books.  The following verses have also a familiar tone.—

Our world of empire is not large,
    But priceless wealth it holds;
A little heaven links marge to marge,
    But what rich realms it folds!
And clasping all from outer strife
    Sits Love with folden wing,
A-brood o'er dearer life-in-life,
    Within our fairy-ring,
                                  Dear love!
    Our hallowed fairy-ring.

Thou leanest thy true heart on mine,
    And bravely bearest up!
Aye mingling Love's most precious wine
    In Life's most bitter cup:
And evermore the circling hours
    New gifts of glory bring;
We live and love like happy flowers,
    All in our fairy-ring,
                                  Dear love!
    Our hallowed fairy-ring.

We've known a many sorrows, Sweet!
    We've wept a many tears,
And often trode with trembling feet
    Our pilgrimage of years.
But when our sky grew dark and wild,
    All closelier did we cling;
Clouds broke to beauty as you smiled,
    Peace crown'd our fairy-ring,
                                  Dear love!
    Our hallowed fairy-ring.

We have noted enough to show that here is another poet,—and one whose story and position as a teacher and preacher clothe him with unusual interest.  Mr. Gerald Massey is still young.  He is said to have suffered a severe martyrdom for his opinion's sake,—his great purpose being, as we are told, to prepare the working classes to become co-partners in the industrial enter­prises now conducted solely by the larger capitalists.  What the causes are which drive the more earnest-souled and gifted of the lower orders into poetical politics,—which have changed the pastoral warbling of a Bloomfield and a Clare into the fierce denunciations of an Elliot, a Davis, a Cooper, and a Massey,—would not be far to seek.  Society might find these causes out, if it would only try.


* ED:— the author of this review was William Hepworth Dixon.

Dixon (1821-1879) began his working life as a clerk in Manchester.  In 1846 he decided to take up literature as a career. After gaining some journalistic experience at Cheltenham he settled in London, on the recommendation of Douglas Jerrold, and contributed to the Athenæum and Daily News.  His series of papers "The Literature of the Lower Orders" in the last-named journal, and a further series, "London Prisons," were widely noticed.  John Howard and the Prison World of Europe appeared in 1849 and proved a popular success.  The Life of William Penn followed in 1851, in which he replied to Macaulay's attack on Penn; Life of Blake (1852); and Personal History of Lord Bacon (1861), supplemented by The Story of Lord Bacon's Life (1862).

    From 1853 to 1869 he was editor of the Athenæum.  In 1863 he visited the East, and on his return helped to found the Palestine Exploration Fund, and published (1865) The Holy Land.  In 1866 he travelled through the United States, publishing, in 1867, New America, and, the following year, Spiritual Wives, two supplementary volumes.  In the autumn of 1867 he journeyed through the Baltic Provinces, publishing an account of his trip in Free Russia (1870).  In 1871 he was in Switzerland, and in 1872 in Spain, where he wrote the greater part of his History of Two Queens.  In 1874 he revisited the United States, giving the impressions of his tour in The White Conquest (1875).  His other works, besides some fiction, were British Cyprus (1879) and Royal Windsor.  He died on the 26th of December 1879.  His daughter, Ella N. Hepworth Dixon, became known as a journalist and novelist.