Page images

and see. . . for I darsen't go into the dark to give it yez !"

In the hall, a hand-lamp was set upon the little table. Maggie tottered beside it; the cheek of the Irish girl was whiter than the paper in her shaking hand.

For she held a letter, stained and marred and time-discolored, bearing the forgotten red postage stamp of the denomination of the war; a letter as old as ... O God! as old as anguish! For when Miriam dashed it up against the light, the house rang with such a cry as it would have broken his heart, in heaven, to hear.

"It is his ghost," sobbed Maggie. "His ghost has taken his pen in hand to comfort yez!"

But when has it been recorded in the heavens above, or on the earth beneath, that a ghost could write as he had written? Living was the hand and living was the love that penned those worn and faded pages.

With a clang she locked, and doublelocked, and triple-locked the door, to read this message from beyond the grave. She had the right now. . . . She could keep the whole world off. She and her sacred joy and her holy grief were sanctified at last. He loved her. He had loved her then and always. In a few manly, ardent words, written upon the march, he had poured his heart out, and placed it in her keeping. He had meant to write differently, he said. He had waited to find a better time. But war made no way for love. Would she listen to this poor love-letter? Spoiled, he said, as so much else was spoiled, the lives of men and the happiness of women, by the accidents of war.

"I shall give it to one of the boys who is on the sick list and has a furlough," he wrote, "and he will get it mailed for me, in Washington, I hope, or even in New York. I think it will go more quickly so, and surer. Our mails are irregular, you know, and un


certain. Write to me, if there is time. We may be called into action any hour. I hope I sha'n't disgrace myself, for your sake. I think I shall behave better if I can get your answer, - either way you put it. I have never dared believe you really love me. But if you do, or if you can, - enough, I mean, to be my wife some day, I don't think I could die if I knew that. I should come back all right. Love would find out the way,' you used to sing it seems fifty years ago! I shall write my mother about you, if you give me the right, at once. She and my sister would want to see you. I send you that old ring of mother's you used to see me wear. It is the best I can do, on the march. Wear it for me, dear, if you do love me, till I see your face again. For I am Your own, and only yours, Till death and after it, HAROLD GRAND."

She read. She clasped the gray and tattered paper to her bosom and buried it there. She fell upon her knees, and lifted her streaming face to heaven. And then, for the first time in all those years, she broke into terrible sobs.

So much of this story of a letter as is true I tell; and for more I cannot vouch. What was the fate of the message for fifteen years withheld from the stricken girl? Perhaps the soldier on the furlough died. Perhaps, at the time, his pockets were not searched. Was he some friendless fellow, for whose affairs nobody cared? Did the letter slip between the lining and the army blue? Did the uniform pass from hand to hand? Perhaps it was cut up some day for a veteran's son, and so the worn envelope slipped out, and some one said to one of the children, "There is an old army letter, sealed and stamped, and never sent. Run and mail it, my dear. We must not open it or keep it. It may be some poor girl has waited for it all these years."

Whether in this way or in that way God's mysterious finger traced the lines by which the dead boy's declaration of love did force its way to her, who shall say ? I know no more than you, no more than she; for I tell it only as it I was told to me.

Only this I can append. When young Professor Seyd came to the house again, that evening, the Irish girl stood in the front door and barred the way.

"It's no use, Perfesser Tom," said Maggie, "an' that I takes upon meself There's a dead man got ahead Me and you are nothin', Mr. - nothin' to her but just livin'

to say.

of yez. Tom, folks."

Then Maggie told him what had happened. And Tom Seyd went back to his father's laboratory without a word. In this he showed the discretion of his temperament, which accepts a fact, be it what it will and lead it where it may, without an idle protest.

On that great glad night, she had forgotten him as utterly as annihilation.

The Irish girl was wise. He was nothing to Miriam but a living man.

The elm-tree in the garden could have taught him that; and the Persian lilac might have told him, "It was not love she gave you." But the yellow lilies kept awake to watch for her.

She came at midnight, when all her father's house was still. She wore the old white muslin dress with the little colored pattern. She held her head like a bride, and trod like the Queen of Joy. Nor God nor man could say her nay, now. Proudly she took upon her soul the oath of allegiance which binds the living to the dead, - that ancient oath, so often taken, so often broken, and sometimes kept. She stopped beneath the elm, and stood beside the iron seat against the garden wall. The hot night had grown cool and calm. The moonlight lay at the flood. There Miriam put his mother's ring upon her marriage finger; and there she lifted from the earth to heaven the solemn face of the happiest woman in the land.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.


[blocks in formation]

1300, when a nameless poet warbled of spring in this wise: —

"Between the March and April,
When sprays begin to spring,

The little fowls they have their will
In their own way to sing."

If this be the note of the bards in the year of grace 1400 or 1300, why not in the seventh or eighth century, five hundred years before, which is the presumable date of the Beowulf? It is hardly a satisfactory answer to say that the beauty of nature was there, but not the eyes to see it. Old English literature is rife with passages testifying to appreciation of the sterner mood of nature, a cognizance of her wintry phenomena, her rig

ors of land and sky and water. It is only on the side of warmth and bloom and fragrance that the poetry is so woefully lacking in expression, so insensitive to loveliness and joyance. The explanation lies in large part elsewhere. To give one reason: the first poetry written down in England partakes of the atmosphere of the physical conditions of the country whence come the original settlers, namely, that of the low-lying lands of the Baltic, the North Sea, and the more northerly Atlantic. Beowulf itself, for example, is entirely un-English and Continental in its locale, the scene shifting from Denmark to Sweden. And so with the lesser poetical product: it is the climate of the lowlands, of Norwegian fiords and Danish nesses, that is in the English literature of the earliest period of production; hence it is the darker and grimmer phases of nature which are voiced and pictured in the poetry. A striking illustration of this is to be seen in an Old English idiom. It was not the AngloSaxon's way to use the word "year" as a denominator of time; he spoke of "thirty of winters" instead of thirty years, evidently an unconscious tribute to the prominence of that cold and nipping season in his calendar.


Another explanation of this fondness of our ancestors for winter landscape brings us within the domain of psychology. The first poetry of the race is Christian, heathen in warp and woof; and in the literature which antedates Christianity which has Odin and Thor in the heavens and fatalism as its ethical creed, instead of the sunburst of hope and joy which comes with the white Christ and his cheerier promises of happiness and heaven - the poetic spirit is distinctly, indubitably, more joyless, less perceptive of the bright side of things. Nature, which to the modern poet is but the garment of God, was to his Old English forbears a chilling rather than an inspiriting spectacle; for back of the myth-gods themselves stood Fate, Necessity, with

laws that no man may dodge, and with an iron will in place of a tender heart. Germanic mythology and literature give a lively sense of all this.

These two causes, then (to mention no more), blend to bring about a fact which, at first blush, strikes the modern student as curious and pepellent.

As a result of this dominant note of winter in Old English poetry an effect of gloom and sternness is made on us, especially if we come to the study full of the tropic exuberance and troubadour gayety which run through the literary product of the Romance peoples; or if we are steeped in the bland brightness of classic imagery; or again, if we are conversant with the rich color and sensuous languors of some of the Oriental literatures. It is somewhat gray business, this harping on the one string, this chronicling of only such objective phenomena as are characteristic of the frozen earth and the ice-beaten sea. Yet if sunny charm and color play and soft melody are wanting, there is great graphic power and a sort of wild music in many of the descriptions; we get good etchings, strong black-and-white work, if not the landscapes of Claude and Turner; and there is stimulation for one who has been bred in softer pleasures to turn for the nonce from scented rose gardens and lute tinklings lute tinklings to the sound of storm-swept pines, the smell of briny waters, and the sight of blood-flecked battle-shields shaken in mortal combat. "Pretty" may not be the adjective to apply to such a poetic product, but "fine" and "strong" and "virile" emphatically are.

Examples follow of the way in which the manifold demonstrations of the external world wrought upon our forefathers, as they feasted, hunted, fought, and prayed in Saxon England more than a thousand years ago, and how this found vent in their song. In time, no doubt, we shall have the whole body of Old English poetry in a form which will commend it to popular use and appre

ciation; as yet, however, much remains to be done, and every worker may contribute his mite. In turning the passages into modern English, the AngloSaxon verse-line, with its four stresses, or accents, and its definite alliteration taking the place of the later device of rhyme, is reproduced as nearly as may be. Inevitably, the result is a metre of so much looser, less regular rhythm that an effect of carelessness and comparative formlessness is produced on the reader familiar with more modern verse laws. The rhymeless dithyrambs of Walt Whitman are at times suggested. But although the conception of metrical movement is freer, the laws that govern it are as exact and the artistic limitations as rigorously obeyed as anything that more recent poetry can show. It is a popular error to regard this early verse product as rude and deficient in art.

The long, striking, and beautiful lyric known as The Wanderer, a truly representative poem in its sadness and full of the lament of personal bereavement, contains but two brief references to nature. This is an indication of how laconic is the early poet's use of this embellishment or accessory which in modern times threatens to preëmpt the whole canvas at the expense of motifs and animated foregrounds. Even the most subjective of Old English poets was not satisfied to paint a picture for the mere picture's sake. The Wanderer, a minstrel, is imagined at sea, having lost all his friends, including the lord whose vassal he once was, and is thinking over his past with sick memory. Having dreamed of better times, when his lord clipped him and kissed him, while the bard in turn affectionately laid his hand and head on the kingly knee, he wakes to a realization of his present misery:

"There awakeneth eft the woeful man,

Seeth before him the fallow waves, The sea fowls a-bathing, broadening their feathers,

The rime and snow falling, mingled with hail."

And the poem says that at the sight — this welter of storm-smit waters instead of the warm, feast-glad interior of the great hall - the scald's heart is made the heavier. It is a veritable etching, a sea piece in monochrome, and very typical. It may be said here that perhaps no one phenomenon of nature plays so large a part in Old English literature as the sea, because it played so large a part in the life as well, and again was a monster that spoke the Saxon's sense of the change, the bigness, and the mystery of human days. It were interesting to trace its steady influence in the great singers of the race. Think what inspiration, what imagery, it has furnished Shakespeare, and a long train of successors down to Swinburne and Whitman! The epithet "fallow" as applied to the waves, in the lines just cited, is very fine, and shows the true selective felicity of poetry. In contrast with the gray clouds and the snow-filled air, the water would have taken on just that dusky yellow tinge described by the word. The color scheme of the Anglo-Saxons, it may be remarked, was far more restricted than is ours to-day. Several of our commonest colors appear not at all, and light and shade seem to have made the strongest impression upon them. This fact is a curious commentary on a passage in one of Ruskin's lectures on art, where he remarks that "the way by color is taken by. men of cheerful, natural, and entirely sane disposition in body and mind, much resembling, even at its strongest, the temper of well-brought-up children;" while, contrariwise, "the way by light and shade is taken by men of the highest power of thought and most earnest desire for truth; they long for light, and for knowledge of all that light can show. But seeking for light, they perceive also darkness; seeking for substance and truth, they find vanity. They look for form in the earth, for dawn in the sky, and, seeking these, they find formlessness in the earth and night in the sky." It hardly

seems amiss to name as exponents of the two types here adumbrated the man of Romance stock, sun-loving and insouciant, and the Teuton, with his mood bred of northern gloom and barrenness.

The second passage in The Wanderer occurs near the close of the lyric. The singer gives a gloomy picture of the earth when the evil days come of loss and change, of age and desolation: "Storms shake the stony cliffs,

The snow falls and binds the earth, The winter wails, wan dusk comes, The night-shade nips, from the north sends Rough hail, for harm to heroes." This is vivid description, and proves a vigorous grasp of vocabulary and a happy power in seizing on typically representative features of a wintry landscape. It is not cataloguing, but the movement of the awakened imagination.

In the mysterious ill-defined lyric which Grein calls The Wife's Plaint, and which seems to tell of a woman exiled in a sad, dim wood, far away from her husband, there is a short description which again has shadow and sorrow for its setting, the woman's ill stead being echoed and transcribed in the phase of the external world which is presented. She is telling of her banishment and the place of her abode :

"They bade me to dwell in the bushy woods, Under the oak-trees down in the earth caves. Old are the earth halls; I am all-wretched; Dim are the dens, the dunes towering, Dense the inclosures, with brambles engirt, The dwellings lack joy."

The reference to The Wife's Plaint turns the mind instinctively to the longer and remarkable lyric known as The Ruin; only a fragment, but as precious in its way as one of Sappho's, and full of Old English feeling for the dark things of life, fairly reveling in descriptions of physical destruction. The subject is a city in ruined decay and neglect, and the poem deals scarcely at all with nature directly, but rather with the effects of time upon the work of men as

seen in the fallen wall and tower and rain-pierced roof. In the tenth line, however, there is a touch worth noting. The artisan who built all this mighty structure, says the poet, is long dead, and now his work after him is crumbling to naught. But it was not always so. "Often yon wall

(Deer-gray, red-spotted) saw many a mighty


Hiding from storms."

The descriptive touch en parenthèse is as accurate and careful as it is laconic. It implies real and fresh observation, and a wish for truthful representation.

Another lyric which may well be placed in evidence is that called The Seafarer; it contains several descriptive passages which make it interesting for our particular study. ular study. It pictures a lonely seafarer afloat on the waters, with the usual unpleasant concomitants of bad weather and bleak season:


I may of mine own might a sooth-song sing, Say of my journeys how I through toilful days

Often endured arduous times,

Had to abide breast care full bitter,
Knew on the ship many a sad berth,
Fierce welter of waves, where oft they beat
upon me

In my narrow night-watch at the boat's bow, When it hurtled on the cliffs, conquered by the cold;

Then were my feet by the frost bitten,
In fetters bleak. . . . No man may know it,
Who on the fair, firm land happily liveth,
How I, sore-sorry one, upon the ice-cold sea
Winter long dwelt midst evils of exile,
Lorn of all joys, robbed of my kinsmen,
Behung with icicles. Hail blew in showers;
There heard I naught but the streaming sea,
The ice-cold wave; whilom the swan's song
Had I to pleasure me, cry of the water-hen,
And, for men's laughter, the sea-beast's loud

The singing of gulls instead of mead-drink. Storms beat the stony cliffs, while the seaswallow,

Icy-feathered, answered; full oft the eagle, Moist-feathered, shrieked."

Here we have a full-length portrait of misery, with much vividness and particularity in putting before us the mon

« PreviousContinue »