Moultrie’s Poems

Moultrie’s Poems

“And what shall I say of Moultrie, the humorous Moultrie, and the pathetic Moultrie, the Moultrie of Godiva, and the Moultrie of My Brother’s Grave? Truly I should say nothing of him, for his genius is so incomprehensive, and his capabilities so varied, that if I were to attempt to draw his character or define his powers, it would be ten to one that the next effort of his pen would prove my every word a lie. I am safe at least in predicating that he will be great, whatever he attempts, and that whether he chooses to laugh or weep, he will laugh and weep to some purpose.”

So wrote Praed in 1821, in the concluding number of The Etonian, when, in his character of Peregrine Courtenay, he was dealing with the subject of Etonian poets. But Moultrie, the poetic Colleger, who had already left Eton and preceded his friend Praed to Cambridge, was not destined quite to fulfil his schoolfellow’s prediction. Indeed, it is a noticeable fact that none of those three clever young poets, Praed, Moultrie and William Sydney Walker, who between them wrote nearly all the best pieces in The Etonian—and that is no slight praise—realised the brilliant promise of early youth. In Moultrie’s case it was not the proverbial fate of poets, an early death, that blighted a rising genius, for he long outlived his two gifted schoolfellows and died in 1874 in his seventy-fifth year. But, for some reason or other, the subtler grace of his poetic power had faded away with the approach of mature years and more serious thought; and the productions of his manhood, excellent though they are in force and clearness of expression, are certainly inferior to those of his boyhood in the more peculiar and essential qualities of poetry. Had he died, like Chatterton or Kirke White, at an early age, speculation might have been busy as to the great poems which English literature had lost through death. As it is, we have a significant indication that such surmises as to what might have been are not always trustworthy; for if Moultrie be remembered as a poet, it will undoubtedly be for his juvenile, and not his mature productions: he will be remembered not as the author of The Dream of Life, but as the Moultrie of Godiva, and of My Brother’s Grave.

Moultrie was born on the last day of the last century, his father being Rector of Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire. He was sent to Eton on the Foundation in 1811, and here he soon distinguished himself as a cricketer, as an actor, and above all as a poet. Like Shelley, who was his senior by seven years in Etonian chronology, he wrote Latin verses with astonishing ease and rapidity; but his greatest fame was won by his poetical contributions to Horæ Otiosæ and The College Magazine, two school journals, which preceded the more famous Etonian. But though, as he tells us in his Dream of Life, he enjoyed “a scholar’s reputation,” his severer studies suffered from his lack of industry and determined effort—defects which also marked his career at the University. He went to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1819, and here the best of his early poems were written, some being published in the Etonian, 1820-1821, and others in Knight’s Quarterly Magazine, which was started at Cambridge after The Etonian had come to an end. To Knight’s Quarterly, Macaulay was also a contributor, and thus arose the error, long current among booksellers, that Macaulay was one of the staff of The Etonian.

The strongest characteristic of Moultrie’s early poems is perhaps their ideality. They are full of passionate appeals to the spirit of ideal beauty, youthful dreams of poetry and love, and an eager, though modest and hesitating anticipation of literary fame. One can see that they are the creations of a young genius whose poetic temperament had been fostered and quickened, as is the way and the natural way, with most young geniuses, at the expense of the philosophic faculty. There is no lack of wit, fancy, versatility, and power of expression; yet one feels that want of some more solid basis of thought and greater earnestness of purpose. It can scarcely be doubted that Moultrie to some extent furnished the original of the character of Gerard Montgomery, one of the imaginary members of the staff of The Etonian. “His genius,” so we read in that magazine,

“is a brilliant of the first water, but his talents have been suffered to run wild owing to their very luxuriance. I believe he had reached the perfection of human happiness, when having locked himself in his room this poetical enthusiast indulged in sentimental tears over some favourite poem which he was reading aloud with energy and feeling. This sensibility often led Gerard into many other extravagances, and he was looked upon as a romantic visionary by those of the common mould.”

Opinions will probably differ as to the comparative excellence of the grave and the gay among Moultrie’s early writings. It seems to me that, in spite of the deserved fame of My Brother’s Grave, “the humorous Moultrie” is distinctly superior to the pathetic; and he appears himself to have felt a natural inclination to write in the humorous vein during this period, whereas in the later poems the serious style is found to predominate. The four longest and best of the early humorous pieces are written in that Bernesque style of ottava rima which was first introduced into English literature by John Hookham Frere and then made popular by Bryon. The Byronic influence is naturally strong in Moultrie’s juvenile poems; and he himself was well aware of this, as we see from an allusion in one of his later works:

“My mind spell-bound beneath the strength
Of Byron’s genius in its prime.”

He was also an attentive reader of Shelley, as we shall presently see, and this at a time when Shelley’s admirers were few. Godiva and Maimune, published in The Etonian in 1820 and 1821 respectively, are wonderful productions for an author who had only just ceased to be a schoolboy. In spite of the many digressions and personal allusions, which are too numerous to be justified even by the license of the Bernesque style, a tendency which from the first was very marked in Moultrie’s writings, they have a singular gracefulness of fancy and harmony of versification, which by no means lose their charm even by the side of Bryon’s masterpieces in this metre. Godiva is so delightful a poem that we can well believe it found favour even with readers of such diverse tastes as the critic Gifford and the poet Wordsworth. The former is said to have chuckled with pleasure over some of its stanzas, and to have remarked, “There can now be no doubt of Moultrie’s powers.” Wordsworth expressed the opinion that Godiva was superior to Beppo; and though we may have a shrewd suspicion that the author of The Excursion was scarcely qualified to be a good critic of Bernesque humour, yet it is possible that in this instance he was not far from the truth. There are many passages of remarkable beauty in Godiva, none perhaps better than the following description of Godiva’s unrobing, which may bear comparison even with the corresponding passage in Lord Tennyson’s poem, than which it is rather more diffuse. The youthful Etonian must at least be credited with having anticipated a Poet Laureate in the simile of “a summer moon half-dipt in cloud.”

“The lady rose from prayer, with check o’er-flush’d,
And eyes all radiant with celestial fire,
The anguish’d beatings of her heart were hush’d,
So calmly heavenward did her thoughts aspire.
A moment’s pause—and then she deeply blush’d,
As, trembling, she unclasp’d her rich attire,
And, shrinking from the sunlight, shone confest
The ripe and dazzling beauties of her breast.

“And when her white and radiant limbs lay bare,
The fillet from her brow the dame unbound,
And let the traces of her raven hair
Flow down in wavy rightness in the ground,
Till half they veil’d her limbs and bosom fair,
In dark and shadowy beauty floating round,
As clouds, in the still firmament of June,
Shade the pale splendours of the midnight moon.”

Maimune, though considerably longer than Godiva and still more discursive, is scarcely less delightful. The tale is partly drawn from the story of Aladdin in The Arabian Nights; while Maimune, the fairy who gives her name to the poem, is a kind of Mab, a spiritual patroness and benefactress of the human race, a character which seems to have been a favourite one with Moultrie, as it appears again in The Witch of The North and Sir Launfal. The manner in which the freakish fancy of this benignant spirit planned and effected the union of a certain prince and princess, as in the case of Aladdin and the Sultan’s daughter, is told with keen yet delicate humour, and in language of real melody and beauty. The Witch of The North, dated November, 1824, is another poem in ottava rima. In spite of the ideal treatment, and the halo of allegorical and imaginative phantasy in which the subject is shrouded, the poem is in fact a piece of autobiography, the Witch being none other than Miss Fergusson, the young lady of Scotch family who afterwards became the poet’s wife, while the “Genius from a fair western land,” who was subdued by the magic of the witch, is evidently meant for the young Salopian poet himself. The poem is chiefly remarkable, from a literary point of view, for its extraordinary resemblance in some parts to Shelley’s Witch of Atlas, first published among his Posthumous Poems in 1824, which Moultrie had evidently studied. Shelley has himself been so often caught tripping, however unconsciously, in the way of plagiarism, that it is interesting sometimes to see the reverse side of the medal, and to find another poet appropriating title, ideas, cadences, and even words, from him. This Moultrie has done in a very marked manner in his Witch of The North, especially in the general tone of the opening stanzas, describing the birth of the “lady-witch,” and the account of her magic dwelling. In such lines as,

“The deep recesses of her inmost cell
Were garnished with strange treasures—,”

when compared with Shelley’s,

“The deep recesses of her odorous dwelling
Were stored with magic treasures—,”

we recognise something more than the frequent indebtedness of one poet to another; while the last stanza of the poem is almost a reproduction, or rather an inversion, of Shelley’s conclusion. Shelley declares that his is

“A tale more fit for the weird winter nights
Than for these garish summer days, when we
Scarcely believe much more than we can see;”

while Moultrie says of his that

“Such a strain
Is fitter far for some calm summer eve,
Than for these merry winter nights, when we
Begin to dream of Christmas revelry.”

A resemblance so close as this can hardly have been unconscious; yet it is noticeable that in Maimune Moultrie had already described a similar subject in very similar, and equally beautiful, verse at a date prior not only to the publication, but even the writing, of Shelley’s Witch of Atlas. The last of Moultrie’s Bernesque poems was Sir Launfal, a metrical romance, written when the author was still very young, and first published in Knight’s Quarterly Magazine under the title of La Belle Tryamour. It is a combination of fairly lore and Arthurian legend derived partly from a Spenserian source. As a whole it is less successful than the poems already mentioned, the narrative being loose and unequal, unduly spun out in some parts, and left unfinished at the close. Yet there are many striking passages and not a few interesting allusions, notably those of Shelley and his Achates, Leigh Hunt, who is twitted with descending from the friendship of “a vast though erring spirit” to that of Byron, the “misanthropic peer.” The following clever burlesque on the ideal philosophy of Berkeley seems to indicate that Moultrie’s views were becoming more matter-of-fact and practical at the time when Sir Launfal was written.

“Oh, ’tis most soothing, when all objects seem
Wrapt in a sevenfold cloud of fear and sorrow,
To know they’re nothing but a hideous dream,
From which no doubt we shall awake to-morrow
To sober certainty of bliss supreme.
Hence consolation from all ills I borrow
By disbelieving with my whole ability
All things that wear a shade of probability.

I don’t believe in matter—nor in spirit;
I don’t believe that I exist, not I,
Nor you, Sir, neither—if you choose to swear it,
I tell you, very fairly, that you lie;
If you think fit to thresh me, I can bear it,
Knowing the thumps in fact are all my eye,
And that all sorts of fractures, hurts, and bruises
Are as unreal—as the patient chooses.”

The early reputation of “the pathetic Moultrie” rested chiefly on My Brother’s Grave, a short poem somewhat in the style of Bryon’s Prisoner of Chillon, first published in The College Magazine and then in the first number of The Etonian. It appeared again in the collected editions of Moultrie’s works, and having been often reprinted in anthologies and books of extracts has probably been read more widely than any of his other writings. That so beautiful and genuine a poem should have been written by a boy at Eton, strikes one as scarcely less than amazing; and it is doubtful if the annals of English literature could produce any stranger instance of precocious genius. But none of Moultrie’s other pieces on grave and pathetic subjects ever quite reached this high standard: certainly The Hall of My Fathers, the companion piece in The Etonian and written in a similar style, is far inferior in power and originality. Among the other poems written before 1828 there are many pleasing lyrics, songs, and sonnets, of which the best, and the best-known, lines are those headed “Forgot Thee,” which are said to have won Moultrie his bride and are full of passion and intense feeling. But with this exception, there is little that can claim to approach the excellence of first-rate poetry; and there are many signs that Moultrie’s poetic genius was already on the wane, and that while still retaining his old power of melodious versification and vigorous expression, he had lost much of the characteristic grace and fantastic beauty of his youthful style. Even as early as 1820 he himself had misgivings on this point, for we find him writing in Godiva, in invocation of the Muse,

“Spirit which art within me, if in truth
Thou dost exist in my soul’s depths, and I
Have not mistaken the hot pulse of youth
And wandering thoughts for dreams of poesy;”

while in Sir Launfal the youthful ambition is spoken of as already feld.

“And that fond dream which lured me on for ever
Through a long boyhood, saying I might earn
The poet’s laurel with serene endeavour,
And write my name on an enduring urn,
Hath now departed.”

Yet as late as 1835 Macaulay wrote to Moultrie from India: “You might have done, and if you choose may still do great things, but I cannot blame you if you despise greatness and are content with happiness.” And again, in 1837, the Quarterly Review referred to the first collected edition of Moultrie’s poems, as “A small volume of such decided excellence as to give the author at once a distinguished place amongst the younger poets of the day.” But Moultrie, however much he may have been gratified by the encouragement of an old college friend and the praise of a critic not usually over indulgent to rising poets, was too sensible and modest not to perceive that the full height of his youthful ambition would never be realised. In the concluding stanzas which he added about this time to the fragment of Sir Launfal he speaks of his “fancy’s frozen stream” as having ceased to flow thirteen years before. Much had happened in those years; and time had added to Moultrie’s character that gravity and earnestness of purpose which had been lacking in youth; but with the gain in moral dignity and self-control, there had been (such was the perversity of fate!) a corresponding loss in the imaginative and poetic faculty.

In 1822 Moultrie had taken his degree, and again found himself at Eton as private tutor to Lord Craven, who three years later presented him with the living at Rugby. He was married in 1825, but did not enter on his duties at Rugby until 1828, the year in which Arnold was appointed to the headmastership of Rugby School. Henceforth the tone of his writings underwent a great change. The brilliant and extravagant fancy of the early poems is not only succeeded by a more sober and homely style, but is referred to in an apologetic manner as a youthful levity to be condoned and forgotten by the indulgent reader, in consideration of the “calm and serious thought” of the maturer writings, a large proportion of which are on religious subjects. The pastor-poet would fain forget the wayward flights and dreamy speculations of the boyish idealist. Yet it must be confessed that the general reader of Moultrie’s works, to whom the poet is of more interest than the pastor, often sighs for the Gerard Montgomery of The Etonian, scapegrace though he was, and would willingly exchange the equable tenor of the Lays of The English Church for the rapid and sparkling stanzas of Maimune of Godiva. Another blemish in the later writings is their increased subjectivity. It has been already said that this tendency to dwell on personal matters was from the first a marked feature in Moultrie’s style, and it was now carried to excess, his family, friends, health, joys, sorrows, and domestic life being his too frequent themes. In some few of the domestic pieces, notably in The Three Sons, a poem which is said to have affected Arnold deeply, Moultrie succeeded in striking a chord of feeling common to many hearts; but in the majority of cases the result is less successful. Yet it is apparent that he retained to the last much of his characteristic vigour and clear, perspicuous style; and this is especially true of his sonnets, the most noteworthy of which are those to Praed, Arnold, Macaulay, Dr. Chamers, and Baptist Noel. One addressed at Augustus Swift, a young American, was written as late as 1870, yet is remarkable for its conciseness and force.

In 1843 Moultrie published a volume entitled The Dream of Life, Lays of The English Church, and other poems. The first of these is an autobiography in four books of blank verse, valuable less for its actual poetic merits, though it has many fine descriptive passages, than for its very interesting allusions to the author’s life at Eton, Cambridge, and Rugby, and the personal friends made by him at each period. There is a graphic account of the Eton of Moultrie’s school-days, to us the Eton of seventy years ago, with its Long Chamber and theatricals, and much else that has now passed away, though the fagging, and the Fourth of June, and the cricket-matches, remain almost as Moultrie has pictured them. In the book devoted to life at Cambridge we meet with still more interesting reminiscences. After an affectionate tribute to the memory of Praed, that “nature of the purest mould,” who had died two years before The Dream of Life was written, the poet proceeds to describe the manner of his college career, his intimate friendship with Derwent Coleridge, and their daily strolls to Grandchester, Cherry Hinton, Trumpington, and Madingley, “sole village from the plague of ugliness in that drear land exempt.” To this strolling propensity, by the by, indulged in to the detriment of mathematical studies, Moultrie attributes his own loss of diligence and self-discipline; but one is inclined to think that in this retrospect he confused consequence with cause; for the Moultrie described in The Dream of Life as forgetful of the claims “of curves and squares and parallelograms” is obviously only a later picture of the Gerard Montgomery of The Etonian, who “skimmed with volatile eagerness along the gayer and more pleasing paths of literature.” Very animated is Moultrie’s account of the debates at the Cambridge Union, and the subsequent oyster-suppers in his rooms in Petty Cury, whither “the leaders of the war on either side” would often adjourn for further informal discussion. Those were indeed suppers of the gods, when the company included Praed, the youth “fresh from Etonian discipline” (words which have sometimes been wrongly understood as applying to the late Lord Derby); Macaulay, the “one of ampler brow and ruder frame”; Henry Malden, afterwards Greek Professor at London University, “grave and prone to silence”; Henry Nelson Coleridge, one of the staff of The Etonian, and still “a comely youth, though prematurely grey”; Charles Austin, the “pale spare man of high and massive brow”; Chauncey Hare Townshend, another Etonian poet, and his friend Charles Taylor; and last, the brilliant but ill-fated William Sydney Walker, whose mind was clouded in early manhood by insanity. Moultrie’s estimate of Macaulay’s genius, in its weakness as well as its strength, is particularly clear-sighted.

“He was in truth
The king of Understanding, unapproach’d,
Unrivall’d in his own particular range
Of thought; and if that range was not the first,
If there were regions into which his gaze
Pierced not—such deficiency
Found ample compensation in the strength
And full perfection of his actual powers
And the quick tact which wielded them.”

The final book of The Dream of Life is devoted to the subject of Moultrie’s marriage and his entry on his ministerial duties at Rugby. The description of Rugby, the “little town of various brick, irregularly built,” with its surrounding track of “hedgerow upon hedgerow,” possessing no charms for the poet but those of “verdure and fertility,” is not calculated to give entire satisfaction to patriotic Rugbeians, who may perhaps set it down to Moultrie’s Etonian predilections. Full justice, however, is done to the character of Arnold, the “first of Christian teachers,” with whom Moultrie was on terms of cordial friendship, although they were men of very different character. Here, too, it is recorded how Wordsworth, the “mighty poet of the Lakes,” once visited Moultrie at Rugby, and conversed with him “on themes of loftiest import.”

The Lays of The English Church are a portion of an unfinished work, which was originally meant to be a succession of poems founded on the espistles and gospels of the Anglican liturgy; a kind of popular Christian Year, appealing to simpler and less cultivated readers than those of Keble. More noteworthy than these are the two Lays of The Parish, reminiscences respectively of the cares and recreations incidental to parish labours. The first, Euthanasia, a tale of pain and suffering endured and vanquished by faith and patience, is written in something of the homely tone of Crabbe’s poetical narratives; while the second, The Song of The Kettle, is a “wild strain” in Spenserian metre, celebrating the delights of temperance and tea-drinking in verses almost as vigorous as those in which Gerard Montgomery used to sing the glories of the famous punch-bowl in the club-room of The Etonian.

 The Black Fence, which by an amusing blunder appears as The Black Prince in some catalogues, was published at Rugby as a pamphlet in 1850. It is entitled A Lay of Modern Rome, and is a vigorous denunciation of the inroads of Papistry, written in the metre of Macaulay’s Armada: the Black Fence, the garden-boundary of a recent covert to the Romish Church, being regarded as typical of the pale of Rome. The last volume published by Moultrie was Altars, Hearths, and Graves, 1854, which contains many domestic pieces, and a few of wider interest. The two most striking of his later poems are perhaps The Three Minstrels, in which he gives an account of his meetings, on different occasions, with Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Tennyson; and Musœ Etonenses, some find stanzas written as an introduction to an edition of Gray, in which he pays a tribute of affection to Eton, with allusions to the Marquis Wellesley, to the poet Gray, distinguished “with many a graceful fold of learned thought,” and lastly, to Shelley, the “stripling pale and lustrous-eyed,” the charm of whose character, no less than the beauty of his verse, seems to have always had an attraction for Moultrie in spite of their wide difference of opinion. During his later life at Rugby, Moultrie was known as an excellent reader of Shakespeare,—as he wrote in his Dream of Life,

“Here, in this study, cramm’d
With strangest piles of heterogeneous lore,
O’er Shakespeare’s magic pages we have laugh’d
And wept by turns.”

He died on the twenty-sixth of December, 1874, of a fever caught while visiting in his parish.

Moultrie’s character is faithfully reflected in his writings. Though his actual accomplishments do no entitle him to be classed among the foremost poets of his age, a position which his early efforts seemed to promise him, yet he certainly possessed a large share of the poetic temperament: he had the poet’s vision, and the poet’s yearning after ideal truth and beauty. The leading points of his very lovable character, a mixture of humour and pathos, of ruggedness and gentleness, of energy and repose, may be traced throughout all his poems, which at their best reach a high standard of excellence, and at their worst never fail to be harmonious and clear. He deserves to be read and remembered among the minora sidera of the times in which he lived, both for the merits of his own writings, and as one of a brilliant circle of friends and contemporaries.

H. S. Salt

Macmillan's Magazine, November 1, 1887