The Child of the Islands . . .

THE CHILD OF THE ISLANDS; By the Hon. Mrs. NORTON. London: Chapman & Hall. 1845.
HOURS WITH THE MUSES; By JOHN CRITCHLEY PRINCE. Second Edition. London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co. 1841.

  The Hon. Mrs. Norton and Prince, “a reed-maker for weavers,” meet upon a common theme—the existing miseries and possible relief of that most wretched body, England’s Poor: most wretched of the world’s sufferers in being worse mocked by pretensions of freedom and glory, most wretched in having minds more awakened to feel their wretchedness.

  Mrs. Norton and Prince meet on the same ground, but in strongly contrasted garb and expression, as might be expected from the opposite quarters from which they come. Prince takes this truly noble motto:

“Knowledge and Truth and Virtue were his theme,
And lofty hopes of Liberty divine.”—Shelley.

  Mrs. Norton prefaces a poem on a subject of such sorrowful earnestness, and in which she calls the future sovereign of a groaning land to thought upon his duties, with this weak wish couched in the verse of Moore:

“As half in shade, and half in sun,
This world along its course advances,
May that side the sun’s upon
Be all that shall ever meet thy glances.”

Thus unconsciously showing her state of mind. It is a very different wish that a good friend, ‘let alone’ a good angel, would proffer to the Prince of Wales at this moment. Shame indeed will it be for him if he does wish to stand in the sun, while the millions that he ought to spend all his blood to benefit are shivering in the cold and dark. The position of the heirs of fortune in that country, under present circumstances, is one of dread, which to a noble soul would bring almost the anguish of crucifixion. How can they enjoy one moment in peace the benefit of their possessions? And how can they give them up, and be sure it will be any benefit to others? The causes of ill seem so deeply rooted in the public economy of England, that, if all her rich men were to sell all they have and give to the poor, it would yield but a temporary relief. Yea! all those heaped-up gems, the Court array of England’s beauty, the immense treasures of art, enough to rouse old Greece from her grave; the stately parks, full of dewy glades and bosky dells, haunted by the stately deer and still more thickly by exquisite memories; the enormous wealth of episcopal palaces, might all be given up for the good of the people at large, and not relieve their sufferings ten years. It is not merely that sense of right usually dignified by the name of generosity that is wanted, but wisdom—a deeper wisdom by far as to the conduct of national affairs than the world has ever yet known. It is not enough now for prince or noble to be awakened to good dispositions. Let him not hope at once to be able to do good with the best dispositions: things have got too far from health and simplicity for that; the return must be tedious, and whoever sets out on that path must resign himself to be a patient student, with a painfully studying world for his companion. In work he can for a long time hope no shining results; the miners dig in the dark as yet for the ransom of the suffering million.

  Hard is the problem for the whole civilized world at present, hard for bankrupt Europe, hard for endangered America. We say bankrupt Europe, for surely nations are so who have not known how to secure peace, education, or even bodily sustenance for the people at large. The lightest lore of fairy tale is wise enough to show that such nations must be considered bankrupt, notwithstanding the accumulation of wealth, the development of resources, the prodigies of genius and science they have to boast. Some successes have been achieved, but at what a price of blood and tears, of error and of crime!

  And, in this hard school-time, hardest must be the lot of him who has turned outward advantages above the rest, and yet is at all awakened to the wants of all. Has he mind? how shall he learn? time—how employ it? means—where apply them? The poor little “trapper,” kept in the dark at his automaton task twelve hours a day, has an easy and happy life before him, compared with the prince on the throne, if that prince possess a conscience that can be roused, a mind that can be developed.

  The position of such a prince is indicated in the following extract which we take from the Schnellpost. Laube says in his late work called “Three royal cities of the North”: “King Oscar still lives in the second story of the castle at Stockholm, where he lived when he was crown prince. He was out, and his dressing gown thrown upon an elbow chair before the writing table: all was open, showing how he was occupied. I found among the books, that seemed in present use, many in German, among them the “Staats Lexicon,” “Julius upon Prisons,” “Rotteck’s History of the World.” It is well known that King Oscar is especially interested in studies for the advantage of the most unhappy classes of citizens, the poor and the prisoners, and has, himself, written upon the subject. His apartment shows domestic habits like those of a writer. No fine library full of books left to accumulate dust, but what he wants, chosen with judgment, ready for use around him. A hundred little things showed what should be the modern kingly character, at home in the intellectual life of our time, earnest for a general culture. Every thing in his simple arrangements showed the manly democratic prince. He is up, early and late, attending with zealous conscientiousness the duties of his office.”

  Such a life should England’s prince live, and then he would be only one of the many virtuous seekers, with a better chance to try experiments. The genius of the time is working through myriad organs, speaking through myriad mouths, but condescends chiefly to men of low estate. She is spelling a new and sublime spell; its first word we know is brotherhood, but that must be well pronounced and learnt by heart before we shall hear another so clearly. One thing is obvious; we must cease to worship princes even in genius. The greatest geniuses will in this day rank themselves as the chief servants only. It is not even the most exquisite, the highest, but rather the largest and deepest experience that can serve us. The Prince of Wales, like his poetess, will not be so able a servant on account of the privileges she so gracefully enumerates and cannot persuade herself are not blessings. But they will keep him, as have kept her, farther from the truth and knowledge wanted than he would have been in a less sheltered position.

  Yet we sympathize with Mrs. Norton in her appeal. Every boy should be a young prince; since it is not so, in the present distorted state of society. It is natural to select some one cherished object as the heir to our hopes. Children become the angels of a better future to all who attain middle age without losing from the breast that chief jewel, the ideal of what man and life should be. They must do what we hoped to do, but find time, strength, perhaps even spirit, failing. They show not yet their limitations; in their eyes shines an infinite hope; we can imagine it realized in their lives, and this consoles us for the deficiencies in our own, for the soul, though demanding the beautiful and good every where, can yet be consoled if it is found some where. ’T is an illusion to look for it in these children more than in ourselves, but it is one we seem to need, being the second strain of the music that cheers our fatiguing march through this part of the scene of life.

  There was a good deal of prestige about Queen Victoria’s coming to the throne. She was young, “and had what in a princess might be styled beauty.”—She wept lest she should not reign wisely, and that seemed as if she might. Many hoped she might prove another Elizabeth, with more heart, using the privileges of the woman, her high feeling, sympathy, tact and quick penetration in unison with and as corrective of the advice of experienced statesmen. We hoped she would be a mother to the country.—But she has given no signs of distinguished character; her walk seems a private one. She is a fashionable lady and the mother of a family. We hope she may prove the mother of a good prince, but it will not do to wait for him; the present generation must do all it can. If he does no harm, it is more than is reasonable to expect from a prince—does no harm and is the keystone to keep the social arch from falling into ruins till the time be ripe to construct a better in its stead.

  Mrs. Norton, addressing herself to the Child of the Islands, goes through the circling seasons of the year and finds plenty of topics in their changes to subserve her main aim. This is to awaken the rich to their duty. And, though the traces of her education are visible and weak prejudices linger among newly awakened thoughts, yet, on the whole, she shows a just sense of the relationship betwixt man and man, and thus musically doth she proclaim her creed:

The stamp of imperfection rests on all
Our human intellects have power to plan;
’T is Heaven’s own mark, fire-branded at the fall,
When we sank lower than we first began,
And the Bad Angel stained the heart of man:
The good our nature struggles to achieve
Becomes, not what we would, but what we can:
Oh! shall we therefore idly, vainly grieve,
Or coldly turn away reluctant to relieve?

Even now a radiant Angel goeth forth,
A spirit that hath healing on his wings,
And flieth East and West, and South and North,
To do the bidding of the King of Kings:
Stirring men’s hearts to compass better thing,
And teaching brotherhood as that sweet source
Which holdeth in itself all better springs;
And showing how to guide its silver course,
When it shall flood the world with deep, exulting force,

And some shall be too indolent to teach,
And some too proud of other men to learn;
And some shall clothe the thought in mystic speech,
So that we scarce their meaning may discern;
But all shall feel their hearts within them burn,
(Even those by whom the Holy is denied,)
And in their worldly path shall pause and turn,
Because a Presence walketh by their side,
Not of their earthlier mould, but pure and glorified;

And some shall blindly overshoot the mark
Which others, feeble-handed, fail to hit;
And some, like that lone Dove that left the Ark,
With restless and o’erwearied wing to flit
Over a world by lurid storm-gleams lit,
Shall seek firm landing for a deed of worth,
And see the water-floods still cover it;
For there are many languages on Earth,
But only one in Heaven, where all good plans have birth.

Faint not, oh Spirit, in dejected mood,
Thinking how much is planned, how little done;
Revolt not, Heart, though still misunderstood;
For Gratitude, of all things ’neath the sun,
Is easiest lost and insecurest won.
Doubt not, clear Mind, that workest out the Right
For the right’s sake: the thin thread must be spun,
And Patience weave it, ere that sign of might,
Truth’s banner, wave afloat, fall flashing to the light.

Saw ye the blacksmith, with a struggling frown,
Hammer the sparkle-drifting iron straight
Saw ye the comely anchor, holding down
The storm-tried vessel with its shapely weight?
Saw ye the bent tools, old and out of date,
The crucibles, and fragments of pale ore,
Saw ye the lovely coronet of state
Which in the festal hour a monarch wore,
The sceptre and the orb which in her hand she bore?

Saw ye the trudging laborer with his spade
Plant the small seedling in the rugged ground?
Saw ye the forest trees within whose shade
The wildest blasts of winter wander round,
While the strong branches toss and mock the sound?
Saw ye the honey which the bee had hived,
By starving men in desert wandering found;
And how the soul gained hope, the worn limbs thrived,
Upon the gathered store by insect skill contrived?

Lo! out of chaos was the world first called,
And Order out of blank Disorder came,
The feebly-toiling heart that shrinks appalled,
In dangers weak, in difficulties tame,
Hath lost the spark of that creative flame
Dimly permitted still on earth to burn,
Working out slowly Order’s perfect frame;
Distributed to those whose souls can learn,
As laborers under God, His taskwork to discern.

  “To discern,” ay! that is what is needed. Only these “laborers under God” have that clearness of mind that is needed, and though in the present time they walk as men in a subterranean passage where the lamp sheds its light only a little way onward, yet that light suffices to keep their feet from stumbling while they seek an outlet to the blessed day.

  The above presents a fair specimen of the poem. As poetry it is inferior to her earlier verses, where, without pretension to much thought or commanding view, Mrs. Norton expressed simply the feelings of the girl and the woman. Willis has described them well in one of the most touching of his poems, as being a tale

“of feelings which in me are cold.
But ah! with what a passionate sweetness told!”

  The best passages in the present poem are personal, as where a mother’s feelings are expressed in speaking of infants and young children, recollections of a Scotch Autumn, and the description of the imprisoned gipsy:

SHE lies, crouched up upon her pallet-bed,
Her slight limbs starting in unquiet sleep,
And oft she turns her feverish, restless head,
Mourns, frets or murmurs, or begins to weep;
Anon, a calmer hour of slumber deep
Sinks on her lids; some happier thought hath come,
Some jubilee unknown she thinks to keep,
With liberated steps that wander home,
Once more with gipsy tribes a gipsy life to roam.

But no, her pale lips quiver as they moan:
What whisper they? A name, and nothing more;
But with such passionate tenderness of tone,
As shows how much those lips that name adore.
She dreams of one who shall her loss deplore
With the unbridled anguish of despair;
Whose forest-wanderings by her side are o’er,
But to whose heart one braid of her black hair
Were worth the world’s best throne and all its treasures rare.

The shadow of his eyes is on her soul,
His passionate eyes that held her in such love;
Which love she answered, scorning all control
Of reasoning thoughts which tranquil bosoms move:
No lengthened courtship it was his to prove,
(Gleaming capricious smiles by fits and starts,)
Nor feared her simple faith lest her should rove;
Rapid and subtle as the flame that darts
To meet its fellow flame, shot passion through their hearts.

And though no holy priest that union blessed,
By gipsy laws and customs made his bride,
The love her looks avowed, in words confessed,
She shared his tent, she wandered by his side;
His glance her morning star—his will her guide.
Animal beauty and intelligence
Were her sole gifts—his heart they satisfied.
Himself could claim no higher, better sense,
So loved her with a love, wild, passionate, intense!

And oft, where flowers lay spangled round about,
And to the dying twilight incense shed,
They sat to see heaven’s glittering stars come out,
Her cheek down-leaning on his cherished head—
That head upon her heart’s soft pillow laid
In fulness of content, and such deep spell
Of loving silence, that the word first said
With startling sweetness on their senses fell,
Like silver coins dropped down a many-fathomed well.

Look! her brows darken with a sudden frown,
She dreams of Rescue by his angry aid—
She dreams he strikes the Law’s vile minions down,
And bears her swiftly to the wild-wood shade;
There, where their bower of bliss at first was made.
Safe in his sheltering arms once more she sleeps;
Ah! happy dream! she wakes, amazed, afraid,
Like a young panther from her couch she leaps,
Gazes bewildered round, then madly shrieks and weeps!

For, far above her head, the prison-bars
Mock her with narrow sections of that sky
She knew so wide, and blue, and full of stars,
When gazing upward through the branches high
Of the free forest! Is she then to die?
Where is he!—where, the strong-armed and the brave,
Who in that vision answered her wild cry?
Where is he?—where, the lover who should save
And snatch her from her fate—an ignominious grave?

Oh pity her! all sinful though she be,
While thus the transient dreams of freedom rise,
Contrasted with her waking destiny:
Scorn is for devils; soft compassion lies
In angel hearts, and beams from angel-eyes.
Pity her! Never more, with wild embrace,
Those flexile arms shall clasp him ere she dies;
Never the fierce, sad beauty of her face
Be lit with gentler hope, or love’s triumphant grace!

Lonely she perishes; like some wild bird
That strains its wing against opposing wires;
Her heart’s tumultuous panting may be heard,
While to the thought of rescue she aspires,
Then, of its own deep strength, it faints and tires;
The frenzy of her mood begins to cease;
Her varying pulse with fluttering stroke expires,
And the sick weariness that is not peace
Creeps slowly through her blood, and promises release.

  In the same soft and flowing style and with the same unstudied fidelity to nature, is the grief of the gipsy husband painted when he comes and finds her dead. After the first fury of rage and despair is spent, he “weepeth like a child”—

And many a day, by many a sunny bank,
Or forest-pond, close fringed with rushes dank,
He wails, his clench’d hands on his eyelids prest;
Or by lone hedges, where the grass grows rank,
Stretched prone, as travellers deem, in idle rest,
Mourns for that murdered girl, the dove of his wild nest.

  To such passages the woman’s heart lends the rhetoric.

  Generally the poem is written with considerable strength, in a good style, sustained, and sufficiently adorned by the flowers of feeling. It shows an expansion of mind highly honorable to a lady placed as Mrs. Norton has been, and for which she, no doubt, is much indebted to her experience of sorrow. She has felt the need of faith and hope, of an enlargement of sympathy. The poem may be read through at once and without fatigue; this is much to say for an ethical poem, filling a large volume. It is, however, chiefly indebted for its celebrity to the circumstances of its authorship. A beautiful lady, celebrated in aristocratic circles, joins the democratic movement, now so widely spreading in light literature, and men hail the fact as a sign of the times. The poem is addressed to the “upper classes,” and, even from its defects, calculated to win access to their minds. Its outward garb, too, is suited to attract their notice. The book is simply but beautifully got up, the two stanzas looking as if written for the page they fill, and pre-existent harmony with the frame-work and margin. There is only one ugly thing, and that frightfully ugly, the design for the frontispiece by Maclise. The Child of the Islands, represented by an infant form to whose frigid awkwardness there is no correspondence in the most degraded models that can be found in Nature for that age, with the tamest of angels kneeling at his head and feet, angels that have not spirit and sweetness enough to pray away a fly forms the centre. Around him are other figures of whom it is impossible to say whether they are goblins or fairies, come to curse or bless. The accessaries are as bad as the main group, mean in conception, tame in execution. And the subject admitted of so beautiful and noble an illustration by Art! We marvel that a person of so refined taste as Mrs. Norton, and so warmly engaged in the subject, should have admitted this to its companionship. The volume may be found at Appleton’s.

  We intended to have given some account of Prince and his poems, in this connection, but must now wait till another number, for we have spread our words over too much space already.*

“The Child of the Islands . . .” New-York Daily Tribune, 26 July 1845, p. 1.