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'Just so the mighty Nile has suffered in its fame
And again :
'And then how much and nothing is mankind,
Who by that vainly talks of baffling death:
And hopes to lengthen life by a transfusion of breath,
To be an art as vain as bottling up of wind.'
As in Congreve's Address to Silence, the force of cacophony can no further go. It may be said that these lines were the products of 'green, unknowing youth,' but during the same years the same writer was maturing the Tale of a Tub. Swift had no ear save for the discords of the world, and in such cases a stiff regular measure, which is a sort of rhythmic policeman, is the only safe guard. Pindaric flights, unless under the guidance of the genius that makes music as it runs, invariably result in confusion worse confounded. Not least among our debts to Dryden may be ranked his fencing the ode from his cousin Swift. Of the pseudo-classic efforts of the latter, Cadenus and Vanessa, published in 1723, probably written about ten years earlier, may be taken as a type. No selection from his verses would be esteemed satisfactory that did not exhibit a sample of this once celebrated production: but, apart from the tragic interest of the personal warning conveys, it is, as M. Taine says, ‘a threadbare allegory in which the author's prosaic freaks tear his Greek frippery.' The same critic justly remarks that Swift 'wore his mythology like a wig: that his pleading before Venus is like a legal procedure,' and that he habitually 'turns his classic wine to vinegar.' The other writers of the time had turned it into milk and water, but Prior and the rest had a grace to which Swift was a stranger. Their laughter is genuine though light; his was funereal and sardonic. His pleasantry is rarely pleasant, and he is never at heart more gloomy than when he affects to be gay. Most of his occasional verses, written at intervals from 1690 till 1733, are either frigid compliments or thinly veiled invectives, many of which, like the epigrams that disfigure the otherwise exquisite pages of Herrick, have all the coarseness with only half the wit of Martial. His
addresses to women are, as might be expected, singularly unfortunate. He says truly of himself that he
'could praise, esteem. approve,
But understood not what it was to love.'
He can never get out of his satiric pulpit, and while saluting his mistresses as nymphs, he lectures them as school-girls. His verses to Stella, whom he came as near to loving as was for him possible, and whose death certainly hastened his mental ruin, are as unimpassioned as those to Vanessa, with whose affections he merely trifled. Swift's tendency to dwell on the meaner, and even the . revolting facts of life, pardonable in his prose, is unpardonable in those tributes to Venus Cloacina, in which he intrudes on a lady's boudoir with the eye of a surgeon fresh from a dissecting-room or an hospital. His society verses are like those of a man writing with his feet, for he delights to trample on what others caress. Often he seems, among singing birds, a vulture screeching over carrion.
Of Swift's graver satiric pieces, the Rhapsody on Poetry has the fatal drawback of suggesting a comparison with The Dunciad. In The Beast's Confession, vivid and trenchant though it be, the author appears occasionally to intrude on the gardens of Prior and Gay. Had he been an artist in verse, he might have written something in English more like the sixth satire of Juvenal than Churchill ever succeeded in doing. But Swift despised art: he rode rough-shod, on his ambling cynic steed, through bad double rhyme and halting rhythm, to his end. War with the cold steel of prose was his business his poems are the mere side-lights and pastimes of a man too grim to join heartily in any game. Only here and there among them, as in the strange medley of pathos and humour on his own death, there is a flash from the eyes which Pope-good hater and good friend—said were azure as the heavens, a touch of the hand that was never weary of giving gifts to the poor and blows to the powerful, a reflection of the universal condottiere, misanthrope and sceptic, who has a claim to our forbearance in that he detested, as Johnson and as Byron detested, cowardice and cant.
A DESCRIPTION OF THE MORNING. WRITTEN IN APRIL 1709, AND FIRST PRINTED IN THE TATLER.
Now hardly here and there a hackney-coach
The slip-shod 'prentice from his master's door
Had pared the dirt, and sprinkled round the floor.
The youth with broomy stumps began to trace
Duns at his lordship's gate began to meet ;
And brickdust Moll had scream'd through half the street. The turnkey now his flock returning sees,
Duly let out a-nights to steal for fees:
The watchful bailiffs take their silent stands,
And schoolboys lag with satchels in their hands.
HORACE, BOOK IV. ODE IX.
Virtue conceal'd within our breast
Is inactivity at best:
But never shall the Muse endure
To let your virtues lie obscure;
Or suffer Envy to conceal
Your labours for the public weal
Your steady soul preserves her frame,
Into the arms of death would run;
That man is ready to defend,
With life, his country or his friend.
APOLLO'S EDICT. OCCASIONED BY NEWS FROM PARNASSUS.'
Ireland is now our royal care,
And follow where he leads the way:
And when you'd make a hero grander,
No son of mine shall dare to say,
Or ever name the milky-way.
The bird of Jove shall toil no more
The manners of the rural race.
Your guides to true simplicity.
When Damon's soul shall take its flight,
Though poets have the second-sight,
If Anna's happy reign you praise,
When poets soar in youthful strains,
'Referring to some verses in which Swift had described Lord Cutts
under the form of salamander.