INTRODUCTORY NOTICE At the commencement of the year 1885, a captivating little volume of poems was mysteriously issued from the "Leadenhalle Presse" of Messrs. Field and Tuer--a quaint, vellum-bound, antique-looking book, tied up on all sides with strings of golden silk ribbon, and illustrated throughout with fanciful wood-cuts. It was entitled "Love Letters by a Violinist," and those who were at first attracted by its title and suggestive outward appearance, untied the ribbons with a certain amount of curiosity. Love-letters were surely of a private, almost sacred character. What "Violinist" thus ventured to publish his heart-records openly? and were they worth reading? were the questions asked by the public, and last, not least, came the natural inquiry, "_Who_ was the 'Violinist'?" To this no satisfactory answer could be obtained, for nobody knew. But it was directly proved on perusal of the book that he was a poet, not a mere writer of verse. Speculations arose as to his identity, and Joseph Ellis, the poet, reviewed the work as follows:-- "Behold a mystery--who shall uncase it? A small quarto, anonymous. The publisher professes entire ignorance of its origin. Wild guesses spring from the mask of a 'Violinist'--who can he be? _Unde derivatur?_ A Tyro? The work is too skilful for such, though even a Byron. Young? Not old. Tennyson? No--he hath not the grace of style, at least for these verses. Browning? No--he could not unbend so far. Edwin Arnold might, possibly, have been equal to it, witness, _inter alia_, 'Violetta'; but he is unlikely. Lytton Bulwer, a voice from the tomb? No. His son, Owen Meredith? A random supposition, yet possible. Rossetti--again a voice from the tomb? No--he wanted the strength of wing. James Thomson, the younger, could have done it, but he was too stern. Then, our detective ingenuity proving incompetent, who? We seek the Delphic fane--the oracle replies _Swinburne_. Let us bow to the oracular voice, for in Swinburne we find all requisites for the work--fertility of thought, grace of language, ingenuity, skill in the _ars poetica_, wealth of words, sensuous nature, classic resources. * * * The writer of the 'Love-Letters' is manifestly imbued with the tone and tune of Italian poetry, and has the merit of proving the English tongue capable of rivalling the Italian '_Canzoni d'Amore_.' * * * * He is a master of versification, so is Swinburne--he is praiseworthy for freshness of thought, novelty, and aptness in imagery, so is Swinburne. He is remarkable for sustained energy, so is Swinburne; and thus it may safely be said that, if not the writer of the 'Love-Letters,' he deserves to be accredited with that mysterious production, until the authorship is avowed. * * * * Unto Britannia, as erst to Italia, has been granted a a Petrarch." Meanwhile other leading voices in the Press joined the swelling chorus of praise. _The Morning Post_ took up the theme, and, after vainly endeavouring to clear up the mystery of the authorship, went on to say: "The appearance of this book must be regarded as a literary phenomenon. We find ourselves lifted at once by the author's genius out of the work-a-day world of the England of to-day, and transported into an atmosphere as rare and ethereal as that in which the poet of Vaucluse lived and moved and had his being. * * * * In nearly every stanza there are unerring indications of a mind and heart steeped in that subtlest of all forms of beauty, the mythology of old Greece. The reader perceives at once that he has to do with a scholar and man of culture, as well as with an inspired singer, whose muse need not feel abashed in the presence of the highest poets of our own day." Such expressions as, "A new star of brilliant magnitude has risen above the literary horizon in the anonymous author of the exquisite book of 'Love-Letters,'" and "These poems are among the most graceful and beautiful productions of modern times," became frequent in the best literary journals, and private opinion concerning the book began to make its influence felt. The brilliant writer and astute critic, George Meredith, wrote to a friend on the subject as follows:-- "The lines and metre of the poems are easy and interthreading and perfectly melodious. It is an astonishing production--the work of a true musician in our tongue." _The Times'_ special correspondent, Antonio Gallenga, expressed himself at some length on the merits of the "Violinist," and spoke of him "as one who could conjure up a host of noble thoughts and bright fancies, who rejoices in a great command of language, with a flow of verse and a wealth of rhymes. It is impossible to hear his confessions, to follow him in his aspirations, to hear the tale of his visions, his trances, his dreams, without catching his enthusiasm and bestowing on him our sympathy. Each 'Love-Letter' is in twenty stanzas--each stanza in six lines. The poem is regular and symmetrical as Dante's 'Comedy,' with as stately and solemn, aye, and as arduous a measure." While the world of art and letters thus discussed the volume, reading it meanwhile with such eagerness that the whole edition was soon entirely exhausted, a particularly brilliant and well-written critique of it appeared in the New York _Independent_--a very prominent American journal, destined afterwards to declare the author's identity, and to be the first to do so. In the columns of this paper had been frequently seen some peculiarly graceful and impassioned poems, signed by one Eric Mackay--notable among these being a lyric entitled "The Waking of the Lark" (included in our present volume), which, to quote the expression of a distinguished New York critic, "sent a thrill through the heart of America." There are no skylarks in the New World, but there is a deep tenderness felt by all Americans for the little "Priest in grey apparel Who doth prepare to sing in air his sinless summer carol," and Eric Mackay's exquisite outburst of tender enthusiasm for the English bird of the morning evoked from all parts of the States a chorus of critical delight and approbation. The Rev. T. T. Munger, of Massachusetts, wrote concerning it:-- "This strikes me as the best poem I have seen for a long time. As I read it stanza after stanza, with not an imperfect verse, not a commonplace, but with a sustained increase of pure sentiment and glowing fancy, I was inclined to place it beside Shelley's. It is not so intellectual as Shelley's, but I am not sure that it is not truer. Mackay's is the lark itself, Shelley's is himself listening to the lark. Besides Shelley makes the lark sing at evening--as I believe it does--but surely 'it to the morning doth belong,' and Shakespeare is truer in putting it at 'Heaven's gate.' It is a great refreshment to us tired workers in the prose of life to come across such a poem as this, and seldom enough it happens nowadays. Tell Mr. Eric Mackay to sing us another song." Paul Hamilton Hayne, an American poet, praised it in an American paper; and the cultured Maurice Thompson writes:--"This lark-song touches the best mark of simplicity, sweetness, and naturalness in its modelling." This admired lyric was copied from the _Independent_ into many other journals, together with several other poems by the same hand, such as "A Vision of Beethoven," the beautiful verses addressed to the Spanish violinist, Pablo de Sarasate, and a spirited reply to Algernon Charles Swinburne, reproaching him for the attack which the author of "Tristram of Lyonesse" had made on England's name and fame. One day a simple statement appeared in the _Independent_ respecting the much discussed "Love-Letters by a Violinist," that the author was simply a gentleman of good position, the descendant of a distinguished and very ancient family, Eric Mackay, known among his personal friends and intimates as a man of brilliant and extensive learning, whose frequent and long residences abroad have made him somewhat of a foreigner, though by birth an Englishman. A fine linguist, a deep thinker, a profound student of the classics, Mr. Mackay may be ranked among the most cultured and accomplished men of his day, and still young as he is, will undoubtedly be numbered with the choice few whose names are destined to live by the side of poets such as Keats, whom, as far as careful work, delicate feeling, and fiery tenderness go, Eric Mackay may be said to resemble, though there is a greater robustness and force in his muse, indicative of a strong mind in an equally strong and healthy body, which latter advantage the divine Keats had not, unfortunately for himself and the world. The innate, hardly restrained vigour of Mr. Mackay's nature shows itself in such passages as occur in the sonnets, "Remorse," "A Thunderstorm at Night;" also in the wild and terribly suggestive "Zulalie," while something of hot wrath and scorn leap out in such lines as those included in his ode to Swinburne, whom he addresses:-- "O thou five foot five Of flesh and blood and sinew and the rest." * * * * * "Thou art a bee, a bright, a golden thing With too much honey, and the taste thereof Is sometimes rough, and something of a sting Dwells in the music that we hear thee sing." * * * * * and "Take back thy taunt, I say; and with the same Accept our pardon; or if this offend, Why, then, no pardon, e'en in England's name. We have our country still, and thou thy fame!" At the same time no one in all England does more justice and honor to Swinburne's genius than Eric Mackay. His own strength as a poet suggests to the reader the idea of a spirited horse reined in tightly and persistently,--a horse which prances wildly at times and frets and foams at the bit, and might, on the least provocation, run wild in a furious and headlong career, sweeping all conventionalities out of its road by a sheer, straight-ahead gallop. Mr. Mackay is, however, a careful, even precise rider, and he keeps a firm hand on his restless Pegasus--so firm that, as his taste always leads him to depict the most fanciful and fine emotions, his steady resoluteness of restraint commands not only our admiration but our respect. While passionate to an extreme in the "Love-Letters," he is never indelicate; the coarse, almost brutal, allusions made by some writers to certain phases of so-called love, which are best left unsuggested, never defile the pen of our present author, who may almost be called fastidious in such matters. How beautiful and all-sufficing to the mind is the line expressing the utter satisfaction of a victorious lover:-- "_Crowned with a kiss and sceptred with a joy!_" No details are needed here--all is said. The "Violinist," though by turns regretful, sorrowful, and despairing, is supreme throughout. He speaks of the "lady of his song" as "The lady for whose sake I shall be strong, But never weak or diffident again." The supremacy of manhood is insisted on always; and the lover, though he entreats, implores, wonders and raves as all lovers do, never forgets his own dignity. He will take no second-best affection on his lady's part--this he plainly states in verse 19 of Letter V. Again, in the last letter of all, he asserts his mastery--and this is as it should be; absolute authority, as he knows, is the way to win and to keep a woman's affections. Such lovely fancies as "Phoebus loosens all his golden hair Right down the sky--and daisies turn and stare At things we see not with our human wit," and "A tuneful noise Broke from the copse where late a breeze was slain, And nightingales in ecstacy of pain Did break their hearts with singing the old joys," abound all through the book. And here it is as well to mark the decision of our poet, even in trifles. The breeze he speaks of is not _hushed_, or _still_--none of the usual epithets are applied to it--it is "_slain_," as utterly and as pitifully as though it were a murdered child. This originality of conception is remarkable, and comes out in such lines as "I will unpack my mind of all its fears"-- where the word "_unpack_" is singularly appropriate, and again-- "O sweet To-morrow! Youngest of the sons Of old King Time, _to whom Creation runs_ As men to God_." "Where a daisy grows, There grows a joy!" and beautiful and dainty to a high degree is the quaint "Retrospect," where the lover enthusiastically draws the sun and moon into his ecstasies, and makes them seem to partake in his admiration of his lady's loveliness. A graver and more philosophic turn of mind will be found in "A Song of Servitude," and "A Rhapsody of Death;" but, judged from a critical standpoint, Eric Mackay is a purely passionate poet, straying amongst the most voluptuous imaginings, and sometimes seeming to despise the joys of Heaven itself for the sake of love. Thus he lays himself open to an accusation of blasphemy from ultra-religious persons, yet it must be remembered that in this respect he in no way exceeds the emotions of Romeo, and Juliet, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, or any of those lovers whose passion has earned for their names an undying celebrity. In closing the present notice we can but express a hope that this volume of Eric Mackay's poems may meet with the welcome it deserves from true lovers of Art; for Art includes Poetry; and Poetry, as properly defined is one of its grandest and most enduring forms. G. D. *** Some of the miscellaneous poems in this collection (including "Beethoven at the Piano") were published by the author a few years ago, under a pseudonym, now discarded. [Illustration: PRELUDE Letter I]
Merci pour la lecture!