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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Bryan Waller Procter (Barry Cornwall) (1787–1874) and Adelaide Anne Procter (1825–1864)

BRYAN WALLER PROCTER was born in London, England, November 21st, 1787, according to his biographers, though he himself put the date two years later. He came of good farmer stock in Yorkshire; and, his father having accumulated considerable fortune, he was sent to Harrow, where he was the contemporary of Byron and Peel. At twenty he was bound to a solicitor at Calne, came up to London in 1807 to live, and for the next eight years was sufficiently occupied in doing it. It was not until he was twenty-eight that he began to write, “attracted,” as he says of himself, “to literature as a refined amusement.”

Meanwhile he had formed the friendships which were to influence his life; his own personality and his excellent judgment having their effect on his associates. Hazlitt, who put himself out for few people, thought so highly of his talents that he always talked his best when Procter was present. Talfourd says, “Charles Lamb regarded Procter as the spirit most congenial with his own in its most serious moods;” and in his celebrated letter to Southey in the London Magazine for October, 1823, Lamb speaks of him as “Procter, candid and affectionate as his own poetry.” Rogers introduced him to Moore as “well worth cultivating”; and his friendship with Leigh Hunt was maintained unclouded throughout Hunt’s long life. His father having bequeathed him a comfortable property, Procter’s first poems were written during years of freedom and enjoyment. From 1819 to 1823 he wrote the ‘Dramatic Scenes and Other Poems,’ ‘Marcia Colonna,’ ‘The Sicilian Story,’ metrical tales from Boccaccio’s themes, ‘Mirandola’ (which Macready produced at Covent Garden with great success), and ‘The Flood of Thessaly.’ Then too he laid the foundation of the lyrical collection which, published in 1832, continued to receive additions for many years.

Meantime he had become engaged to Miss Skepper, the daughter of Mrs. Basil Montagu. But his health had failed; the lady was an invalid also; and somebody described the lovers as supping together at nine o’clock on water gruel. In 1825 Lamb wrote to Leigh Hunt, “Barry Cornwall has at last carried off the pretty A. S. They are just in the treacle moon. Hope it won’t clog his wings,—‘gaum,’ as we used to say at school.”

Mrs. Procter was beloved and admired by all who knew her; her house was the most popular rendezvous for literary men in London. She had a sort of divination as to genius, recognizing it however disguised. Monckton Milnes dedicated his life of Keats to her as “A poet’s wife, a poet’s mother, and herself of many poets the frequent theme and valued friend.” The admirable pen-and-ink sketch of Keats in Milnes’s ‘Life’ is by Mrs. Procter, who had as acute a perception of likeness as she had of character.

Literature had been the pastime of Procter’s leisure. He had published all his poems under the pen-name of “Barry Cornwall”; not, as Moore somewhat maliciously quotes, “because he was a gentleman of fortune, and did not like to have his name free in the reviews,” but because of that intellectual reserve and sensitiveness that influenced his whole life, and of a curious underestimate of his talent. After his marriage, when his partial loss of fortune made it necessary to add to his income, he had neither strength nor ambition to pursue literature in the intervals of business, but returned with energy to his conveyancing. His idealism in verse contrasts strangely with the cautious prudence of his external life. He sat up two nights in the week to do his professional work; he took pupils, among whom were Eliot Warburton and Kinglake; and he was a commissioner of lunacy for many years.

His life was full of happiness and success; and during his age the devotion of John Kenyon, of Dickens, of Thackeray (who dedicated ‘Vanity Fair’ to him), and after their deaths, the friendship of Tennyson, Browning, Carlyle, Lord Houghton, and a host of others, made an Indian summer around the old man’s hearth. In person he greatly resembled Walter Scott; and he was not unlike Scott in his genius, with its union of romance and practicality. “Everybody loves him,” wrote Crabb Robinson. “The beloved and honored Barry Cornwall, whose minstrel name I venture to speak,” says Hawthorne. He died in London, October 4th, 1874.

Procter’s early verse was greatly influenced by his contemporaries. Lamb was his guide in the fields of Elizabethan drama, Leigh Hunt taught him poetic methods (as he in turn afterwards taught Poe), and Keats appealed to his æsthetic side. But Keats, infinitely richer and more fertile, wrote of what he imagined; Procter of what he had seen and read, not of what he had felt or experienced. On the other hand, he was already a finished workman when at twenty-eight he began to write, with a nature sensuous indeed but sane.

Among the ‘Dramatic Sketches,’ the ‘Return of Mark Antony,’ ‘Julian the Apostate,’ and ‘The Way to Conquer,’ are simple and passionate; and the poem ‘The Flower,’ from the last named, has the flavor and the picturesque detail of Shakespeare. Charles Lamb said that there was not one of the ‘Dramatic Sketches’ which he would not have placed in his collection if he had found it in the Garrick plays at the British Museum. Even Carlyle pressed Procter to continue his dramatic writings, as the best expression of his gift. But while the modern reader has an acute pleasure in recognizing how perfectly he has caught the spirit of the Elizabethan, or rather the Jacobean drama, the quality of that pleasure soon reveals the quality of Procter’s talent. The interest in the ‘Dramatic Scenes’ is purely literary; and ‘Mirandola,’ which was acted for sixteen nights, and for which the author got six hundred and thirty pounds, owes its popularity to the judgment of his literary contemporaries, who with it have passed away.

Throughout his tragedies were scattered little lyric songs, in which we see the groundwork of his later eminence; for he was to find his place as a lyric poet. The dramatic quality, which in his ‘Sketches’ excites a mere literary interest, perfectly expressed itself in musical outbursts of thought, sorrow, and delight. They include all poetic feelings “from sweetest melancholy to glad animal joy.” Not Prospero’s tricksy spirit has more glorious liberty than ‘The Stormy Petrel’; the virile barytone quality, as Mr. Stedman describes it, of ‘The Hunting Song,’ wakes the lusty morn; ‘Drink and Fill the Night with Mirth’ has the lightness of Anacreon; ‘King Death’ is as fantastic as one of Doré’s paintings; and perhaps the most perfect lyric ever addressed by a poet to his wife is the little song set to Neukomm’s music:—

  • “How many summers, Love,
  • Have I been thine?”
  • The delicate perfume of a flower is in the melody,
  • “Sit down, sad soul,
  • The moment’s flying;”
  • and such songs as ‘Touch us gently, Time,’ ‘The Sea, the Sea, the Open Sea,’ and the dirge, ‘Peace, what can tears avail?’ have touched three generations of readers, some of whom, like Miss Martineau,—whose brilliant sketch of Procter has best preserved his personality,—are not easily moved.

    Early in his career he wrote much prose for the Literary Gazette, showing great satirical power,—a faculty he rarely exercised. It was this characteristic, perhaps, that induced Jeffrey to try to secure him for the Edinburgh; and perhaps the consciousness that he possessed it decided him to decline. His ‘Life of Lamb’ was written after he was seventy-seven years old; but although it is the most entertaining of books, it fails to leave on the reader the impression of a character. Lamb’s personality had a piquancy which must be suggested,—not explained, as is Procter’s straightforward way.

    What he failed to do for Lamb, Coventry Patmore did for him, in his admirable ‘Life of Bryan Waller Procter’ (1877); a portrait conceived as a whole, and suffused with its hero’s indefinite charm.

    ADELAIDE PROCTER, the daughter of Bryan Waller Procter, was born in London in 1825. A shy and gentle girl, “my golden-tressed Adelaide,” as he called her, she was her father’s intimate companion almost from her birth, when he addressed to her the lovely lines beginning “Child of my heart.” She wrote her first poems for Dickens’s Household Words; but, afraid that the editor might accept them on account of his friendship for the family, sent them under the penname of Mary Berwick. Mr. James T. Fields, in his ‘Barry Cornwall and his Friends,’ gives a charming description of Dickens’s dining with the Procters, and launching into enthusiastic praise of “Mary Berwick” in Mrs. Procter’s presence, who, in the secret, revealed with tears the real name of the author.

    The ‘Lyrics’ were collected and published in 1853; and in seven years had reached their ninth edition,—Tennyson’s poems not exceeding them in popularity. They take single emotional themes, usually permeated by a gentle piety. “It is like telling one’s beads,” says Mr. Stedman, “or reading a prayer-book, to turn over her pure pages.” Miss Procter became a Catholic in her later life, and was devoted to works of charity and philanthropy. She died in London, February 3d, 1864.