The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 12. Frederick Locker
Frederick Locker (who, late in life, on the occasion of his second marriage, took the additional name Lampson) was one of the few English writers who have devoted themselves wholly to what is called “verse of society.” The advantage of official or private means—sufficient at all times and, latterly, large—made it possible for him entirely to avoid the hackwork which is nowhere more perilous to perfection than in this particular department; and his total production is, comparatively, small. It is included chiefly in the frequently reprinted and much altered volume London Lyrics, to which has to be added the most remarkable and too little known book called Patchwork, a sort of olio or macedoine slightly resembling Southey’s Omniana and consisting of prose and verse partly original partly not. But Locker made the very best use of his leisure, and has left practically nothing that is not perfected and polished up to the limit of his own powers. These powers, no doubt, had certain limitations. He had pathos—or he could not have displayed his humour to such advantage; but this pathos seldom reached poignancy, as may be seen by comparing those two remarkable pendants, his To My Grandmother and Oliver Wendell Holmes’s Last Leaf. His rigid abstinence from all major notes may be though to show something of what is opprobriously called “sparrow-hawking.” But, though these be, in a certain sense, truths, they are very unjust objections. A man has a perfect right to choose and define his own business; and the only question is whether he has done it well. Locker did his supremely well. His extraordinary urbanity and ease have been admitted by fellow-craftsmen from whose judgement there is no appeal, as well as by quite disinterested critics. He is, perhaps, the only instance of a poet who was perpetually altering and retouching his verse without ever spoiling it. His obvious and, indeed, avowed model was Praed; but, except in some very early pieces, perhaps, where he was following too closely, one would not often mistake or misascribe work of the two. The same is the case—and still more so—with Prior. Moreover, the enjoyment of his work is constantly heightened by the sense, for those who have some knowledge of literature, of what he has escaped. The dangers of this light, easy verse are very much greater than anybody who has not studied it very carefully may think. Vulgarity, of course, is the worst of all; but, of this, there was not a trace in Locker. Triviality is a subtler danger; and, as perhaps, no two people entirely agree upon what is trivial, it is difficult to speak positively about it. Perhaps, Locker sometimes approached it in pieces like Our Photographs, but much less often than any save the very princes of the craft of light verse. From that “inept laughter” (which is different from triviality and which the Latin tag justly stigmatises as the ineptest thing in the world) Locker was perfectly free. His form, if never quaint and not often exquisite, is surprisingly adequate. And, lastly, not only does he possess the almost indefinable air of good breeding, but he adds to it something more indefinable still, the quintessence of that widely varying quality which, in its different lower forms, is called “slyness,” “archness,” and which, in its better shape, the eighteenth century, with a slight difference from the modern use of the word, called “dryness.” This quality, perhaps, is nowhere shown in such perfection as in the prose anecdote My Guardian Angel, to be found in Patchwork; but, in different degrees, it suffuses almost the whole of his verse. He rises highest, perhaps, in My Neighbour Rose, the finale of which contains something that indicates a possibility of entirely serious verse of a high kind from him. But, for anyone who can enjoy this class of poetry, it is very difficult to go wrong with Locker.