The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 40. T. E. Brown
The next decade, from 1830 to 1839, besides yielding the major names of Swinburne, the greater Morris and James Thomson the younger, was peculiarly fertile in poets of the second rank, some of whom stand very high in it. The best of all were, probably, Thomas Edward Brown and Richard Watson Dixon—indeed, there are those who would deny the limitation of “second” or “lesser” to Dixon. They may, therefore, be treated first, Dixon being taken out of chronological order, and should be followed by Sebastian Evans, Robert earl of Lytton (better known as a poet by his pseudonym Owen Meredith), Sir Edwin Arnold, Sir Lewis Morris, Sir Alfred Lyall, Roden Noel, Alfred Austin, lord de Tabley, Thomas Ashe and Theodore Watts. One or two of these had, in their day, great popularity, whether deserved or not; one held the perilous premiership of the laurel; several occupied important positions outside poetry and even outside literature altogether. But they all have an interest of a peculiar kind historically, because they may be said to be the first group born to the full influence of Tennyson and Browning, whose appearances, as poets, coincided with, or very slightly preceded, their own births.
Thomas Edward Brown—author of Fo’c’sle Yarns and a good many other volumes of verse, collected and enlarged from MS.matter after his death—is not the easiest of the minor poets of the later nineteenth century to survey with what has been called a “horizontal” view. Living, for the greater part of his life, within what he certainly regarded as the “black purgatorial rails” of schoolmastership, he made of not a few of the boys who emerged from the black-railed fold fervent disciples and fast friends, whose voices, including the very forcible and peremptory one of W.E. Henley, were loudly raised in his favour. Except the short and remarkable yarn Betsy Lee, he published nothing till he was over fifty; but, later, he made his verse more accessible. Nor could others, personally impartial, fail to discern in his work, not merely when it was collected, but as isolated examples came before them, a quite uncommon tone frequently, and, sometimes, a suggestion of something more behind which might become not merely uncommon but supreme.
On the other hand, a thorough critical examination of his work, conducted, so far as possible, with full allowance to himself for his time and complete absence of what may be called “temporal prejudice” on the part of the critic—assisted, likewise, by a careful consideration of the special claims put forward for him, and guarding almost more carefully against prejudice arising from any particular statement of these claims—is not facile. One may be repelled by some of these statements of claim, although Brown is not responsible for them. There are to be found expressions about him which would be exact enough, though a little enthusiastic in their exactness, if made about Dante. And Brown is not Dante.
What he is, is excessively difficult to define without those limitations and reservations which are apt to revolt uncritical minds; but, with not too much indulgence in them, it is possible enough. About his general poetic kind, there is no difficulty at all: everyone who has appreciated him has seen that he is of the mystics—of the company of his namesake Sir Thomas in prose, of Vaughan, Blake and, to no small extent, Wordsworth in verse. But, with this mysticism, he combines a vivid and, sometimes, almost familiar realism of expression and choice of subject, which Wordsworth did not reach and which none of the others attempted. In this combination, having much less power of expression than of thought, he sometimes breaks down. He is often strangely destitute of sheer clarity, as in The Peel Life Boat, a defect which, probably, prevented its appearance in Henley’s Lyra Heroica. It seems to have been commissioned for this book; but Henley, who, with all his admiration for Brown, was, as an editor, utterly autocratic and quite free from respect of persons, must have seen that it wanted the indefinable “that!” In his narrative poems, the following now of Tennyson now of Browning is so unmistakable and so continuous as to be teasing; and the “unconventionalities” in diction and thought which have largely caused his popularity, such as it is, and his relatively greater influence, are not safe from very damaging comment. The outburst against his “Englishwoman on the Pincian” which concludes Roman Women is only the “platitude reversed” of Tourguénieff’s pitiless and fatal epigram on later nineteenth-century esprit—and as conventional itself as the conventionalities it objurgates. The satire on commonplace orthodoxy in A Sermon at Church on Good Friday is as stale as its subject, and in hopelessly bad taste. One could find many other faults in Brown. His dialect pieces—agreeable in one or two instances—force on one by their bulk the fact that the lingo itself is not a real dialect, but an ugly and bastard patois or, rather, jargon of broken-down Celtic and the vulgarest English. His “idylls,” such as Mary Quayle and Bella Gorry, are fine and affecting stories, which would have been much better in prose.
And yet Brown is a poet—and, at times, much more than a minor poet. No one who knows what poetry is can turn the leaves of the most convenient and accessible selection-collection of his poems—that in The Golden Treasury series—with any fair attention and remain in doubt of this. The remarkable Opifex, in which he confesses the limitations of his own powers, justifies his claims in poetry; and there are dozens of other lyrics which will appeal—some to some tastes and some to others—but all to those fortunate ones to whom all poetry that is poetry is welcome. White Foxglove in one vein; The Sinking of the Victoria in another; Risus Dei, and, as comments on it, in the poet’s extremer style, the Dartmoor pieces, in a third; The Prayer, perhaps likely to be the most popular of all with the most different people—and the most seventeenth-century in tone; The Schooner, an early instance of the modern violent style, but a fine one; others too many to mention occur as specimens. And one great thing may be added to the right side of Brown’s balance-sheet—that he is singularly free from monotony—in fact, he might have lost in freshness of appeal if he had gained in formal mastery of expression.