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Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Our English Goblins"

Our English Goblins
The Speaker, February 23, 1901

Ballads Of Ghostly Shires. By George Bartram. London: Greening

In a remote and secluded corner of the British Empire, much neglected by the Imperial student, there is a little island, or rather peninsula, which has in its way contributed something even to the greatness of colonial expansion, and to which, in spite of its insignificance, its own inhabitants are deeply and mysteriously attached. This little outpost (which is called by its denizens England) has been almost incredibly neglected in the matter of poetical study. One section of modern poets, under the leadership of Mr. W. B. Yeats, revives the poetry of the small and unhappy peoples, such as the Irish and the Bretons, and swaggers about their misfortunes and enslavement until any one who has a vote or an income begins to feel quite degraded. The other section, under the leadership of Mr. Rudyard Kipling, seems to find English life only tolerable in remote and curious continents, exults in their flora and fauna and would appear almost to credit the British Empire with the humorous exploit of creating the kangaroo. Between these two extremes English legend and local colour would seem to be entirely neglected, and it is for this reason that we hail with the greatest pleasure Mr. George Bartram's Ballads of Ghostly Shires, in which he makes a manly and spirited attempt to build again on the old foundations of English ballad and country tale, more especially those connected with the supernatural. This is not the first form in which Mr. George Bartram has attempted this wise and much-needed work of genuine patriotism: we have a pleasant remembrance of that quaint and vigorous tale of old rustic life, The People of Clopton. But it is in connection with fable rather than truth that the chief need exists, for error seems closer to the earth and the blood of nationality than any facts. Nations may safely import whole philosophies and constitutions, like so much tea or tobacco; but it goes ill with a people that has to import its superstition. The justly exultant discoverers of Celtic lore say that the English have no fine folk-lore. It may be our own English partiality, but we fancy that this only means they have no folk-lore at all like the Celtic. At the back of the Irish poetry and mythology there is an infinite hunger after beauty and rest: the Irish spirit is for ever working to disentangle from the rope of life the one blue thread, like the thread in the Jewish priest's garment, which represents the eternal and the fulfilled. This is a great moral truth, and it has produced the noble folk-lore of the Secret Rose and the Country of the Young. But it is not the only splendid and eternal strand in the rope of life; through that rope there runs everlastingly a strand of the grotesque, the fierce and humorous energy in things, the defiant and wholesome ugliness of courage and experience. It is this exuberant twist or gnarl in the wood that is our English speciality, and it gives as much of a definite philosophic character to "Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham" as the thirst for perfection gives to the legends of the Gael. It is this spirit, the spirit of Robin Goodfellow, that Mr. George Bartram finely embodies in these ballads. "How the Youth was cured of his Mazedness" is a genial human interlude. With a certain coarse universalism which smacks of old England to the bone, he accepts the grotesqueness of the world, even in its tragedies, gibbets, cudgels, broken skulls, and men hanging are swallowed with the appetite of a giant: but the feeling is not a love of death, but a love of life; it is not cruel, it is rather a sort of daredevil kindness. Stevenson had this amicable bloodymindedness and the neurotics have never understood it. It is very significant that Mr. Bartram approaches the supernatural world in a very different tone and spirit from that in which it is approached by the average mystic. In a faulty but spirited poem which might be called an introduction to his whole work he describes himself as taking the kingdom of mystery, like the Kingdom of Heaven, by storm:-
"They have shunned the naked steel; we have scattered wide their picket:
There is light athwart the track; see the gate is close at hand. In a struggle brief and stern we have broken from the thicket
To a flood of roseate sheen by an arch of cypress spanned
We have forced the golden wicket: we are lords of Glamourland."
The idea of colonising Fairyland may seem to some to be marked with some of the more foolish of the English traits. But we confess that we have much sympathy with the idea that there is, upon the whole, no likelihood of there being any district of the material or spiritual world in which a man will get on any the better for discarding his natural strength and his national virtues. Some of the more mystical decadents have tended at times to exhibit Fairyland as a kind of Botany Bay, in which the moral refuse of humanity would stand the best chance. Mr. Bartram's verse may be too crude and bellicose, but we thank him for suggesting, consciously or unconsciously, that it is at least tenable that the entrance to the world of wonder is not a keyhole that only the thinnest can get through, but a wall that only the strongest can vault. At any rate, we hope that Mr. Bartram's enthusiasm for English ghosts may be infectious. It is not that we care one rap for the supernatural element: but we know that in history, and especially in literature, it is only the supernatural life which will induce men to study and value the natural. We do not desire to create a general awe and reverence for turnip-ghosts, but we do desire to create a general awe and reverence for turnips.

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