We have a volume of Thackeray’s poems, republished under the name of Ballads, which is, I think, to a great extent a misnomer. They are all readable, almost all good, full of humour, and with some fine touches of pathos, most happy in their versification, and, with a few exceptions, hitting well on the head the nail which he intended to hit. But they are not on that account ballads. Literally, a ballad is a song, but it has come to signify a short chronicle in verse, which may be political, or pathetic, or grotesque — or it may have all three characteristics or any two of them; but not on that account is any grotesque poem a ballad — nor, of course, any pathetic or any political poem. Jacob Omnium’s Hoss may fairly be called a ballad, containing as it does a chronicle of a certain well-defined transaction; and the story of King Canute is a ballad — one of the best that has been produced in our language in modern years. But such pieces as those called The End of the Play and Vanitas Vanitatum, which are didactic as well as pathetic, are not ballads in the common sense; nor are such songs as The Mahogany Tree, or the little collection called Love Songs made Easy. The majority of the pieces are not ballads, but if they be good of the kind we should be ungrateful to quarrel much with the name.
How very good most of them are, I did not know till I re-read them for the purpose of writing this chapter. There is a manifest falling off in some few — which has come from that source of literary failure which is now so common. If a man write a book or a poem because it is in him to write it — the motive power being altogether in himself and coming from his desire to express himself — he will write it well, presuming him to be capable of the effort. But if he write his book or poem simply because a book or poem is required from him, let his capability be what it may, it is not unlikely that he will do it badly. Thackeray occasionally suffered from the weakness thus produced. A ballad from Policeman X — Bow Street Ballads they were first called — was required by Punch, and had to be forthcoming, whatever might be the poet’s humour, by a certain time. Jacob Omnium’s Hoss is excellent. His heart and feeling were all there, on behalf of his friend, and against that obsolete old court of justice. But we can tell well when he was looking through the police reports for a subject, and taking what chance might send him, without any special interest in the matter. The Knight and the Lady of Bath, and the Damages Two Hundred Pounds, as they were demanded at Guildford, taste as though they were written to order.
Here, in his verses as in his prose, the charm of Thackeray’s work lies in the mingling of humour with pathos and indignation. There is hardly a piece that is not more or less funny, hardly a piece that is not satirical; — and in most of them, for those who will look a little below the surface, there is something that will touch them. Thackeray, though he rarely uttered a word, either with his pen or his mouth, in which there was not an intention to reach our sense of humour, never was only funny. When he was most determined to make us laugh, he had always a further purpose; — some pity was to be extracted from us on behalf of the sorrows of men, or some indignation at the evil done by them.
This is the beginning of that story as to the Two Hundred Pounds, for which as a ballad I do not care very much:
Special jurymen of England who admire your country’s laws,
And proclaim a British jury worthy of the nation’s applause,
Gaily compliment each other at the issue of a cause,
Which was tried at Guildford ‘sizes, this day week as ever was.
Here he is indignant, not only in regard to some miscarriage of justice on that special occasion, but at the general unfitness of jurymen for the work confided to them. “Gaily compliment yourselves,” he says, “on your beautiful constitution, from which come such beautiful results as those I am going to tell you!” When he reminded us that Ivanhoe had produced Magna Charta, there was a purpose of irony even there in regard to our vaunted freedom. With all your Magna Charta and your juries, what are you but snobs! There is nothing so often misguided as general indignation, and I think that in his judgment of outside things, in the measure which he usually took of them, Thackeray was very frequently misguided. A satirist by trade will learn to satirise everything, till the light of the sun and the moon’s loveliness will become evil and mean to him. I think that he was mistaken in his views of things. But we have to do with him as a writer, not as a political economist or a politician. His indignation was all true, and the expression of it was often perfect. The lines in which he addresses that Pallis Court, at the end of Jacob Omnium’s Hoss, are almost sublime.
O Pallis Court, you move
My pity most profound.
A most amusing sport
You thought it, I’ll be bound,
To saddle hup a three-pound debt,
With two-and-twenty pound.
Good sport it is to you
To grind the honest poor,
To pay their just or unjust debts
With eight hundred per cent, for Lor;
Make haste and get your costes in,
They will not last much mor!
Come down from that tribewn,
Thou shameless and unjust;
Thou swindle, picking pockets in
The name of Truth august;
Come down, thou hoary Blasphemy,
For die thou shalt and must.
And go it, Jacob Homnium,
And ply your iron pen,
And rise up, Sir John Jervis,
And shut me up that den;
That sty for fattening lawyers in,
On the bones of honest men.
“Come down from that tribewn, thou shameless and unjust!” It is impossible not to feel that he felt this as he wrote it.
There is a branch of his poetry which he calls — or which at any rate is now called, Lyra Hybernica, for which no doubt The Groves of Blarney was his model. There have been many imitations since, of which perhaps Barham’s ballad on the coronation was the best, “When to Westminster the Royal Spinster and the Duke of Leinster all in order did repair!” Thackeray in some of his attempts has been equally droll and equally graphic. That on The Cristal Palace — not that at Sydenham, but its forerunner, the palace of the Great Exhibition — is very good, as the following catalogue of its contents will show;
There’s holy saints
And window paints,
By Maydiayval Pugin;
Did paint the tones
Of yellow and gambouge in.
There’s fountains there
And crosses fair;
There’s water-gods with urns;
There’s organs three,
To play, d’ye see?
“God save the Queen,” by turns.
There’s statues bright
Of marble white,
Of silver, and of copper;
And some in zinc,
And some, I think,
That isn’t over proper.
There’s staym ingynes,
That stands in lines,
Enormous and amazing,
That squeal and snort
Like whales in sport,
Or elephants a grazing.
There’s carts and gigs,
And pins for pigs,
There’s dibblers and there’s harrows,
And ploughs like toys
For little boys,
And ilegant wheel-barrows.
For thim genteels
Who ride on wheels,
There’s plenty to indulge ’em
There’s droskys snug
And vayhycles from Bulgium.
There’s cabs on stands
And shandthry danns;
There’s waggons from New York here;
There’s Lapland sleighs
Have cross’d the seas,
And jaunting cyars from Cork here.
In writing this Thackeray was a little late with his copy for Punch; not, we should say, altogether an uncommon accident to him. It should have been with the editor early on Saturday, if not before, but did not come till late on Saturday evening. The editor, who was among men the most good-natured and I should think the most forbearing, either could not, or in this case would not, insert it in the next week’s issue, and Thackeray, angry and disgusted, sent it to The Times. In The Times of next Monday it appeared — very much I should think to the delight of the readers of that august newspaper.
Mr. Molony’s account of the ball given to the Nepaulese ambassadors by the Peninsular and Oriental Company, is so like Barham’s coronation in the account it gives of the guests, that one would fancy it must be by the same hand.
O fair the girls and rich the curls,
And bright the oys you saw there was;
And fixed each oye you then could spoi
On General Jung Bahawther was!
This gineral great then tuck his sate,
With all the other ginerals,
Bedad his troat, his belt, his coat,
All bleezed with precious minerals;
And as he there, with princely air,
Recloinin on his cushion was,
All round about his royal chair
The squeezin and the pushin was.
O Pat, such girls, such jukes and earls,
Such fashion and nobilitee!
Just think of Tim, and fancy him
Amidst the high gentilitee!
There was the Lord de L’Huys, and the Portygeese
Ministher and his lady there,
And I recognised, with much surprise,
Our messmate, Bob O’Grady, there.
All these are very good fun — so good in humour and so good in expression, that it would be needless to criticise their peculiar dialect, were it not that Thackeray has made for himself a reputation by his writing of Irish. In this he has been so entirely successful that for many English readers he has established a new language which may not improperly be called Hybernico-Thackerayan. If comedy is to be got from peculiarities of dialect, as no doubt it is, one form will do as well as another, so long as those who read it know no better. So it has been with Thackeray’s Irish, for in truth he was not familiar with the modes of pronunciation which make up Irish brogue. Therefore, though he is always droll, he is not true to nature. Many an Irishman coming to London, not unnaturally tries to imitate the talk of Londoners. You or I, reader, were we from the West, and were the dear County Galway to send either of us to Parliament, would probably endeavour to drop the dear brogue of our country, and in doing so we should make some mistakes. It was these mistakes which Thackeray took for the natural Irish tone. He was amused to hear a major called “Meejor,” but was unaware that the sound arose from Pat’s affection of English softness of speech. The expression natural to the unadulterated Irishman would rather be “Ma-ajor.” He discovers his own provincialism, and trying to be polite and urbane, he says “Meejor.” In one of the lines I have quoted there occurs the word “troat.” Such a sound never came naturally from the mouth of an Irishman. He puts in an h instead of omitting it, and says “dhrink.” He comes to London, and finding out that he is wrong with his “dhrink,” he leaves out all the h’s he can, and thus comes to “troat.” It is this which Thackeray has heard. There is a little piece called the Last Irish Grievance, to which Thackeray adds a still later grievance, by the false sounds which he elicits from the calumniated mouth of the pretended Irish poet. Slaves are “sleeves,” places are “pleeces,” Lord John is “Lard Jahn,” fatal is “fetal,” danger is “deenger,” and native is “neetive.” All these are unintended slanders. Tea, Hibernicé, is “tay,” please is “plaise,” sea is “say,” and ease is “aise.” The softer sound of e is broadened out by the natural Irishman — not, to my ear, without a certain euphony; — but no one in Ireland says or hears the reverse. The Irishman who in London might talk of his “neetive” race, would be mincing his words to please the ear of the cockney.
The Chronicle of the Drum would be a true ballad all through, were it not that there is tacked on to it a long moral in an altered metre. I do not much value the moral, but the ballad is excellent, not only in much of its versification and in the turns of its language, but in the quaint and true picture it gives of the French nation. The drummer, either by himself or by some of his family, has drummed through a century of French battling, caring much for his country and its glory, but understanding nothing of the causes for which he is enthusiastic. Whether for King, Republic, or Emperor, whether fighting and conquering or fighting and conquered, he is happy as long as he can beat his drum on a field of glory. But throughout his adventures there is a touch of chivalry about our drummer. In all the episodes of his country’s career he feels much of patriotism and something of tenderness. It is thus he sings during the days of the Revolution:
We had taken the head of King Capet,
We called for the blood of his wife;
Undaunted she came to the scaffold,
And bared her fair neck to the knife.
As she felt the foul fingers that touched her,
She shrank, but she deigned not to speak;
She looked with a royal disdain,
And died with a blush on her cheek!
’Twas thus that our country was saved!
So told us the Safety Committee!
But, psha, I’ve the heart of a soldier —
All gentleness, mercy, and pity.
I loathed to assist at such deeds,
And my drum beat its loudest of tunes,
As we offered to justice offended,
The blood of the bloody tribunes.
Away with such foul recollections!
No more of the axe and the block.
I saw the last fight of the sections,
As they fell ‘neath our guns at St. Rock.
Young Bonaparte led us that day.
And so it goes on. I will not continue the stanza, because it contains the worst rhyme that Thackeray ever permitted himself to use. The Chronicle of the Drum has not the finish which he achieved afterwards, but it is full of national feeling, and carries on its purpose to the end with an admirable persistency;
A curse on those British assassins
Who ordered the slaughter of Ney;
A curse on Sir Hudson who tortured
The life of our hero away.
A curse on all Russians — I hate them;
On all Prussian and Austrian fry;
And, oh, but I pray we may meet them
And fight them again ere I die.
The White Squall — which I can hardly call a ballad, unless any description of a scene in verse may be included in the name — is surely one of the most graphic descriptions ever put into verse. Nothing written by Thackeray shows more plainly his power over words and rhymes. He draws his picture without a line omitted or a line too much, saying with apparent facility all that he has to say, and so saying it that every word conveys its natural meaning.
When a squall, upon a sudden,
Came o’er the waters scudding;
And the clouds began to gather,
And the sea was lashed to lather,
And the lowering thunder grumbled,
And the lightning jumped and tumbled,
And the ship and all the ocean
Woke up in wild commotion.
Then the wind set up a howling,
And the poodle dog a yowling,
And the cocks began a crowing,
And the old cow raised a lowing,
As she heard the tempest blowing;
And fowls and geese did cackle,
And the cordage and the tackle
Began to shriek and crackle;
And the spray dashed o’er the funnels,
And down the deck in runnels;
And the rushing water soaks all,
From the seamen in the fo’ksal
To the stokers whose black faces
Peer out of their bed-places;
And the captain, he was bawling,
And the sailors pulling, hauling,
And the quarter-deck tarpauling
Was shivered in the squalling;
And the passengers awaken,
Most pitifully shaken;
And the steward jumps up and hastens
For the necessary basins.
Then the Greeks they groaned and quivered,
And they knelt, and moaned, and shivered,
As the plunging waters met them,
And splashed and overset them;
And they call in their emergence
Upon countless saints and virgins;
And their marrowbones are bended,
And they think the world is ended.
And the Turkish women for’ard
Were frightened and behorror’d;
And shrieking and bewildering,
The mothers clutched their children;
The men sang “Allah! Illah!
As the warning waters doused them,
And splashed them and soused them
And they called upon the Prophet,
And thought but little of it.
Then all the fleas in Jewry
Jumped up and bit like fury;
And the progeny of Jacob
Did on the main-deck wake up.
(I wot these greasy Rabbins
Would never pay for cabins);
And each man moaned and jabbered in
His filthy Jewish gaberdine,
In woe and lamentation,
And howling consternation.
And the splashing water drenches
Their dirty brats and wenches;
And they crawl from bales and benches,
In a hundred thousand stenches.
This was the White Squall famous,
Which latterly o’ercame us.
Peg of Limavaddy has always been very popular, and the public have not, I think, been generally aware that the young lady in question lived in truth at Newton Limavady (with one d). But with the correct name Thackeray would hardly have been so successful with his rhymes.
Citizen or Squire
Tory, Whig, or Radi-Cal would all desire
Peg of Limavaddy.
Had I Homer’s fire
Or that of Sergeant Taddy
Meetly I’d admire
Peg of Limavaddy.
And till I expire
Or till I go mad I
Will sing unto my lyre
Peg of Limavaddy.
The Cane-bottomed Chair is another, better, I think, than Peg of Limavaddy, as containing that mixture of burlesque with the pathetic which belonged so peculiarly to Thackeray, and which was indeed the very essence of his genius.
But of all the cheap treasures that garnish my nest,
There’s one that I love and I cherish the best.
For the finest of couches that’s padded with hair
I never would change thee, my cane-bottomed chair.
’Tis a bandy-legged, high-bottomed, worm-eaten seat,
With a creaking old back and twisted old feet;
But since the fair morning when Fanny sat there,
I bless thee and love thee, old cane-bottomed chair.
* * * * *
She comes from the past and revisits my room,
She looks as she then did all beauty and bloom;
So smiling and tender, so fresh and so fair,
And yonder she sits in my cane-bottomed chair.
This, in the volume which I have now before me, is followed by a picture of Fanny in the chair, to which I cannot but take exception. I am quite sure that when Fanny graced the room and seated herself in the chair of her old bachelor friend, she had not on a low dress and loosely-flowing drawing-room shawl, nor was there a footstool ready for her feet. I doubt also the headgear. Fanny on that occasion was dressed in her morning apparel, and had walked through the streets, carried no fan, and wore no brooch but one that might be necessary for pinning her shawl.
The Great Cossack Epic is the longest of the ballads. It is a legend of St. Sophia of Kioff, telling how Father Hyacinth, by the aid of St. Sophia, whose wooden statue he carried with him, escaped across the Borysthenes with all the Cossacks at his tail. It is very good fun; but not equal to many of the others. Nor is the Carmen Lilliense quite to my taste. I should not have declared at once that it had come from Thackeray’s hand, had I not known it.
But who could doubt the Bouillabaisse? Who else could have written that? Who at the same moment could have been so merry and so melancholy — could have gone so deep into the regrets of life, with words so appropriate to its jollities? I do not know how far my readers will agree with me that to read it always must be a fresh pleasure; but in order that they may agree with me, if they can, I will give it to them entire. If there be one whom it does not please, he will like nothing that Thackeray ever wrote in verse.
THE BALLAD OF BOUILLABAISSE.
A street there is in Paris famous,
For which no rhyme our language yields,
Rue Neuve des Petits Champs its name is —
The New Street of the Little Fields;
And here’s an inn, not rich and splendid,
But still in comfortable case;
The which in youth I oft attended,
To eat a bowl of Bouillabaisse.
This Bouillabaisse a noble dish is —
A sort of soup, or broth, or brew
Or hotch-potch of all sorts of fishes,
That Greenwich never could outdo;
Green herbs, red peppers, mussels, saffron,
Soles, onions, garlic, roach, and dace:
All these you eat at Terré‘s tavern,
In that one dish of Bouillabaisse.
Indeed, a rich and savoury stew ’tis;
And true philosophers, methinks,
Who love all sorts of natural beauties,
Should love good victuals and good drinks.
And Cordelier or Benedictine
Might gladly sure his lot embrace,
Nor find a fast-day too afflicting
Which served him up a Bouillabaisse.
I wonder if the house still there is?
Yes, here the lamp is, as before;
The smiling red-cheeked écaillère is
Still opening oysters at the door.
Is Terré still alive and able?
I recollect his droll grimace;
He’d come and smile before your table,
And hope you liked your Bouillabaisse.
We enter — nothing’s changed or older.
“How’s Monsieur Terré, waiter, pray?”
The waiter stares and shrugs his shoulder —
“Monsieur is dead this many a day.”
“It is the lot of saint and sinner;
So honest Terré‘s run his race.”
“What will Monsieur require for dinner?”
“Say, do you still cook Bouillabaisse?”
“Oh, oui, Monsieur,” ‘s the waiter’s answer,
“Quel vin Monsieur desire-t-il?”
“Tell me a good one.” “That I can, sir:
The chambertin with yellow seal.”
“So Terré‘s gone,” I say, and sink in
My old accustom’d corner-place;
“He’s done with feasting and with drinking,
With Burgundy and Bouillabaisse.”
My old accustomed corner here is,
The table still is in the nook;
Ah! vanish’d many a busy year is
This well-known chair since last I took.
When first I saw ye, cari luoghi,
I’d scarce a beard upon my face,
And now a grizzled, grim old fogy,
I sit and wait for Bouillabaisse.
Where are you, old companions trusty,
Of early days here met to dine?
Come, waiter! quick, a flagon crusty;
I’ll pledge them in the good old wine.
The kind old voices and old faces
My memory can quick retrace;
Around the board they take their places,
And share the wine and Bouillabaisse.
There’s Jack has made a wondrous marriage;
There’s laughing Tom is laughing yet;
There’s brave Augustus drives his carriage;
There’s poor old Fred in the Gazette;
O’er James’s head the grass is growing.
Good Lord! the world has wagged apace
Since here we set the claret flowing,
And drank, and ate the Bouillabaisse.
Ah me! how quick the days are flitting!
I mind me of a time that’s gone,
When here I’d sit, as now I’m sitting,
In this same place — but not alone.
A fair young face was nestled near me,
A dear, dear face looked fondly up,
And sweetly spoke and smiled to cheer me!
There’s no one now to share my cup.
* * * * *
I drink it as the Fates ordain it.
Come fill it, and have done with rhymes;
Fill up the lonely glass, and drain it
In memory of dear old times.
Welcome the wine, whate’er the seal is;
And sit you down and say your grace
With thankful heart, whate’er the meal is.
Here comes the smoking Bouillabaisse.
I am not disposed to say that Thackeray will hold a high place among English poets. He would have been the first to ridicule such an assumption made on his behalf. But I think that his verses will be more popular than those of many highly reputed poets, and that as years roll on they will gain rather than lose in public estimation.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55