Review of 'Burdens of Belief' in 'The Athenaeum', 14 July 1894

'The Burdens of Belief and other poems' was critically reviewed in the literary magazine 'The Athenaeum'. The magazine considered Argyll's standard of poetry to be mediocre and that his use of poetry to pursue a scientific argument was unusual and ineffective.


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Copyright National Library of Scotland


62 THE ATHENÆUM No3481, JULY 14, '94

The Burdens of Belief, and other Poems. By the
Duke of Argyll (Murray.)
Cricket Songs. By Norman Gale. (Methuen
& Co.)
Ban and Arrière Ban: a Rally of Fugitive
Rhymes. By Andrew Lang. (Longmans &
Dramatic Pictures, English Rispetti, Sonnets,
and other Verses. By Alexander H. Japp.
(Chatto & Windus.)
Ballads of Bairnhood. Selected and edited by
Robert Ford. (Gardner.)

THE Duke of Argyll has not, up to present,
come before the public in the character of a
poet, and the book of poems which he has just
published opens with a preface of eight pages,
and ends with eleven pages of notes. He tells
us that,

“like most men who have spent many years in
literary work of various kinds, I have occasionally,
from a very early age, amused myself by writing
verse. Having, however, a wholesome sense of the
wide space which may separate even verse which is
fairly good from verse which is genuine poetry, I
have never published more than a very few occa-
sional contributions to periodicals of the day. The
favourable opinion, however, of some on whose taste
and judgment I can rely, encourages me to hope that
lines which have long given pleasure to a few may
now give pleasure also to a few more.”

This, certainly, is not a lofty standpoint,
though we are told later that these lines are
“cast as seed upon the troubled waters of our
time — seed which may, or may not, be drifted
to some solitary shores where they may take
root and grow.” Does the Duke of Argyll,
then, wish us to take his verses as being as near
poetry as he could make them? or does he wish
us to take them as merely one of his scientific
books turned into verse for a change, but a
scientific book to be received as an argument
on behalf of a thesis? Poetry is one thing, and
an argument is another, and the two cannot by
any chance be found in union. Philosophic
verse, at its best, is not usually the best kind of
verse ; and the Duke of Argyll scarcely comes

into competition with, let us say, Wordsworth
or Coleridge. here is a specimen of something
which may have interest for the student of
natural history, but certainly cannot be said to
appeal to the amateur of poetry:—

Australia’s bird that lays
Her beauteous eggs in hatching-mound,
Nor sits, like other birds, her Days,
But leaves them in the ground;
Born heirs of their own land,
Her young, full-armed to fly and run,
Open their eyes from coral sand
As if they knew the sun.

Turning to Note VI., Appendix, we are told
that “these lines refer to the ‘Megapodes,’
a family of birds peculiar to, but extending all
over, the islands of the Eastern Archipelago from
the Philippines to Australia.” Among the mis-
cellaneous poems which follow ‘The Burdens of
Belief’ we find titles of this sort : ‘On First
Observing the Willow Wren in Midwinter on
the Pincian Hill, in Rome, December 1842.’
Concerning this interesting experience we are

Now ask not, stranger, for the name
Of that dear bird of mine,
'Tis one that seldom meets the ear,
And 'twould be strange to thine.

It is a small and gentle bird
That shuns the haunts of men ;
And few, who do not seek, have heard
The Lesser Willow Wren.

It is true that the Duke of Argyll can some-
times do better than this. The best two pieces
in the book are ‘To E.C.G., on his Mother's
Death,’ and ‘The Burial of Alfred, Lord Tenny-
son, in Westminster Abbey,’ both of which are
Tennysonian echoes which have at least a cer-
tain elegance in the copy.