Globe, 31 July 1915, p. 8

The Mechanical Muse – Turning Out Poems of the Great War. Someone has said that no single line of real poetry ever dies. Even the gem in the mass of ineptitude is saved from the destruction that must inevitably wait upon the whole. The spheres ring sweet to many a voice without a name, to many a stave the song of which none can place. There is a lesson in this—that the poet should write only when moved by an inspiration, and not merely by his own confidence in himself as a servant to the Muse. Not only is the poet born and not made; he is a spasmodic individual, being a great singer of songs for a day or so, and then a mere man for month son end. His general mistake is that he imagines himself a poet always.

The war is now to blame. It has been a terrible temptation to our minor poets. Doubtless Canon Rawnsley would have written a poem or two when the Muses piped in his ear, and nothing more; but the rumbling of the guns was too much for him. His morning paper always bore an epic, and the evening paper a sonnet. He could not read of a Voctoria Cross won without being fired to a fine frenzy; and then a confiding publisher gave him enough rope to hang a dozen writers of rhymes.

Canon Rawnsley has first of all made the mistake of believing that the sonnet form is suited to warrior themes. Most decidedly it is not. It is the proper vehicle for Phyllis and Corydon, for frisking lambs and green leaves, but its adoption for the clash of arms and the circumstance of war as much the same effect as would the loading of a hundred-ton gun on a wagon tared for a ton. In any case, few writers nowadays can handle the sonnet form adequately. It passed with the Victorian era. It is the mould into which young ladies were taught to pour their sentimental fancies. It is the “reach-me-down” of poetry.

This is no promising introduction to a good statement, and there are many really good things in the book; but that is the fact. Canon Rawnsley at times shows a pretty trick of narrative verse, as in “A Modern Horatius”:

Ah! many deeds were done that day,
    But braver never sure was done
Than his who kept the foe at bay
    Against a thousand one.

Still do they praise in Roman song
    How Cocles fought and died of old,
Let this Horatius live as long
    His as long be told.

I imagine the Muse must have been leaning very closely over Canon Rawnsley’s shoulder when he wrote this:

“Lords and ladies all in waiting,
    Rise within your tents of green,
Spring is coming, birds are mating,
    Rise and bow before your Queen.

The sonnet to Rupert Brooke is one of the best things in the book. Here for once, is the subject suited to its treatment:

For never since upon his golden quest
    To Lemnos Jason with his Argo came
        And Orpheus sang the maidens back to
Has sweeter singer on this isle found rest
        Than he who warrior-poet died to prove
    The patriot’s inextinguishable flame.

Western Daily Press, 2 August 1915, p. 7

Under the title “The European War 1914-1915: Poems,” Canon Rawnsley publishes about a hundred and fifty short poems. They have mostly appeared in different newspapers and all owe their inspiration to various incidents of the war. Indeed, they comprise something like a history in poetry of the leading events to date. The canon is certainly dowered with the poetic gift, and he has now no lack of fit subjects for his muse. Courage is his constant theme; he sings dirges over the fallen, and is moved to indignant sorrow by the woes of the martyred, and to scorn and defiance of their insolent persecutors. Sometimes it is a trench song, sometimes a general’s praise, sometimes a V.C. story. He hails “Max, Burgomaster of Brussels,” tells about Rheims Cathedral, sings of the “Men of H.M.S. Hawke,” and lays a wreath of poesy on the grave of “2nd Lieutenant W. G. C. Gladstone, M.P.” Indeed, Canon Rawnsley bids fair to become, in England, the poet of the war. And over all his pieces there plays the light of Christian faith and hope, as becomes the poet who is also a Christian preacher.

Liverpool Daily Post, 4 August 1909, p. 8

Canon Rawnsley has the faculty of placing vivid impressions in vivid verse. He is a true and a worthy disciple of Wordsworth. In our own and other columns he has dealt with events of the moment in verse which always displays a wonderful faculty for grasping the inner meaning of these events. This, too, is Wordsworthian in influence. "Poems at Home and Abroad" shows Canon Rawnsley in every phase of his art. The “Poems of Italy” are quite characteristic. There is the appreciation of colour, the tender optimism of the philosophy, the wide comprehension of sympathy. The “Memorial Sonnets” appeal most to us. Here is a collection of sonnets dealing in Canon Rawnsley’s own way events of the time. It would be absurd to say that the sonnets are perfect in form; after all, that is an achievement which is given to very few. But they have their own dignity and richness of thought. If we place the tribute to Swinburne as the best, it is largely because it shows in every line Canon Rawnsley’s widely sympathetic temper. It is not every ecclesiastic who can see so deeply into Swinburne’s yearning heart.

Citizen (Letchworth), 6 November 1909, p. 8

Canon Rawnsley has long been known to us as a lover of nature and the author of some of the most charming books in our library. We have followed him on many a jaunt around his favourite Lakeland, but he has now taken us further afield and given us a volume of “Poems at Home and Abroad.” The talented parson is a sweet singer, and although we like his Nature poems best of all, he has written much that is worth reading of Italy and other foreign lands. We should like to quote many stanzas by this pleasant songster, but a reasonable quotation from the poem “Fieldfares” must suffice. These birds, if not already here, will soon be heard uttering their “chank, chank” upon our breezy Common, and judging by the wild fruits which now abound, these winter visitors from the far North will find food in plenty to tide them over the winter.

With ‘tsik-tsak’ high and ‘tsik-tsak’ low—
    While perched far off their pickets stand—
    These wandering birds possess the land
Our Norseman fathers used to know.
    In voice, half quarrel, half command,
    They wrangle on, the robber band—
    Swift-wingéd Vikings from the strand
Of ice and winter snow.

Glasgow Herald, 12 April 1900 p. 10

It is perhaps too soon to put a fair valuation upon Can Rawnsley’s war-ballads, partly because they lack the halo of romance which memory confers upon the most commonplace incidents of the national and even the local life of the past. The incidents in the South African War which have caught the fancy and touched the heart of the Keswick poet are treated with spirit and sympathy, but it was, we suppose, inevitable that they should have to some extent the effect of newspaper paragraphs about things of yesterday. As a matter of fact, some of the newspaper descriptions of the battles and their peculiar details have been far more effective than much of the verse which they have inspired. The ancient poets and rhymers, no doubt, often wrote their songs and ballads in the heat of the events which they celebrate. But much of the early minstrelsy has an air of having been written on events remembered long after their occurrence or heard in the form of oral tradition. It is probable, for instance, there existed old songs lamenting the disaster of Flodden; but the two songs on the same theme—those by Miss Jane Elliot and Mrs Cockburn—which are so well known, were written some 200 years after the battle in which the Flowers of the Forest suffered so dreadfully, and afflicted all Scotland with centuries of sadness. The blow was perhaps too stunning to allow of immediate and pure poetic effort; and it was not until the historic calamity had, in a sense, become a romantic memory, and ceased to be an intolerable mental burden, that it became possible to transmute the nation’s lingering sorrow into pathetic and durable song. Bannockburn had much longer to wait for its predestined poet. There had no doubt been poetic references to the great fight of liberation in June, 1314, as, for instance, in Barbour’s Bruce. But no less than 479 years had to elapse before Burns flashed out his immortal ode in September, 1793. It was worthwhile for Bannockburn to wait all that time for such a splendid glorification. In modern days great or sensational events find ready poets, who too often treat them in rhymes that fit the hour and perish with it. Wh have, however, had poets who made great deeds live again in great verse; and of this high breed of singer, the late laureate was our noblest example. The present war has called forth much verse and some good poetry, but none really great. Poets who rush and gush on this subject are not likely to produce good work, especially on vital points that are scarcely ripe for treatment—which may be ripe perhaps twenty, fifty, or a hundred years hence, when South Africa has found its permanent position in the British Empire, and when the historic and poetic facts and ideas can be seen in proper perspective. But, of course, the living ? when strongly moved by passing events, must sing or choke. There were poets before Homer, but Homer’s theme was at least 700 years old when he wrote the Ilian and the Odyssey. We have many living poets, but no Homer has yet risen to sing in adequate numbers the great war which ended with Waterloo, and of which Napoleon and Wellington were the heroes. The comment on that is that the epic, as a poetic form, is dead beyond the possibility of revival. Perhaps—but after all who knows? Certainly not we of the present generation. Many poets are embodying in verse some of the incidents of the present war; but a time may come, many years hence, when the subject will be treated in a manner worthy of its far-reaching greatness. In the meantime we must be content with the well-meant lyrical utterances of the hour, while yet the wonderful and picturesque events of the new Iliad are being enacted. Of Canon Rawnsley’s book of ballads it may be said that they present some of the incidents of the war with much spirit and pathos; and it is certain that some of them will find a permanent place in military anthologies. The best example of the poet’s work is, to our liking, the piece which describes “The Burial of General Wauchope” at Modder River, December 13, 1899. It is only truth to say that the unmerited fate of this noble leader of the Highland Brigade has thrilled the heart, not only of the Queen’s Highland soldiers, but of the whole nation.

There is one special merit in Canon Rawnsley’s book. His ballads are not fanciful, but are based upon facts, properly authenticated by the war correspondents, from whose writings relative passages are quoted. Some of these prose paragraphs have all the effect of real poetry.

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 27 June 1900, p. 7

Ballads of the War.—Canon Rawnsley has a nice skill in ballad-making; and he has been busy since the war began. His “Ballads of the War” deserve a general welcome. He gives us ample variety. There are stirring ballads dealing with such incidents as that of the “Wounded Piper of Elandslaagte” and “How the Naval Guns Came to Ladysmith.” There are sonnets dealing rather with the conscience and thoughts of the nation at home than with incidents of the field. There are shorter poems concerned with persons and incidents in the strife. Canon Rawnsley knows how to write a ballad with swing and fire as well as pathos in it; how to touch the chords that lie deeper within us; and how happily to hit off the national feeling towards a hero or a sufferer. If sometimes it looks as though he had lent momentary attention to the cunning lie which writes this struggle down as a “capitalists’ war,” the Imperial spirit is always strong within him. A sonnet on the Queen’s visit to Netley, suggested by a Highlander’s words, will serve as a specimen of the contents of this volume:--

They spake not, but their wounds were eloquent
    As there they stood in hospital array,
    The pain of sword and bullet passed away
While on from ward to ward Victoria went;
And here she thanked them for their brave intent,
    There for some tender question would she stay;
    Here speak with sorrow of the battle day,
There smile such smile as more than praises

Lady revered, for whom all men endure
    The heat of onset gladly, and the cold
        Of loss and failure, love is ever green
    To crown your royal head with more than gold;
When all the thrones are shaken yours is sure,
        Seeming so much more mother than a Queen.

Leeds Mercury, 21 August 1906, p. 2

Sonnets While You Wait. There is something appalling about Canon Rawnsley’s prolific output of sonnets. It would be no exaggeration to say that he could—we do not know if he would—supply a sonnet at a moment’s notice on any subject, whether of things that are in the heavens above, on the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth. His printed sonnets in book form, include “Sonnets at the English Lakes,” “Sonnets Round the Coast,” “Valete and other Sonnets,” and “Sonnets in Switzerland and Italy.

His addition to this extensive collection is now given to the public under the title “A Sonnet Chronicle, 1900-1906.” The Canon explains—was it was scarcely necessary, perhaps, to mention—that it had been his custom for some years past to keep in sonnet form a calendar of events “that stirred one or seemed of interest to others; and I have ventured to publish a selection of these, in the hope that readers—if there be any found (the words are Canon Rawnsley’s)—may care to have their minds recalled to the events they commemorate.”

The subjects [of his new book] are of all kinds. To each is given its sonnet of monotonous mediocrity. There is no reason, of course, why Canon Rawnsley should not do this thing, but, in the interests of peace and good-will among men, it is to be hoped that he will endeavour to subject himself to a self-denying ordinance in the matter of sonnets in the future—that, in a word, he will recognise the necessity for what sportsmen call a close time.

Globe, 18 December 1899, p. 6

The author has had very considerable practice in sonnet-writing, and is a master of the form. Facility like his is, however, usually fatal to the production of much perfect and lasting work. These 163 sonnets (to which have to be added two sonnets “dedicatory” and “prefatory” to Mr. Ruskin) are pleasant reading, but make no permanent impression on the mind.

Dundee Advertiser, 19 December 1899, p. 8

Canon Rawnsley’s “Sonnets in Switzerland and Italy” contain very much that is verbally musical and that appears picturesque. It is a book full of delicious colours, and sounds unfamiliar to British ears, save to those that have hearkened to the aerial melodies of the Alps and the tinkle of cow bells from distant slopes. Therefore these sonnets are charming, and reading them one becomes wishful that winter were over, and that it were possible to rush off to the Col de Jaman and behold what the author saw—what seemed to be the result of a hailstorm whitening all the slopes, but was actually innumerable narcissi. There, too, at the season it is possible to mistake a belt of gentians for a zone of blue sky. Such wonders of colour and scent have inspired some of these sonnets, while the Italian ones glow with sunlight and sunset, or are dim and mystical with the gloom of churches and old world towns. In the Italian subjects it is easy to see how Canon Rawnsley is touched by the historical glamour and the artistic beauties of the country, and his poetry becomes the medium of what may be called a warm academic appreciation of them. But to Switzerland he comes as the jaded traveller, eager to be refreshed by her choice airs and the subtle ministrations of grass and flower and snow-clad peak. He bids the white-blossoming valleys “close me round,” and asks to share “the solace of your mountain solitudes,” drinking “the wine of welcoming.” The scholar’s touch is on every thing in the book, from the dedicatory sonnet to John Ruskin to the few careful little notes at the close.

Glasgow Herald, 20 December 1899, p. 4

Canon Rawnsley has ere this published many sonnets and his present volume contains 163 new ones. He is amongst the best of our living sonneteers. The sonnet is, perhaps, the most difficult form of poetic composition, and uncommonly few have mastered its secret. Milton, Wordsworth, and Keats are masters in the art. If, as a poet, Mr Rawnsley cannot be compared with these, yet—in sonnet-making he never altogether makes a failure. His present examples may be described as of the combined scenic and historic order like his “Sonnets of the English Lakes” and “Round the Coast.” These latter have been rightly admired, and we should be, indeed, surprised if the sonnets referring especially to Switzerland do not take even a higher place in the estimation of sonnet-lovers. Here is an example that should appeal keenly to the historic memory. It is entitled “From the Rigi-Kulm” at sunrise—

His heart was never for a patriot made
        Who—gazing here, when sunrise with a wand
        Smiting the silver peaks of Oberland
Flings on Pilatus Rigi’s purple shade—
Could watch unmoved, to think of those whose aid
        Bequeathed their country faith in Heaven’s com-
        Dared face to face with fearful odds to stand,
And struck for freedom with undaunted blade!

There shines the vale where Winkelried was born,
    There Sempach gleams; here fatefully shot Tell,
        Here at Morgarten stood the Swiss at bay,
    Here by the church ‘Kappel’ Zwingli fell;
        And, as the mists rise up and float away,
The land of heroes brightens to the morn.

Canon Rawnsley dedicated his volume to John Ruskin with a couple of fine sonnets, and in a prefatory note he says that his volume is published “with the hope of inducing a few readers to take their pleasure abroad at the time when the gentian flowers,” adding this hint from Ruskin’s teaching—“That nature has nothing fairer to offer to mind or eye than blossom-tide in Switzerland.” Mr. Rawnsley’s sonnets should have considerable effect in the line of his expressed hope.

Pall Mall Gazette, 18 January 1900, p. 4

A Parodist, a Victim and Two Others.—“The Victim”, of whom we spoke in our title, is Canon Rawnsley. Not that Mr Seaman parodies this impeccable maker of verses. There is nothing to object to in any of the 150 sonnets inspired by one or more Continental tours; all are equally accomplished. But Mr Seaman exactly . . . off our feeling when he makes the Poet Laureate observe:

But Canon Rawnsley, too, shall get
    Full credit for his work upon it
(I never knew a subject yet
    On which he didn’t do a sonnet).

A man who would do a sonnet on Chillon at this time of day would do one on anything; and sure enough here it is—a perfect example of competent mediocrity. If only there were not so many of them—but there are, and that is an end of it.

Western Daily Press, 8 February 1900, p. 3

Canon Rawnsley, after dedicating this book of sonnets “To John Ruskin on his Eighty-first Birthday,” added in his prefatory note—“I have ventured to dedicate the volume to him who taught me, amongst other things, that Nature has nothing fairer to offer to mind or eye than blossom-tide in Switzerland.” The value which appertains to these poems for their own sake is much further enhanced by two sonnets—dedicatory and prefatory—to John Ruskin, the sonnet prefatory being in honour of the completion by Ruskin, in February of last year, of eighty years of life. The “Sonnet Dedicatory,” which was accompanied by “a wreath of gentianella and other Alpine flowers from St. Beatenberg,” will now be read with an interest mingled with sadness:--

You give me much, I little, but I know
        That for poor deed you take the generous will,
        And so I send from off this ‘Blessèd Hill’
The sweetest flowers in Switzerland that grow.
Take them, and let them tell you what I owe,—
        For you it was who taught mine eyes to thrill
        At sight of ‘gentian’ glory, and to fill
My soul with wonders of the Alpine snow.

Still do these lowly stars of azure blue
    Unto that star in Heaven, the great Sun, turn,
        And in his joy their secret selves unfold;
And still your fond disciples turn to you,
    Open their hearts that for your sunshine yearn,
        And seek the smile they learned to love of old.

The restful, refreshing verse in which Canon Rawnsley clothes his interpretation of the beauties of Switzerland will find many delighted readers. They breathe the atmosphere in which the poet himself has revelled, at the same time that he has not failed—as in “The Guide’s Farewell” and “To R. L. Nettleship”—to catch, in the midst of so much natural beauty, the tones that sing of human heroism and human sadness. There are to be gathered in this book some of the finest fruits of a holiday spent with eyes and ears and yet more subtle senses awake to the influences of the sweetest charms this earth has to offer for the highest pleasure of the human family; and at the same time the writer has manifestly sought to consult even a fastidious taste in the matter of verbal form and rhythmic requirement. Those who have been privileged to see Switzerland will enjoy these sonnets for the memories they stir, and all who have not yet had the opportunity to travel so far from Albion’s shores will discover pleasant pictures here photographed for them in words, and, it may be, lay plans for visiting themselves the spots where so much beauty is enshrined. A few special incidents are made the subject of brief reference in an appendix illuminating several of the sonnets.

Birmingham Daily Post, 13 February 1900, p. 8

Canon Rawnsley dedicates his new book of verse to “John Ruskin on his eighty-first birthday.” The book ahs therefore the interest of being probably the last literary tribute laid at Ruskin’s feet by a disciple. Canon Rawnsley has habitually acted on Ruskin’s hint that the proper time to enjoy Switzerland is the season of spring flowers. Long practice has given him a complete mastery of the sonnet form—a form which has the advantage of checking exuberance and compelling condensation. He also exhibits a great command of poetical language; and te 163 sonnets here collected express, always gracefully, and often with much felicity, the sentiments of an eager and cultivated mind, capable of appreciating, not only Swiss flowers and Swiss scenery, but the character, history, and traditions of the Swiss people.

Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 21 March 1900, p. 3

The mantle of Wordsworth, when it fell, fell to the ground, but Canon Rawnsley has been permitted to touch the hem of it. He of all people, claiming Wordsworth for his master, would desire to be compared with him; yet it is certain—and we hope not to scandalise the disciple in avowing it—that these sonnets have something of the grand sonnet-tone of Wordsworth, and show no little of his passion for the beautiful world of mountain and stream and flower,, and his power to express the passion. There is praise in the admission that of these more than one hundred and sixty sonnets not one is dull, not one but shows good workmanship, and, be it known, a workmanship which reveals love for its calling, and a never-failing regard for its own high purpose. If a sonnet here and there be a mere mechanism, it must be admitted that the most of them claim judgment from the standpoint of poetry. In form Canon Rawnsley adheres to the Italian form throughout, and so closely that the purist will find nothing to offend, unless, indeed, he cling to the stricter variety of a two-rhymed sestet in preference to one of three rhymes. The volume takes us through the glorious scenes of Switzerland and Northern Italy, and Canon Rawnsley sees and hears all the teeming beauty they possess—feels them, too, and speaks them forth again in fitting language, which is the poet’s privilege. There are striking lines everywhere, fine in form and high in thought; not the sensuous, rich lines of Rossetti, rich like sunlight at eventide through coloured flame, but simple and restrained, matching their lofty message with simpler measure. The last line of the sonnet calls for special strength, it is as the tower crowning the church, the outward glory to which all else leads up. Canon Rawnsley knows this, and is specially blest in achieving it almost without exception. We choose the sestet of the sonnet, “At the Trub-See,” almost at random, as an example of the many beautiful things in the volume:--

Then o’er that seething cauldron of the cloud
    High Titlis shone; the hand that guards the pass
        Stood forth like silver, and we clomb up higher:
    Thence gazing, the disconsolate morass
Became a sea of glory, and a crowd
        Of angels moving on soft waves of fire.

London Evening Standard, 2 June 1900, p. 4

The writing of sonnets seems to come as easily to him [HDR] as it came to the men of Shakespeare’s time, who produced sonnet-cycles, three hundred strong, for the amusement of fashionable literary society. Some people convey their passing impressions in letters to their friends—or, less wisely, to Editors of newspapers—and relieve their feelings by lyrics or articles in the magazines. Mr Rawnsley, in such exigencies, composes, and usually, publishes a sonnet. He comments on news of the day in poems of fourteen lines, with five rhymes; he makes passing notes of his holiday tours in the same form. It is a practice which we can only encourage him to continue, for his sonnets are praiseworthy of their kind. Though he can scarcely be placed among the poets in virtue of any imaginative power or passion, or any magic of expression, he is a cultivated writer, with a delicate ear and a graceful sense of beauty. He has just that feeling for the past, and that sympathy with Nature, with Art, and with tradition, that are best conveyed in the metrical form he has adopted. Here is a good expression of his manner:--

 At Como Cathedral

    Pliny’s Statue

Here sits in marble, with his scroll in hand,
        The student-lover of the Larian lake,
        Whom Trajan trusted for his wisdom’s sake;
Who, going governor to the Asian land,
Waited his Lord’s imperial command,
        What steps to stay that heresy he should take,
        Which, in the name of Christ, had dared forsake
The temple courts, and all Jove’s altars banned.

He saw Vesuvius’ ashes blur the sky
    And bury Herculaneum; dreamed not Rome
        Would sink in fiercer fires; nor ever knew
That ‘harmless superstition, doomed to die
    A natural death,’ would to his honouring come,
        With sweet forgiveness for the hand that slew.

The closing lines, it will be seen, are a little weak; and this is often the case with Mr. Rawnsley. It is in the way they end their sonnets that the great poets show themselves.