The Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society (5 march 1887)

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

This article is a report of the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society published in the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle on 5 march 1887.

The report is about a lecture "Some Early Lyrists" by Hugh S. MacLauchlan, attended by Arthur Conan Doyle where he spoke as well.


Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society


The seventh ordinary meeting was held at the Penny-street Lecture Hall on Tuesday. The chair was occupied by the Right Rev. Dr. Virtue, Bishop of Portsmouth (Vice-President), and the company included: General A. W. Drayson, F.R.A.S., the Rev. H. Maxwell Egan Desmond, M.A., F.R.G.S., the Rev. Dr. W. Stern, Dr. C. C. Claremont, Colonel C. Mumby, Messrs. J. Hay, G. L. Green, John Brymer, G. Ollis, J. M. Ollis, R.N., Lewis P. Lewis, R.N., W. Inglis, R.N., A. Howell, C. Foran, A. Armstrong, H. Moncreaff, W. G. P. Gilbert, F. Brymure, S. Blinkhorn, J. Stein, J. Brickwood, S. Pittis, C. S. Wills, E. T. Maine, H. Parke, R. B. Smith, R. Rice, E. Martell, J. Douglas Watson, G. F. Bell, Dr. J. Ward Cousins and Dr. A. Conan Doyle (Hon. Secs.), and also many ladies. Dr. G. Dimmer was elected a member of he Society, and Captain S. Burton was nominated for membership.

Mr. HUGH S. MACLAUCHLAN delivered a lecture on "Some Early Lyrists." Having traced the origin of lyric poetry, the lecturer referred to the decadence of the poetic art in England after the death of Chaucer. During the hundred years that followed, and even later, until the force and beauty of the Scottish allegory had shamed the bald verse of the Southerner into excellence, Lydgate and Hoccleve alone had arisen to touch the hearts of the people. But in Scotland good Robert Henryson, from his school-house in Dunfermline, was writing the first pastoral in the language, and there were Gavin Douglas, polished and elegant, and William Dunbar, burning with a fever of passionate fancies, a man of large heart and deep sympathies, and one who, from the richness and splendour of his gifts, might well claim a place in the front rank of poets of any country or of any tongue. The first man to rescue England from this state of literary destitution was John Skelton, a bold and outspoken priest, who openly set at defiance the decree against marriage, denounced the worldliness of the Church, and did not hesitate to aim the shafts of his satire against Cardinal Wolsey himself. His most effective mode of denunciation was a certain form of verse, varying like the early English poems in metre and accentuation, rushing on wildly and recklessly, a torrent of bold and bitter wrath. The best illustration of his verse was the admirable satire "Colin Clout," in which he appealed against injustices to the high dignitaries of the Church under the guise of a justice Englishman. Skelton had received but little justice at the hands of posterity. Doubtless in an age of coarseness he was coarse; but in an age of ecclesiastical bigotry his sympathies were broad and deep; in an age of corruption his hands were clean, and in an age of meanness and time-serving he did not fear to speak his mind. Having referred to the poets who filled up the gap between this priestly satirist and the rise of the courtly lyrists, the lecturer described the nature of Master Richard Tottel's Miscellany, which was the venerable originator of those innumerable volumes of extracts and selections — poetic sepulchres, but triumphs of binding and gilt-edging — that glitter on the tables of the modern drawing room. It was Master Tottel who first gave to the world, with all their wealth of pensive thought and glowing diction, the poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt and the unhappy Earl of Surrey. Wyatt allied great caution to great penetration, and confined himself largely to love songs, so that although he tasted the bitterness of the Tower he died in his bed. The Earl of Surrey, more reckless and headstrong, was beheaded on Tower Hill when twenty-nine years old. Surrey wrote love verses to his Geraldine, and for generations their names were as expressive of unselfish and devoted love as those of Paul and Virginia. But centuries have destroyed the illusion. The love of Surrey's verse, like the loves of Dante and Petrarch, was not the love of his heart. Few persons nowadays read John Lyly, as strange and fantastic a writer as ever held a pen, who created an original and for a time an almost universal taste in literature by, his quaintly entitled "Euphues." The chief characteristic of this work was the employment of a species of fabubous natural philosophy, in which the existence or certain animals, vegetables, and minerals, with peculiar properties, was preserved in order to afford similes and illustrations. Lyly became a courtier as well as a writer, but the Elizabethan mind was not ripe for professional authorship. It looked upon Lyly's work more as a pastime titan as a struggle for life, and so he wrote and starved, and died prematurely and unknown. Lyly's most perfect lyrics were in his "Campaspe." The student might look in vain for antithesis, or alliteration, or ingenuity, such as would be found in every line of "Euphues." His lyrics were above ingenuity. The figures in them were painted as if on porcelain, and were none the less pleasing for their want of warmth. Sir Walter Raleigh was next in the list, than whom few men had combined the active and the contemplative in such a high degree. He was not only a brave soldier, but a grave historian; not only a dauntless sailor, glorying in peril and adventure, but a poet of powerful and fervid imagination. The lyric "The Silent Lover" and the grand burst of mingled satire and somewhat sour philosophy known as "The Soul's Errand" were quoted as examples of his varying moods of tenderness and satiric force. The colder airs of antiquity seemed to be removed when they reached the name of Sir Philip Sydney, whose fame as the author of "Arcadia" was heightened by his beautiful sonnets inscribed to "Stella." Sidney's sonnets might be called the amorous offshoots of a courtiers life, filled with extravagant conceits, rich in delicate love terms, such as no suitor had ever before breathed into lady's ear. His lines were frescoed with eccentric amorousness, languishing images, "kiss-worthy" faces, "long-with-love acquainted" eyes, and sleepless tossings on "sweet pillows, sweetest bed." Having quoted one of the three sonnets that Lamb loved best, the lecturer remarked that the ladies of the period must have had a high opinion of Sydney's judgment, as it was to his fancy we owed the phrase "the better half," with the indiscreet admission it involved. The lecturer then dealt with anonymous lyrics, some of which were of surpassing beauty, but whose authors were not even a name. Doubly unfortunate, they were twice dead, once in the flesh and once again in our memories. The quotations included "Harpalus" and "The Sturdye Rock." In the absence of all evidence as to the authors of these fugitive lyrics, they were left to the vague and doubtful test of internal resemblance. Now they might think they recognised the gentle imagery of Spencer, now the sweet amorousness of Beaumont or Fletcher, while at rarer intervals some stronger touch spoke of Shakespeare's mighty hand. But the age was too rich in poets to allow them to pronounce finally from internal evidence; and they might roam through all the galaxy of known authors in pleasant but fruitless conjecture; and at last be fain to leave the poems anonymous, to enjoy their beauty, yet not know their authors, to drink in the music, though the skilful musicians were forever hidden from their sight. He had chosen to speak of those early lyrists, not because they were quaint and old, and full of strange conceits and reasonings; not on grounds of sentiment at all, but because some were erect and noble, and more were wise and witty, and because their work was such as the world should not willingly let die. (Applause.)

The CHAIRMAN said he was sure they had all listened to the paper with the greatest of interest and pleasure. (Hear, hear.) He thought the subject was one of very great interest, and he thought the it was very remarkable how very often important poems perished or were just saved by accident. As an instance of this, he quoted the fact of a very popular English poem, "The Nut Brown Maid," the preservation of which they owed to a London haberdasher named Arnold, who brought it out without any introduction whatever, in an extremely hotch-potch compilation which he issued in 1521. That one fact alone he thought afforded them an instance of how meritorious works very often perished altogether, or ran the risk of doing so.

Dr. CONAN DOYLE, in proposing a vote of thanks to the Lecturer, said he thought they would agree that the matter of which it was composed and the manner in which it had been put together were equally excellent. He was glad the lecturer had chosen the Elizabethan period for his examples of poetry, because he thought that about that time it had attained its zenith, and the lesson was that the nation was in as lusty boyhood, and as such went in for enjoying themselves. Since there was such a demand at the time for lyric poems and songs for the people it was only natural that there was the supply. (Hear, hear.) At that time the people considered themselves a most musical people — not as they were now — and agents were then sent from the various cathedrals on the Continent to procure English choristers to sing at their festivals. The first blow which music received was from Cromwwell, whose troops cut down the maypoles and spoilt the amusements of the people, and when it became the fashion to call children Elizabethia and Sophonisba instead of Polly or Mary — these exalted expressions of their language it was that caused the poetry of the nation to dwindle.

The Rey. MAXWELL EGAN DESMOND seconded the vote of thanks.

Mr. J. HAY, in supporting the proposition said he thought that that particular epoch upon which the lecturer had rivetted his attention presented great attractions for their Society. He thought also that Scotland in the 15th century was, paradoxical as it might seem, the greater lyric, although she was two hundred years behind-hand, for the language of Scotland at that time was mere patois — the language of the common people and the lyric poetry was no doubt the instincts of the common people set to popular and attractive tunes. The Englishs ballad-mongers were not scholars, but ignorant men frequenting beerhouses and such like resort They could neither read nor write, and consequently all the celebrity of their poems depend, on the memory of their hearers, and therefore they could understand a great many of the being swept away. But in Scotland it remained, because the language of that country had changed but very little up to the present day.

Dr. J. WARD COUSINS also supported the motion, and trusted that before long they would have the pleasure of hearing another paper from Mr. Maclauchlan. (Hear, hear.) — The vote was then unanimously agreed to, and the lecturer having replied, the meeting closed.