A contemporary review of Owen Meredith's Lucile appears below. The author begins with a long, some might say rambling, general, prologue and first gets down, explicitly, to Meredith and Lucile about half-way down the page.
“Poetry.” Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine DXXXVII (July 1860), vol. LXXXVIII, p37-53.
It used to be said, half a generation ago, that this was an unpoetical age; and to be sure it continues to be said now, because nobody has forcibly originated a different opinion. Because we were an age of steam-engines and electric telegraphs, &c., &c., &c. -- because Curiosity had taken the place of Enthusiasm -- because the world had become practical, and was so busy ameliorating its neighbours' ills and lightening its neighbours' burdens that it had no leisure to attend to the vain pipings of individual joy and sorrow. So said many a desponding critic in lamentation, and so said many a stout man of business, happily ignorant of the nature of the thing over the failure of which he rejoiced. Since then, certain national poems of the highest tragical sublime of poetry have rung deep into the heart of the universe -- such poems as those of Crimea, of India, of Italy; epics terse, urgent, and splendid, showing what, and what manner of thing a man is, or can be, when all his philosophies, sciences, informations are stripped off him, and he stands in primitive straits, with only a hasty weapon to defend himself, and his life in his hand. Such a tide has brought with it, as might be expected a full flux and flow of the ocean of song. The birds sing always, doubtless but it is only when a storm is over that the universal twitter of gratitude catches one's ear with a sudden pleasure, as if the exuberance were unusual. The nation has not been ummoved to hear what her sons have done. The race has quickened through heart and limb to discover with a thrill of delicious surprise that it has not degenerated -- that it is as its fathers were -- that the skill in its fingers has not diminished the courage of its heart -- and that in no age is a soul more dauntless abode in the land than that which clothes itself in the outside proprieties of the nineteenth century. In the perpetual course of change which is always astir, some shrewd alterations have taken place within these dozen years in our general opinions. Then we had prematurely concluded war to be over, poverty and pain to be on their way to the same happy end, and commerce, science, free trade, and anaesthetics to be working out, if not an entire exemption from death and trouble, at least the largest amount of ease and comfort imaginable. What is it that has shaken the undoubting faith in these great modern influences with which so many people, now of different sentiments, begun their own independent career? For example, there is commerce -- trade. Perhaps there scarcely exists an Englishman, belonging by the faintest link to that class of Englishman who make speeches, who has not gone out of his way some time in his life to deliver a panegyric upon the commercial spirit, the wealth, the enterprise, and the honour of English merchants and the trading community; nor an audience, from the House of Lords downward, which has not cheered such an eulogium: yet it is with a faltering tongue, and a certain sickening sensation at one's heart, that one echoes these popular sentiments today. Could all that miserable bankrupt array, who have flung other people's money away by handfuls, yet kept their own reputation unspotted up to the very moment of discovery -- could such men exist, so many of them, in a soil that is quite untainted? One makes all haste to turn from the subject, and leave the decent outside cover over the concealed heart, for which, however, no man will vouch nowadays as everybody would have vouched ten years ago. Then there goes big Science, with his infallible calculations and his must-be's -- his demonstrations that no accident need ever happen anywhere, and his successes on paper. But people begin to whisper to each other privately even such thrilling incendiary whispers as, What is the good of the telegraph? Was it good or harm to those poor souls who heard that a battle had happened ever so long before they could know whether the light of their eyes had gone out in the fury of that deadly mysterious fight? Is it any good to the puzzled spellers-out of an enigma less intensely interesting, which one gives up in despair at last till the post comes, and the slower and surer intelligence? And if, after all, it is only good for per-centages, why this mighty pother about the instrument which falls into no higher rank than that of a modern convenience? Our faith is perilously shaken in those grand bulwarks of modern belief. We have little dependence to put, further than we can see them, on Trade and Science. We have tried to make a Paul and a Peter of the two, but they have not turned out Apostles. An older Apostle -- a fierce John Baptist, violent and sudden -- has startled us out of his desert,-- War, grim with pain and hardships, carrying his misery full in front of him, so that every man may see. We have learned so much by his stormy advent which the smoother influences had never taught us, that it is hard not to assign some positive virtue to that great scourge of the world. We who had been forgetting our humanity in our civilization -- we to whom, amid all the comforts of peace, an entire annihilation of pain seemed the great thing to hope and wish for -- what a revelation was that, shining lambent out of the rude soldiers' huts on the cold hills above Sebastopol, blazing from the desecrated English houses and fortress-walls of India! It is nature, but nature that has heard of a Gospel rising up against philosophy, against knowledge, against the cold intellect which rules the earth. "It is not Death that kills," cry those rude martyr-soldiers,-- simple fellows that knew nothing, loyally dying unknown and glorious in the dark trenches; and the cry is echoed with a still profounder tone from the royal tortured race on yonder burning plains. One can die, one can be slaughtered bit by bit, and torn limb from limb -- one cannot lie or fail. With a force which it is impossible to over-estimate, that sudden revelation fell upon its in our calm. When they left us, we knew, among our cheers and tears, what was before them -- they knew it, going like bridegrooms, not only to the field, but to the trench and hospital; and all that world of endurance and courage and patience -- all that heaven of consolation and sympathy and strength, which we had been used to dismiss into the shade, and assign to invisible heroes and heroines of domestic life, came out in visible light and colour, as if it had been written on the skies. The pity of it might strike any beholder; the profound necessity of it -- the bounden duty to send them out yonder, God consoling them, to endure whatsoever agony might fall to their lot, only never to yield, or betray, or fail-sank deep into the heart of this nation. deep many a long year we had been solacing ourselves with cures and cordials, careful of life, chary of pain, fain to think comfort the one thing needful -- concluding to ourselves that the heroic elements had subsided into the deepest quiet of private life, and lived now only in women with false lovers, and men struggling against disaster and poverty. We have even heard it said -- as most other people doubtless have heard -- that the poet in our own wonder-working days must change his sphere of operation -- that the minstrel of the nineteenth century behoved to turn his eyes to sublimer instruments than that petty mechanism of humanity which had occupied too much the other ages. He had to sing electricity and its triumphs. He had to transport himself back in imagination to that gorgeous, muddy universe in which the mastodon and the ichthyosaurus lived and loved, before such a creature as man was heard of. Who does not remember, some calm day ten years ago, when such things were suggested?-- quite in spite of revolution on the Continent, and the first chapter of the imperial fairy-tale which, to be sure, might set these distant molehills by the ears, but had nothing to do with the placid workshop in which we mended and patched and dated this old old earth! What a change! Who, does anybody suppose, would recommend geology now in preference to the Round Table? Who has a word to say in favour of that Sybil, thick of utterance and confused of meaning, the telegraph which once was prophesied to be the biggest post of this age? This age has gone back with a plunge to the primitive humanities. The genii have ceased to charm us. Slaves constrained to serve, willingly or unwillingly -- vast, cruel, heartless forces, as ready to massacre as to help -- by this time we have learned to bind on their harness calmly, and give them their place of servitude; and with a shock which vibrates through every nerve, have learned to know, that the common heart and life, common creatures that jostle us at every corner, are, in fact, all that the statesman, all that the poet, all that the age has of valuable and precious. We could do without those big blind slaves who do our budding, careless whether we bless or curse them. Life would be much less convenient, but not a whit less noble, if we had neither steam-engine nor electric telegraph. All magic and glamour has died out of these bond-servants; and some Ithuriel with a touch of his spear has recalled us out of our foolish canonisation of such dumb elements to show us how the strength and comeliness and honour of a country -- all that it needs for its poetry, because all that it needs for its life -- depend not on what it knows or has, but on its heart and spirit -- on its muscle and sinews -- on the resolute soul and the firm limb. It is that fiery angel of War which, to our land and generation, has brought this lesson -- a strange evangelist, but not the less a true one. It is he who has turned us from our costumes and conveniences to find out the worth and importance of the common creature man,-- who alone gives importance and worth to those lifeless surroundings. Perhaps he has done us still a greater service. Perhaps we never understand so well the Great central truth of Christianity, as when, distant lands and seas away from those of our own who are in the hottest peril, we can think with an unspeakable consolation of that chiefest Healer, Physician, Friend, whom neither land nor sea can divide from His wandering children. This common pang of war has relieved us from statistics and generalization -- from the hard bondage of progress, modern improvement, and the nineteenth century. We are not the tenants of an exceptional period – a summer of St Comfort and St Safety. We are, as our fathers were, driven to primitive hardships and eudurances, sore put to it -- life, and more than life, sometimes put upon the cast. We too, like our fathers, have yielded up the flower of our youth, the desire of our eyes. We have returned to our broad common ground of humanity, where we are all brethren. The schoolmaster has gone to sleep for a while, and that old greybeard Experience, who has seen so many chances in his day, has taken us in hand. And who will say that the current of life has not run stronger, and with an impetus more full and free, since we have learned this great lesson of humility, and found out that no discoveries, however great, can light upon anything- which we can put in the place of this perennial unimproving man?
And as a natural consequence, the air is all a-twitter with that bird-singing which hails the cleared atmosphere after a storm. Poets did not take kindly to that suggestion of the mastodon. Nobody answered the invitation of science to sing the pre-Adamic history, and these were very small pips which echoed the praises of the electric sprite. The new reign of poetry never was so much as inaugurated, and a languor fell upon this supreme branch of literature, enough to give some countenance to the idea that ours was an unpoetical age. Now everything is different. Today is no longer a big Pharisee, holier than then to all other human days, but fallen into like troubles and agitations with its long array of brethren, and better persuaded of its genealogy and universal connection than it has ever been hitherto. Of the common reinvigoration of the time, the faculty of verse has had more than its even share. Poetry has glided out of the intermediary period, during which it is represented as in a kind of interregnum, by volumes of fugitive verses, and has once more taken upon itself, in more stately wise, to put forth works entitled to the grave judgment of its generation, some of which may distinguish that generation to posterity. A volume of detached verses is seldom more than a vehicle for the conveyance of some one or two little poems to the world. It is not to be supposed that the author intends it so; but such is the usual result, unless the volume happens to be one of mere mediocrity, from which no remarkable verse, however tiny, manages to detach itself. Such productions are, and ever will be,-- there is an audience, never exhausted, which receives and esteems the fare; but Shakespeare himself could scarcely be expected (unless he is the real WE, and half-a-dozen people -- a lawyer, a doctor, Lord Chancellor Bacon, and who knows what beside) to produce a volume of short poems all equally worth remembering. When the throne is vacant, or when the king is lazy. the poetic interregnum maintains itself by those soft pipings and stray notes of music -- copies of verses, as our grandmothers called them; but a poem which the world willingly receives and acknowledges as such, belongs to a period when the Art is full awake and regnant in its proper sphere, and when the fugitive verses fall into their proper position, soft clouds and floating nebulae about the greater planet. Two or three such poems have lately taken their reigning place, as everybody knows -- poems of a character altogether individual and characteristic, and as much unlike the last illustrious generation of great poems, unquestionable as are their traces of legitimacy and honest descent, as they are unlike the productions of the days of Anne. Here is no recluse serenely meditating on his bills, no weird Mariner of ghostly romance. These ancestors have tinged the diction and coloured the thoughts of young Arthur Hallam's faithful mourner, of Maud's unreasonable lover, and of Aurora Leigh; but the strain is different, almost more distinctly different than are the two periods of time which have produced them. These poems, which we have received and acknowledged for our best, are conclusive proofs, above all others, of our return to the common humanity and the broadest simple use of art. Maud, Mrs. Browning's great poem, and scarcely less the Idylls -- though the remote and fabulous distance of that famous Round Table somewhat restores the compromised dignity of the poet -- are all stories, active dramatic episodes; novels in verse, as clever critics say. In Memoriam is just so much more living than a story, as a heart is more alive than the external incidents in which by glimpses it reveals itself, being, as it is, a picture unparalleled of the movements and gestures, the broken thoughts, the mournful circles of musing always returning to one centre, which distinguish a great personal grief. Let us note that it is not grief in the abstract -- nothing can be further apart from the vague elegiac performances already well known in the lower ranks of literature. The book is a book which we lay apart, very near our Bibles, for the solace of our dark hours. Never was a consolation book of pious sermons or exhortations to patience one-half so soothing to a mourner. Just so, when the great blow has fallen, and the world and the skies are dark, do we sit through the silent days, wading and wandering through those mists of reverie -- taking up languidly one thought after another, looking at it with our dim eyes, turning to lay it, where everything is laid, on that grave. The very ring of the verses, and their somewhat artificial cadence, soothe the sick soul with a monotony that suits her mood. None of the other poetical productions of our age are half so perfect; but they are so much akin in character that it is the present life, and the common emotions, with which all concern themselves. It is not very long since we somewhat despised narrative poetry, with a comfortable feeling of patronage towards Sir Walter, and a certain condescending approbation of Crabbe: narrative poetry has taken its revenge. The voice of our contemporary song has come down out of the clouds -- not without a plentiful train of mists and rainbow -- reflections got in that vapoury region -- to the universal soil, where it no longer does itself into verses, but into men and women, with all clue material accompaniments of place and scene. Novels in verse, to be sure -- the title is perfectly appropriate, while, at the same time, acknowledged and undeniable poems, which we need not fear to compare with the best of other years.
Such has been the very unexpected result of the improvements and perfections of our mechanical age. So far as men and women are concerned, the arts of improvement are extremely limited. We can improve custom undeniably, and comfort to any extent; but, with very little allowance for these changes, could adopt the personages who move about in the oldest of all old stories as perfectly satisfactory types of the personages of today. And of all things in the world, nothing is so interesting as this incomplete unreasonable creature who dominates the world. We come back to him with renewed cordiality after every excursion otherwheres into which we may have been seduced for the moment. He is always new in his perennial identity. It was not by any philosophic delineations of the supreme Spirit, but by so many broad and simple pictures of the primitive intercourse between a personal God and an actual man, that the first revelation came. By the divine extraordinary history of a man's life and death, came the gospel. God has acknowledged and countenanced by all modes -- by history and parable, and, greatest of all, by Incarnation -- that infallible means of getting at the human heart and interest. It is perhaps the only means by which the universal understanding can be thoroughly reached and penetrated. Philosophy has its school, and there is a limited audience for the higher expositions of thought; but all mankind can be touched, can be roused, can be interested by the history of men.
And it is surely a vast mistake to supposes that poetry, of all arts, wants a recondite and select audience. Poetry and painting, the two simplest open-air expositors of the thoughts ant heart of human genius! -- yet how common it is to profess one does not understand, does not pretend to be a judge, would not presume to venture an opinion! Whose fault is it if the good people say so? Partly, doubtless, their own self-regard and self-timidity, afraid to like something that connoisseurs forbid them to like, and so damage their own character and reputation with their wiser neighbours; but partly, at the same time, the fault of the artists, who forget their true vocation, and work for the few instead of for the many, to whom they are specially commissioned. Does anybody suppose that a lecture, or any amount of lectures, would charm the rude heart out of a salvage man like a picture or a story -- the sweet colour or the sweet tongue that takes him captive, soul and sense? What is there in all the obscure poems or obscure pictures ever produced which, in all the uses of true poetry and art, can equal that rude Christopher, painted gigantic on a common wall, or thrusting out his big limbs from a German church-pillar, which whoso sees in the morning has a day of luck and good fortune, and meets no harm? Why cannot we somehow or other present something conveying that same idea -- the Christopher-giant, the big strength that will serve only the greatest -- to bring sweet luck and heavenly fortune to the work-day and the labouring man! What these two human teachers say, instead of an enigma, doubtful unless to connoisseurs and critics, should be such that he may run who readeth it. Long ago, in the ages which some of us call dark, the poet and the painter were the popular expositors, familiar to every one; and even now there is an unreasoning delight of admiration in the gaze of an Italian peasant who happens to be brought face to face with a picture, which testifies to the lingering far-off traces of that familiar friendship. Perhaps, indeed, our own peasant population, or the plain-poken multitude at the bottom of the social scale, might in a like manner avow a hereditary comprehension of the old friend so long departed from them. It is only the middle class who do not venture to believe themselves judges, and are afraid to think that they can tell what they like in that ethereal creature Art who never was a friend of theirs. Never more, perhaps, shall we fill a royal old city, like that old London of Elizabeth, with such a fresh tide of new life and new inhabitants as came forth immortal through the amazed old Globe, when the unconscious playwright, who most likely did not recognise in himself that Shakespeare whom the whole world wots of, was behind the scenes. Never more, it is certain, shall the civic politics and local gossip of any town swell out into another Inferno, grim, splendid, everlasting; but there is surely still, when we can come at it, some means by which Poetry may reach a universal audience, and be recognised as a more intimate influence than any other form of literature. All that is obscure, and of doubtful meaning -- all that which it requires special intellect or culture to comprehend, is as untrue to the meaning of this great human agency as it must be always false to art.
Herein lies the safety of narrative. We have no desire to yoke our Pegasus to cart or plough, but he goes better in this shining harness which is perfectly congenial to him, than with the loose and flying rein which so often slips from the rider's fingers. Perhaps it would be true to say that he is no true poet who has not left to the world -- whatever wealth of verse may be accumulated behind him --some one portrait of man or woman, some one impersonation, lifelike and recognisable among humankind. For ourselves, we cannot undertake to remember a single verse of Shelley's; but we can as little forget that pale Prometheus on his rock, with the gloomy pale horror of firmament behind him, and the groan of his agony thrilling through earth and heaven. Did we see it painted somewhere, or was it but so many words that made the picture? So if the verses perished, and were made an end of -- if even in a chance memory no musical line lingered, and the charm of words had evaporated from the tale -- who could forget that noble Lancelot, sorrowful to the soul for the sin he could not shake off, profoundly and sadly faithful to the love which broke his heart? Or maiden Elaine, lovesick for that grandest melancholy figure, dying for love of the unattainable splendour and excellence – sweet, maidenly visionary, longing towards the highest? This is true poetry: if some new fashion of despot, inimical to the art, should seize upon every edition of the Idylls of the King, break the types, burn the manuscript, blot out miraculously every line of the poem out of every memory, this ethereal essence would still survive. Perhaps a still wore ethereal, less describable essence floats out of the impassioned story of Aurora Leigh. It is not character, it is rather a certain sublimated soul of description, which haunts one's eyes, and gives a distinctness and warmth of colour to things one sees for one's self, but which happen to have been seen beforehand by that poet in a more radiant and intenser light. This still independent of words, however great the charm of these words may be. For example, to take one of the most popular morsels of the poem, let us see a beautiful child suddenly awaked out of its sleep, and though we cannot remember a syllable of the oft-quoted lines which everybody knows, we can no more help remembering the rosy infant which woke under the eyes of Aurora, than if that memorable baby had been presented, flesh and blood, before us. More or less of this soul of deathless character or vivid impression must survive out of every poem that truly claims the name. It is the bit of spiritual asbestos -- the indestructible diamond which lives through the greatest burning. Were Wordsworth's works swept out of existence, Wordsworth's hills would breathe to each other this spiritual essence of his life; and that poem is not a great poem which could not afford to be consumed and perish, leaving behind it some such imperishable soul.
These characteristics, however, belong to great poems, and only a few works in any department of art ever reach to that supreme rank. A host of poems which are not great, make one of the earliest superficial proof's that great poems are come or coming, since the climax never arrives with out a certain general prophetic excitement of the common soul. The air is numerous with verses; poetry, like the bees, murmurs through the gales, which are not zephyrs, of this reluctant summer, as they have done with gradual increase through some summers past. Let us not scorn any of these poetry books. Have they not their audience -- an audience far more eager, genial, and warm in welcome, than anything we call hope to attain to? Have we not all, in our day, lived upon those simple sweets, and loved them? It is the undying Youth always renewed, and never, thank heaven, perishing out of the land, about whose hyacinthine curls these song-birds cluster. It is to him they sing soft songs and tender measures before the age of passion. It is for him they weave those gossamer webs of soft superficial feeling --emotions which content his unawakened heart. Tender moralisings which stand for thought -- mild touches of landscape which answer instead of nature -- have not we all, some time or other, partaken of that fare, and thanked heaven for the genius that made it sweet, and risen up with tender impulses of emulation, and such affection for the singer as does not move us towards greater singers now? Few are the poetry-books which can tempt us through them nowadays; but because we are old, dare any one suppose that Youth is dead and the seasons changed? They still go piping through the country, these verse-makers, and the young people go after them in a sweet fervour and surprise of admiration; it is verse, and the Youth-Magician has glamour in his ears as well as his eyes. Where we only see a fiddler, it is Orpheus, to his eyes, that draws the bow -- the strains are strains to which the stars stand still and listen, though we find so little music in them: therefore sing, ye minor minstrels! Your evening stars and roses -- your soft whispers of the love that is coming all in its early mists and rainbows -- your tender lamentations and elegies are sweet to that young soul; what they lath, his own imagination can add to them; therefore sing! and let no evil-minded critic come between you and the young worshipper at your knee.
But there is an intermediate sphere – “ower bad for blessing, and ower good for banning" -- which gives all the trouble in the world to public opinion and its self-constituted assistants -- a tantalising and troublesome class, who have it in them, but will not bring forth ill any satisfactory manner that portion of the divine gift which has fallen to their share. It is amusing to witness the efforts made by all our literary authorities for the proper establishment in life of these uncertain and provoking poets. What solicitations -- what coaxings -- what threats are put forth upon them! one critic dolefully beseeching that his poet will bestir himself a little, and justify the good opinion which he has not hesitated to pronounce; another opposing, all sardonic and ironical, the entrance of the candidate for honours, warning him that, without more serious effort, his hopes are vain. Nothing can be well imagined more provoking, if one happens to have hazarded one's opinion early as to the future chances of such an aspirant, than the appearance of a new piece of work from those dubious and not-to-be-trusted hands. The unfortunate censor of the press, for pure love, could whip his protegé, but dares not, out of regard for his own reputation, as well as for that of the reckless neophyte; and hence is built up many an uncertain, unsteady little turret of fame, founded on vouthful promise, and the plaudits of a press which must be consistent to itself,-- whatever its author chooses to be -- a flimsy erection, ready to topple over, any unwary moment, and with no real ground to stand on. Such reputations are not few, and, singularly undesirable as they are, the owners of them are perhaps the last to perceive the deceptive nature and unreality of the praise which is naturally pleasant to their palate. Dangerous praise -- approval which does not stimulate, but lulls, and perhaps hinders some minds of the full degree of eminence they might have attained, had they been treated more honestly. To be sure, it is with this class that the art of criticism, so far as it has any title to be called an art, has most to do, and ought to have greatest influence. For great poems flash beyond criticism; we say our say because it is our business; and our wages oblige us, even when we have the grace to be ashamed of ourselves, to utter judgment on the Celestials. But we might as well hold our peace, as we are all very well aware; and as for the singing birds, in their indiscriminate melodious crowd, who but some ruthless ruffian, severely goaded by the impish visitations of the printer's familiar, could find it in his heart to harm their innocence? It is precisely the intermediary people with whom, if the are to be of any service in this world, we have to do.
And it is a doubtful and difficult question how far any criticism, except that of time and circumstance, can decide upon the powers and capabilities of youth. Young men, trained as young men are after our highest standard of education, come naturally out of that process with a considerable amount of talk and conversation in them, which it requires no great inducement to persuade them to put on paper. A large amount of reading, a spirited adoption of opinions on which the youth's fervor and natural belief in himself confer a certain aspect of originality and genuineness, make a very pretty capital to start with, and it is necessary that he be permitted to work off that first impetus, before it is very perceptible what real mettle is in him;-- whereas, on the other hand, a young man of genius is quite as likely -- perhaps more likely, the natural veneration being stronger in him -- to copy and echo his favourite authors as the more ordinary intellect by his side. The two run together, side by side, for some time after they have started. Perhaps a certain grace of incompleteness hangs about the performances of the destined poet, but the chances are that this is but an omen of failure to himself and other people. The competitors are fresh from the same subjects, the same studies, and a certain faculty of verse-making is the common property of youth. Who is to tell which of them will go beyond that graceful possibility of authorship which adds a certain ethereal touch to the refined intelligence of many an ordinary English gentleman? Who will make bold to conclude that this is the poet-born, and not the other? Perhaps there is no great writer or great man who does not lovingly and wistfully remember some one who started in the race with him, but did not, to the perennial amazement of the conqueror, win the crown. One hears of such at the commencement of every great life, at the beginning of every notable struggle -- sometimes it is he, and not the real winner, whom the bystanders have most cheered. Can any one tell how this is, or discriminate when they set out between the man who will stop short presently, and drop out of the course, and he who will go on with a growing power and ardour to the crowning laurel and the celestial goal? Not bystanders alone, but elected umpires and sublime authorities of Olympus, have made the most egregious blunders on this score: nobody knows it, not even the victor himself, who in his heart has most likely adjudged the crown to his rival. They run together for a longer or a shorter time, as may be, and no man can tell which will win, when suddenly one comes to a sudden pause and stands still, not a little surprised at himself. Why does his comrade devour the way with these flying steps, while he is suddenly brought to a stand-still? It is a predicament in which, one time or another, every man must find himself, who ventures on the contest with that child of air. Puzzled and amazed, the foiled competitor stands at the end of his tether, and sees the flash of his companion's progress, and hears the shouts that hail him. Blank and dismayed, the critics cluster round that unfortunate: some of them condole with him, some of them abuse him -- for, to be sure, it must have been his fault: he was indolent, or he was careless, or he forgot how much other people's credit was involved, with his own. They are all entirely amazed and uncomprehending, unable to explain to themselves how any man should dart forward with that ineffable, unexplainable speed. But on the other side, the modest genius stands breathless, surprised only at failure, able to comprehend his rival passing and surpassing, and going far above him, wondering only at that strange sudden pause and stoppage -- as ready almost as the vanquished himself to blame some blunder or circumstance for the inevitable breakdown.
Now to be able to divine which was which -- to discriminate the unconscious champion, and prophesy, on some surer ground than chance, which man, by divine right of nature, carried already the budding crown -- would be something of a business for the critic, if he were equal to it. Unfortunately, it is only the old remorseless critic Time who ever does settle that question. The touch of his indifferent old fingers makes everything certain, if we can but wait long enough; but in the mean time what is to hinder that we should all let loose our opinion? or, at least, if nothing else is to be done, set forth before the competitors the dangers as well as the globes of the race -- the possibilities of stopping short inglorious -- the chance of being miraculously outstripped and left behind? Yet believe not, oh young hero! that our prelections will be of much advantage to your training. It will not be your fault if you stop short at the end of your tether. Neither we nor anybody else can lengthen that inevitable band; but if a word of well-meant and consolatory warning preparation in case of the worse-excellent good advice, such as, the whole world knows, is universally acceptable to the well-conducted mind of youth, be of any service to you, You are heartily welcome to it; and it is hereby offered to you. Let not him that putteth on his armour boast himself as if he were putting it off. Be not too confident in your own powers. If, in this case, the race is to the swift and the battle to the strong, no man breathing can point out, until the issue proves it, where is that deep-breathed breast, and those winged feet.
Well up in the list of modern poets, who, whatever they may be, are not great poets as yet, stands the name of Owen Meredith -- an appellation, as everybody knows, wisely chosen to veil another name, which might well bias anybody's judgment towards the heir of its glory. The young author has now ground of his own to stand upon, and appears before us a very clear and perfect instance of the uncertainty which we have just been speaking of. A young plant from the natural and uncultured soil could not have thrown out its early branches so vigorously, without establishing beyond doubt its innate powers; but the case is entirely different with the young representatives of the flower of English society, towards whose malting all the arts have lent a hand, and to whom the accumulations of all the world -- riches that have withstood the fire of ages, and the revolutions of time -- come calmly, an assured inheritance. A young, capable, and ardent mind, full of youthful force and confidence, sedulously trained to acquaintance with all the literature of the world, accustomed to meet in everyday intercourse the best minds of its own era, permitted to snatch its own fervid and rapid impressions from the brilliant, gay, inscrutable surface which it calls Life; and full of an early power of expression which it is easy to mistake for something deeper than the ready utterance of youth -- is of all other developments of intellect the one most difficult to judge of. Working-day people, when they write verses, are generally more humble in their self-estimate; and a man who has to hold his own against a hard world, forgets that confidence in words and symbols which we all start with, and learns to be sure of little more than the bit of steadfast ground he stands on -- if he is happy enough to have so much -- and the glimpse of sky over his head. But things are different with our young paladin. He goes abroad upon the world nowadays not with the old knightly purposes. He is not a Quixote; but he cannot help being young, however old, and sage, and experienced he may choose to appear. He goes out of his college in glory and in joy. He goes abroad to the Italy of romance -- the France of pleasure. He casts his delighted eyes abroad, and sees the flower of humankind amusing itself; but he is a philosopher --that does not content him. So he plunges below the surface, as he imagines, and, emerging at the other extremity of social existence, finds another quality of humankind, not ornamental, also amusing itself. Between the two hovers a dark sphere, often illuminated with brilliant hectic lights, where the two extremities surge together in wild, gay, sometimes hideous combinations; a world of vice which the young spectator visits unabashed spectator-wise, to study, not to enjoy;-- and immediately our pliilosopher-poet flashes up to the hill-top, and sounds his trumpet, and utters his poem. Has he not a right to assume the prophet's mantle, the garland, and the robe of song? Has he not been looking out with fresh eyes, new and bright and unprejudiced -- and does not he know Life?
What can any one say to him?-- it is all entirely natural, so true in its falseness that the objector pauses, overpowered with the perpetual charm of that paradox. To be sure, it is not agreeable that his observation should be turned in that special direction, and that, even in his first delusion, life should bear that aspect to his eyes; but still we can surely all remember the time when the scene under our own eyes was the world, and our own conclusions were too infallible to be doubted. The triumphant young mind, dazzled with its own clearsightedness is so abundantly true to itself in tire midst of its wisdom, that we stop with a smile the disapproval on our lips. Some time the young philosopher will know better; some time he will find out that German baths and French salons are a marvellously small bit of the world; and that a snatch of dissipation is no more life than the bitter bubbles of fermentation are wine. In the mean time, he has flashed abroad that wonderful delight of his first sensations, his joy, his admirations -- sorrows that are unspeakable -- loves that will last for ever; has done them all into melodious verse, and cast them abroad upon the world, and stands with the fumes of his poem -- celestial intoxication -- hanging about him, waiting for the plaudits that are to follow that outburst of the everlasting song!
Such are the circumstances in which Mr Owen Meredith stands, as many another poet fated to the highest honours has stood in his day, before the world. We cannot tell whether this young author will hold out and attain a supreme place -- and still less would we prophesy that he is one of those who will stop short, and carry nothing but a reputation of promise out of the hard-contested field. He has made a sufficient appearance to attract some interest and some curiosity -- to thrill the souls of literary newspapers, and float his name and the knowledge of him upon the surface of society: he has done so much that it will be surprising if he does not do more. But he is so far from having achieved anything, which will retain real influence on the public mind, or procure him any genuine reputation, that he is precisely in that typical position so tempting to the moraliser: He is a fugleman of that host, so numberless in our days, of whom admiring friends expect such astonishing results, and of whom we read in those popular records of college-life, in which every second man is certainly born to be either Primate, Premier, Lord Chancellor, or First Poet of the age. How the world goes on in its old mediocrity all the same, in spite of these marvellous drafts of young life, is very astonishing; for State jobbing, and Church Patronage, and Promotion by Purchase, though doubtless inventions of the Evil One, have not been found hitherto to produce such very perilous and melancholy results as the extinguishment of a generation. Mr Owen Meredith is a fugle-man of the order, but an honest and candid one. He is not afraid to cast forth upon the world the overflowings of his mind, and be judged by the positive standard -- the only tenable standard of men or poems – of what he can do. There is much to condemn in his fugitive verses; there is much wanting in his more serious work; but there is everything to commend in the sincere and open-hearted manner in which he gives forth his conclusions upon the world and life and things in general. This young writer does not affect anything rural or rustical. He makes none of the old conventional babbling of green fields; he assumes boldly that his artificial world is the world, and proceeds undaunted on that foundation. Feeling himself perfectly equipped, and ready for anything that may happen to him, he goes forth with that sublime superiority to good and evil -- that calm equality of observation, studying impartially vice and virtue -- with perhaps rather a leaning of interest towards the former, a more dramatical and piquant element in the history of humanity, which characterises, in our day, these young philosophers -- to declare to us his impressions and experiences. Life! oh, so serious! filling one's cup with an unspeakable bitterness, which nevertheless one somehow enjoys -- and so wicked! men and women falling in and out of love without intermission, and bringing about the saddest catastrophes, which, melancholy as they are, one welcomes eagerly for the sake of an event and a sensation -- and so perverse! the wrong man and the wrong woman always turning up in that lottery, where all the world (it is to be supposed) struggles constantly for prizes. This, at present, is Mr Owen Meredith's conception of the existence, which, nevertheless, is shared by multitudes of commonplace middle-aged people, and has a background of very dull neutral tint, carelessly washed in, to throw into bolder relief those superlative moments of ecstasy and ages of anguish which belong to the young hero. And far be it from us to make any objection. Hard are those mentors who refuse to the young people their clay of romance; but unfortunately our poet's romance is of a fashion unknown to the English imagination. It is French love which he keeps simmering over his brasier --the highest goddess of his thoughts "wears a chain," is hailed as "my love, and yet not mine," and reproached because she “could not wait" the advent of Love and the Poet. Now, though it may be very pretty and dramatical to imagine the separated pair from the end of the world sending their thoughts to each other -- the lover who has come too late, and the lady who would not wait, each doing their sad duties angelically well, that clear sweet pale creature, enduring her husband and putting up with her children, and looking forward to a happy union in heaven with the true object of her affections -- somehow it does not at all fall in with our insular prejudices. They are used to that sort of thing in France, and don't mind it; but we must remind our poet that he writes English, and that true art does not permit a thought which is conceived in the idiom of one tongue to be expressed in that of another. We know nothing about such loves in English speech. Vice is vice everywhere; and we have, to be sure, Divorce Courts, and other such horrors, like other people; but we have not come to like, and, the chances are, never will come to like, that delicious balance, so dear to our lively neighbours, which holds just at the climax point the grand moral seesaw, one end of which rises into superlative and angelical virtue, while the other drops into the gaping ruinous darkness. We do not appreciate the poise, nor enjoy the breathless and entrancing interest which attends it. The very virtue, at its highest, appears to our dull ideas something to be rather ashamed of than otherwise -- something certainly quite beyond the touch of words. Nor can we, dull to sentiment in that supernal region, at all approve of the final appeal to heaven, which is suspiciously like a mere spiritual elopement. Loves of this fashion had much better be left to their native language; they do not suit our plain-spoken tongue, still less do they suit our contracted ideas. The love of England wears maiden blushes. We give free licence to all young poets to see this rose-light of morning upon earth and sea, to think nothing in the world so important as the "congenial soul" and "sympathetic heart" --the inspiration of their vernal songs,-- even in the early glow of this intoxication, to fancy everybody as much interested in the universal love-making as themselves; but we set limits to the licence. The heroine who "wears a chain," blushes hectic, and not rose red. Let him write French who writes sentimental letters to her. We do not acknowledge, even as a dramatic situation -- not even as a tableau of virtue triumphant -- the legerdemain of Passion, poetical and superlative, balancing upon its see-saw.
Notwithstanding all this, there are many graceful verses and pleasant I snatches of song in Mr Owen Meredith's early hours of idleness. Let us instance such a pretty cabinet picture, warmly framed and perfect, as the following:--
"My little love, do you remember,
Ere we were grown so sadly wise,
Those evenings in the bleak December,
Curtained warm from the snowy weather,
When you and I played chess together,
Checkmated by each other's eyes?
Ah, still I see your soft white hand,
Hovering warm o'er Queen and Knight,
Brave Pawns in valiant battle stand;
The double Castles guard the wings,
The Bishop bent on distant things,
Moves sidling through the fight.
Our fingers touch; our glances meet,
And falter; falls your golden hair
Against my check; Your bosom sweet
Is hearing. Down the field your Queen
Rides slow, her soldiery all between,
And checks me unaware.
Alt me! the little battle's done,
Disperst is all its chivalry.
Full many a move since then have we
'Mid life's perplexing chequers made,
And many a game with fortune played.
What is it we have won?
This, this at least, if this alone,
That never, never, never more,
As in those old still nights of yore
(Ere we were grown so sadly wise),
Can you and I shut out the skies,
Shut out the world and wintry weather;
And eyes exchanging warmth with eyes,
Play chess as then we played together."
And here is something which rings like real metal—
"Yet I am a part of the things I despise,
Since my life is bound by their common span;
And each idler I meet in square or street,
Hath within him what all that's without him belies,
The miraculous, infinite heart of man,
With its countless capabilities!
The sleekest guest at the general feast,
That at every sip, as he sups, says grace,
Hath in him a touch of the untamed beast,
And change of nature is change of place.
The judge on the bench, and the scamp in the dock,
Have in each of them much that is common to both:
Each is part of the parent stock,
And their difference comes of their different cloth.
'Twixt the Seven Dials and Exeter Hall,
The gulf that is fixed is not so wide;
And the fool that last year at her Majesty's ball,
Sicken'd me so with his simper of pride,
Is the hero now heard of, the first on the wall,
With the bayonet-wound in his side.
. . . . I know that all acted time,
By that which succeeds it is ever received,
As calmer, completer, and more sublime,
Only because it is finished -- because
We only behold the thing it achieved –
We behold not the thing it was.
Who knows how sculptor on sculptor starved,
With the thought in the head by the hand uncarved?
And he that spread out in its ample repose,
That grand, indifferent, godlike brow,
How vainly his own may have ached, who knows,
'Twixt the laurel above and the wrinkle below?
Oh Lord of the soul of man, whose will
Made earth for man, and man for heaven,
Help all thy creatures to fulfil
The hopes to each one given!
So fair thou mad'st, and so complete
The little daisies at our feet;
So sound and so robust in heart,
The patient beasts that bear their part;
In this world's labour never asking
The reason of its ceaseless tasking.
Hast thou made man, though more in kind,
By reason of his soul and mind;
Yet less in unison with life,
By reason of an inward strife,
Than these, thy simpler creatures, are?"
This last is better for its thoughts than its execution, which is a fault on the right side -- execution without thought being the kind of production from which this young poet and the young world which he represents has most to fear. It is true that a power of execution in this day means rather a faculty for rough verses and irregular measure than for the smooth and polished diction of old; but it may very well happen that the rude rhythm takes a world of trouble, and is a delusion and snare more potent than even the liquid flow of words which made music to the ears of our fathers. In the volume called The Wanderer, there are some apparent intentions of conveying a subtle thread of story out of one short poem into another, as has been done in Mr Tennyson's Maud; but we cannot affirm that they have been successful. Mr Owen Meredith, however, can tell a story; and this gift he manifests, not only in the little classic drama of Clytemnestra, which, notwithstanding many vigorous and picturesque passages, belongs to the Newdegate school of poetry; but also in the modern tale, with which he has followed the example of his greater contemporaries: for, not content with the verses, he has put forth his strength in one sustained effort, and the result is another novel in verse -- the story of Lucile.
Again a French plan and subject -- again another example of that popular superiority to English ideas of life and love which has begun to steal upon young English literature. Lucile is that favourite heroine of French romance, a beautiful widow; wonderfully superior to the follies of fashion, and with touching evidences of a broken heart in her looks and behaviour, she is yet angelically present at various haunts of fashion, where she does much unintentional mischief and some good. She has, of course, two lovers, one of whom, hopeless himself, satisfies his revengeful feelings by deceiving and sending off the other. After an interval, when the deceived lover has married, the whole party meet at Ems, where Lucile defeats her rejected and vindictive suitor in a second attempt to injure the happiness of his former rival, and helps to establish a thorough understanding between the husband and wife. With these events the greater part of the story is filled. It is thoroughly conventional, the whole plan and construction of the tale being familiar to all experienced romance-readers, who are of course perfectly prepared to know that Lucile after this becomes a Sister of Charity, and is at last the means of bringing about a happy marriage between the children of those rivals for her own love. Put many an excellent story is made out of the same conventional materials, and we do not quarrel with our author on that score, for there is abundant vigour and rapidity in the narrative, and much picturesque and lifelike description. Neither do we upbraid Mr Owen Meredith for having a philanthropic bankrupt and a lost fortune among the accessories of his drama, as everybody else has at the present moment. The fact has been so sadly common, and its results contain so much rich and never-failing material, that one cannot wonder if it is very readily received into the repertory of the romance-writer, whether he writes in prose or verse. Mrs Browning's Romney Leigh loses his sight in a fire, exactly as Jane Eyre's Rochester and various other heroes who had the luck to come after that first unfortunate gentleman have done. It is too much to demand originality of incident. But we have infinitely greater objections to the French character of the heroine than to the French name, which plays such pranks, as the author confesses, with English rhymes. The brilliant French widow is as much contrary to the genius of English romance as she who "wears a chain" is to the love-sonnets of English poetry. These materials are alien and foreign to us, and convey a certain disrespect to the traditions of our language and literature, which is not excusable in a young writer, and which of course he must expect to impair the reputation of his book. This is quite a fundamental blunder, and worthy of all censure. Besides, if Mr Meredith's Lucile was such a person as he calls her, what had she to do in that public room at Ems, being heartbroken, and lonely, and disgusted with the world? Had they all been carried by a sudden tour de force to some mysterious chateau, where the lady lived in seclusion, we could have forgiven the stratagem; but what had such a person to do at a German bath? We repeat, like the oracle, who, for that once at least, was doubtless mistaken -- this will never do! No !-- not if Mr Owen Meredith turned out another Wordsworth. It is possible enough to bear with a blue woman once in a way, instead of our English rosebud heroine, of whom we are never tired; but we set our face against the importation of the French widow into our tender fields and dewy landscapes. She is very charming, but we have nothing to do with her. Let us open the door for Madame, and bow her out to her carriage. We admire her sentiments and her toilette at a respectful distance, but she does not belong to us -- never did, and never shall.
Having entered which protest for the benefit of all those young cultivators of literature who are contemptuous of our good English fashions of love-making, and of the maiden heroine of the same, we do not object to return to the book before us, where the story, despite the trammels of verse, moves lightly and not too slow, and where the scene and landscape are picturesque and trite. Here is the coming on and dispersion of a mountain-storm:--
"After noontide the clouds, which had traversed the east
Half the day, gathered closer, and rose and increased,
The air changed and chilled. As though out of the ground
There ran up the trees a confused hissing sound,
And the wind rose. The guides sniffed, like chamois, the air,
And looked at each other, and halted, and there
Unbuckled the cloaks from their saddles. Ere long
Thick darkness descended the mountains among,
And a vivid, vindictive, and serpentine flash
Gored the darkness, and shone it across with a gash.
The rain fell in great heavy drops and anon
Broke the thunder.
------------------- The horses took fright every one.
The Duke's in a moment was far out of sight;
The guides shouted. The band was obliged to alight,
And, dispersed up the perilous pathway, walked blind
To the darkness before from the darkness behind.
And the storm is abroad on the mountains!
---------------------------------- He fills
The crouch'd hollows and all the oracular hills
With dread voices of power. A roused million or more
Of wild echoes reluctantly rise from their hoar
Immemorial ambush, and roll in the wake
Of the cloud whose reflection leaves livid the lake.
And the wind, that wild robber, for plunder descends
From invisible lands, o'er these black mountain-ends:
He howls as he hounds down his prey, and his lash
Tears the hair of the timorous wild mountain-ash,
That clings to the rocks with her garments all torn,
Like a woman in fear.
----------------------- There is war in the skies!
Lo! the black-winged legions of tempest arise
O'er those sharp splintered rocks that are gleaming below
In the soft light so fair and so fatal, as though
Some seraph burned through them, the thunderbolt scorching,
Which the black cloud unbosomed just now. Lo! the lurching
And shivering pine-trees, like phantoms that seem
To waver above in the dark: and yon stream,
How it hurries and roans on its way to the white
And paralysed lake there, appalled at the sight
Of the thing seen in heaven.
. . . . .
The sun in his setting sent up the last smile
Of his power to baffle the storm. And behold
O'er the mountains embattled, his armies, all gold,
Rose and rested; while far up the dim airy crags
Its artillery silenced, its banners in rags,
The rear of the tempest its sullen retreat
Drew off slowly, receding in silence, to meet
The powers of the night, which, now gathering afar,
Had already sent forward one bright signal-star.
. . . . . . .
The dimness of eve o'er the valleys had closed,
The rain had ceased falling, the mountains reposed,
The stars had enkindled in luminous courses
Their slow-sliding lamps, when, remounting their horses,
The riders retraversed that mighty serration
Of rockwork. Thus left to its own desolation,
The lake, from whose glimmering limits the last
Transient pomp of the pageants of sunset had passed,
Drew into its bosom the darkness, and only
Admitted within it one image -- a lonely
And tremulous phantom of flickering light,
That followed the mystical moon through the night."
And here a hurried night-ride through the same scenery:--
"Fast and furious he rode through the thickets which rose
Up the shaggy hill-side; and the quarrelling crows
Clanged above him, and, clustering down the dim air,
Dropped into the dark woods. By fits, here and there,
Shepherd-fires faintly gleamed from the valleys. Oh, how
He envied the wings of each wild bird, as now
He urged the steed over the dizzy ascent
Of the mountain! Behind him a murmur was sent
From the torrent -- before him a sound from the tracts
Of the woodlands that waved o'er the dark cataracts,
And the loose earth and loose stones rolled momently down
From the hoofs of his stead to abysses unknown.
The red day had fallen beneath the black woods,
And the Powers of the night through the vast solitudes
Walked abroad and conversed with each other. The trees
Were in sound and in motion, and muttered like seas
In Elfland. The road through the forest was hollowed,
On he sped through the darkness as though he were followed
Fast, fast by the Erl King!"
Nor can we deny the truth and power of the following sketch:--
"When Lucile left Matilda, she sat for long hours
Forlorn in her own vacant chamber. Those powers
Of action and thought the day's sharp exigence
Had maintained for a while at a pitch so intense.
Now when solitude found her within and without,
Released from the part she had fully played out,
Deserted her wholly. Alone in the gloom,
‘Mid the signs of departure that gave to that room
A dull sense of strangeness, about to turn back
To her old vacant life, on her old homeless track,
She felt her heart falter within her. She sat
Like some poor player gazing dejectedly at
The insignia of royalty worn for a night;
Exhausted, fatigued with the dazzle and light,
And the effort of passionate feigning; who thinks
Of her own meagre rushlighted chamber, and shrinks
From the chill of the change that awaits her.
. . . . . .
Unable to sleep, she descended the stair
That led from her room to the garden; The air,
With the chill of the dawn yet unrisen, but at hand,
Strangely smote on her feverish forehead; the land
Lay in darkness and change like a world in its grave:
So sound save the voice of the long riverwave,
And the crickets that sing all the night. She stood still.
Vaguely watching the thin cloud that curled on the hill.
Ah, pale woman! what, with that heart-broken look,
Didst then read there in nature's weird heartbreaking book?
Have the wild rains of heaven a father? and who
Hath in pity begotten the drops of the dew?
Orion, Arcturus, who pilots them both?
What leads forth in his season the bright Mazeroth?
Hath the darkness a dwelling save there in those eyes?
And what name hath that half-revealed hope in the skies?
Ay, question and listen! What answer?
------------------------------------- The sound
Of the long river-wave through its stone-troubled bound,
And the crickets that sing all the night.”
From these extracts our readers will see that there is no small amount of force and vitality, as well as skill, in the craft of verse-malting to be found in Lucile. We spare the dialogues; sad examples of what the poor muse is driven to in the conduct of a modern tale: poetry, of course, it is impossible to call these snatchy conversations put into rhyme; but they are cleverly done notwithstanding. The rhymes themselves, however, are not quite so carefully looked to as they might have been, and even in the full swing of narrative the reader is brought up suddenly with the sense of a jar on the road: hers does not rhyme well to charac ters; the effect of the emphasis on the last syllable of a long word -- an experiment which the author of Lucile seems fond of trying -- unfortunately, is not always successful, and we fear to whisper how often we have stumbled upon the jingle of furl'd and world, which seems a favourite combination. This is not a lack of power, but a lack of that which Carlyle describes as one of the supreme faculties of genius -- the faculty of taking trouble. It is nothing that a little additional pains and honest attention to the work cannot easily set right. Some rhymes there are in the world, exquisite beyond all music, which it is not permissible to think of otherwise than as born so, divine intuitions: so there are some Raphael touches which have certainly come direct out of the heaven of genius above all premeditation -- but these are few; and vast is the charm of labour and pains to subdue the unruly syllables, and catch the floating notes of music always abroad upon the winds and air.
We remember to have heard of a young painter who brought a critic, in whose judgment be had confidence, to see his picture. One may be sure the youth himself thought well enough of it in the first place. The authority looked, approved, commended, -- nothing could be more satisfactory than his criticism -- until, "Now, of course you know as well as I do you have all the picture to paint, eh?" said the critic, getting up good-humouredly. We say the same to our young poet. You know perfectly well all the picture is to paint yet. There are good touches of design and ideas of colour. We have nothing much to object to your method of laying on; but to be sure the picture is all to paint.
And to show before we are done, that, despite the Frenchness of his womenkind and his love-making, there is in this book due sense of national excellences within our own sea-straitened limits; as well as for an excellent representation of one strong and evident national peculiarity, which, amid our perpetual reformations and the calm eclecticism of modern politics, both the poetry and the prose of English life may well make account of, we conclude with a sober and faithful portrait, in every way veracious, honest, and well drawn -- the English Parliament-man of our day and generation:--
My next neighbour's a man kith twelve thousand a-year,
Who deems that life has not a pastime more pleasant
Than to follow a fox or to slaughter a pheasant;
Yet this fellow goes through a contested election,
Lives in London, and sits, like the soul of dejection,
All the day through upon a committee; and late
To the last, every night, through the dreary debate,
As though he were getting each speaker by heart,
Though amongst them he never presumes to take part.
One asks one's self why, without murmur or question,
He forgoes all his tastes, and destroys his digestion,
For a labour of which the result seems so small?
'The man is ambitious,' you say -- not at all;
He has just sense enough to be fully aware
That he never can hope to be Premier, or share
The renown of a Tully -- or even to hold
A subordinate office. He is not so bold
As to fancy the House for ten minutes would bear
With patience his modest opinions to hear.
'But he wants something.'
--------------------------What! with twelve thousand a-year:
What could Government give him would be half so dear
To his heart as a walk with a dog and a gun,
Through his own pheasant-woods, or a capital run?
‘No, but vanity fills out the emptiest brain:
The man would be more than his neighbours, 'tis plain;
. . . . . .
If the Fashion to him open one of its doors,
As proud as a sultan returns to his boors.'
Wrong again! if you think so -- For, primo, my friend
Is the head of a family known from one end
Of his shire to the other as the oldest; and therefore
He despises fine lords and fine ladies. He care for
A peerage? no, truly! Secundo, he rarely
Or never goes out; dines at Bellamy's sparely,
And abhors what you call the gay world.
-------------------------------- Then I ask,
What inspires and consoles such a self-imposed task
As the life of this man, but the sense of its duty?
And I swear that the eyes of the haughtiest beauty
Have never inspired in my soul that intense,
Reverential, and loving, and absolute sense
Of heartfelt admiration I feel for this man,
As I see him beside me, there wearing the wan
London daylight away on his humdrum committee,
So unconscious of all that awakens my pity,
. . . . . .
The humility of it: the grandeur withal!
The sublimiiy of it! And yet, should you call!
The mans own very slow apprehension to this,
He would ask, with a stare, what sublimity is?
His work is the duty to which he was born;
He accepts it without ostentation or scorn;
And this man is no uncommon type (I thank heaven!)
Of this land's common men. In all other lands, even
The type's self is wanting."
These verses, and the sentiment in them, will recall to some readers the father in the son.
Is this a suitable picture to end with? It is the practical poetry of English life -- the epic of our daily existence as a nation. We hear of the Purchase system, and are well aware of the fact that a soldier's life is a very poor living, and not one to get rich by. Neither is the Church, though that has its big prizes; and it is hard enough upon hosts of poor subalterns and poor curates. But, after all, there is something of grandeur in the thought that the most important functions of society among us are not done for money; that there is among us a generous duty, if not ambition, which wastes its life in parliamentary committees, which spends its fortune to buy steps in its regiment, and have a better chance of being fired at, and which gives alike its life and substance to some parish bountifully endowed with fifty pounds a year. It is not profit which solaces our hard-worked legislators -- we do not buy the blood of those who fight for as, or pay for the ministrations that cheer our deathbeds. There is a world of good sense on the other side, and we consent to everything that is said of the importance of having the best men in the best places, of opening the way for talent, of clearing every legitimate pathway for the man who must live by his work. But let us thank Heaven, at the same time, as generously as they spend their lives, their blood, their strength for us, that in England the three great national functions are for the most part performed by men who get very poor interest for their money, who are ready to pay, and not to be paid, for the privilege of serving their country, and who have, in fact, no remuneration for their toil and pains but the old primitive and noble remuneration in kind, the "Honour, honour, honour, honour to him! " which is all we can give to our greatest heroes.
It is easy to speak of jobs, and families provisioned upon the State, and poor men kept down and deprived of the good things of their profession, and doubtless, in special instances, very true; but it is a miserable injustice to pass over that voluntary and generous plunge into all the hardest work of this country, which the higher classes of this country take so generally, without money and without reward, without even praise. It is the poetry diffused over our undemonstrative and sober-mannered island -- a poetry not yet matched anywhere else -- a national lyric of stronger and more splendid music than any Marseillaise.
Last revised: 20 Augsut 2010