Lucile reviewed in The British Quarterly Review
London: Hodder & Stoughton, XLVII (January and April 1868), p544-545
Lucile. By OWEN MEREDITH. Twenty-four Illustrations by GEORGE DE MAURIER. London: Chapman & Hall.
Chronicles and Characters. By ROBERT LYTTON (Owen Meredith). In 2 Vols. London: Chapman & Hall
Of the first mentioned of these volumes the illustrations alone are new -- the poem having appeared before in a less sumptuous form and having met with a reception scarcely favourable. Some of these illustrations are striking and life-like -- the highest merit to which they could pretend; others (as those opposite to pages 177 and 204) are among the worst drawn or worst engraved we have ever seen issued by a respectable publisher; the arms and hands of the figures have less of human shape than those of a Dutch doll. ‘Lucile’ is a poem written in an irregular anapaestic metre; a kind of poetic canter in which the reader feels as though riding an ill-broken hack. The author's choice of verse as the medium for his ‘poiema’ appears to us to have no vindication other than this -- that the story told in prose would be too obviously meagre and absurd. The scene is laid now at one watering place abroad, now at another; the characters are all persons, either French or English in so-called high life; the accessories are of a decidedly fashionable character – cigars, elegant attire, gaming tables, riding parties, &c. Not that there are no storms of the elements and of the heart; nearly every canto presents a tempest in both realms. But the whole treatment is superficial; the love is selfish desire of beauty; the anger is disappointed rage and vanity; the sorrow is the acknowledgment of the jaded voluptuary that ‘all is vanity.’ The moral of the poem's denouément is professedly good, but even this is ‘of the earth, earthy.’ The impression made by the book is painful; and the reader is glad to escape from an atmosphere of voluptuousness and worldliness.
We are bound to speak of the volumes, which are Mr. Lytton’s latest production, in very different terms. Having followed his course as a poet from the beginning -- some ten years only -- and having at first formed hopes which were afterwards disappointed, we gladly admit the unusual merit of the ‘Chronicles and Characters.’ These volumes contain a series of poems, narrative, dramatic, and lyrical, having relation to several epochs of human history from the times of legendary Greece to the present day. ‘Thanatos Athanatos’ we do not hesitate to pronounce a most offensive composition, and a complete failure; the attempt being to expound the significance of the Redeemer's death by a philosophico-dramatic scheme, having affinities with Byron's ‘Manfred’ and Bailey's ‘Festus.’ The poems which treat theology and philosophy are the least tolerable reading in the series; ‘the scroll’ and its interpreters’ being as drearily dull as the poem just mentioned is inflated and repulsive. When will our poets learn that poetry is not the right vehicle for formal argument? But for this fault ‘Licinius,’ a finely conceived poem, would have been a success. The best poems in the collection, according to our judgment, are ‘Jacqueline,’ ‘Müntzer's Letter to Luther and ‘Elisabetta.’ In these Mr. Lytton completely loses sight of himself, and brings out, in each instance, the pathos and the beauty alike of the character and the situation. When content to renounce a straining after effect, Mr. Lytton can tell a story well; witness the rendering of ‘Croesus and Adrastus.’
It is no censure to say that the reader is insensibly reminded of the superiority of Dryden's verse, in tone and harmony. No author with a keen, critical faculty, could have written the poem intitled ‘Misery’ -- the vulgar and melodramatic treatment of which is on the level of the penny journal. Nor could any genius invest with imaginative attractiveness the subject of ‘The Man of Science.’ Of the longer compositions. ‘The Duke's Laboratory’ is the most dramatic; and though not pleasing, is very clever. In ‘the Siege of Constantinople’ the author has found a fine subject, to which his limits have not permitted him to do justice.
We have to complain of great carelessness in the rhymes: take these, for instance, ‘Gods’ is supposed to rhyme with ‘periods’, ‘tell’ with ‘impossible’, ‘oracles’ with ‘wells’, ‘lattices’ with ‘seas’, ‘dwarves’ with ‘scarves’, &c. We would ask what authority is there for such forms as ‘shaked’ and ‘spreaded?’ As to the metres, the most original are the most inharmonious -- the worst of all in this respect being ‘The Apple of Life,’ in Mr. Lytton's pet prolonged anaprestic.
We subjoin a short passage from ‘The Duke's Laboratory,’ as a favourable specimen of the writing in ‘Chronicles and Characters.’
‘‘Tis not, I think, in you
To understand how it should come about
That sometimes in the sudden midst of all
The busy so-call’d waking life of man,
There slides across the spirit that's moving it
A silent instantaneous dream like change:
Born, as in dreams such changes are, perchance
Of something, Heaven knows what, so small, so small
That with a mystic trouble turns aside
Suddenly the main currents of the mind:
The look in a dog's eyes: a stranger's talk:
The death of some man that you never knew:
Less, less than that! chance odours after rain,
Or old new colours in an evening sky,
And all at once the Present is the Past,
The Past the Present and the Future all
One nameless yearning to re capture…. What?
Ah! that's the question!’
Last revised: 23 August 2010