Douglas Bush. Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937. “Early Victorian Minor Poets,” pages 291-294. 

 Robert Lytton (I831-91)

If the faded copies of Lucile on the shelves of every secondhand bookshop in the English-speaking world were ever disturbed in their eternal repose, one might say that "Owen Meredith" still lived. While Lucile does not concern us, two of Lytton's other works, one popular and one stillborn, help to explain what happened, on the lower levels of mythological verse, to the post-romantic tradition, and to explain also the neglect of a number of poets whom we now read. The chief thing in his first volume (1855) was the drama Clytemnestra, part of which he had written before he left Harrow. In his fable and structure Lytton followed the Agamemnon, but substituted Victorian fullness of characterization for Aeschylus' religious and philosophic vision, and for a public unable to take Greek tragedy neat he provided plenty of romantic soda-water. Clytemnestra is not so much a grand, hard murderess as one of the world's great lovers, the introspective heroine of a Victorian triangle in an exotic setting. She, who had “so much to give," found herself condemned to a loveless marriage; and she recalls the evening when she and Aegisthus lingered outside the city in the moonlight, unconscious of passing time. In this drama Lytton may be said to have won his spurs as perhaps the most notorious plagiarist of the century. Apart from Aeschylus, echoes range from Macbeth to Arnold's Empedocles, which Lytton greatly admired. [64] In the chorus describing the sacrifice of Iphigeneia, he contrives to use, and of course expand, every detail of Tennyson's picture in A Dream of Fair Women. This chorus makes a protracted and un-Aeschylean assault upon the feelings, a successful assault, apparently, since it drew tears from Leigh Hunt. Of the poet's taste for glossy diction, in which he was by no means alone, one specimen will be enough, a disastrous improvement on Marlowe - "Make me immortal with one costly kiss!"

Lytton's father, the novelist, was sincerely complimentary in expressing surprise at the merits of the drama. [65] That very busy man, and not injudicious critic, never ceased to urge Robert to aim at condensation and selection, and, as a means to that end, to study the Greeks, especially Homer. [66] Greek was, Robert wrote to Mrs. Browning, the only knowledge he did not regret the time spent in acquiring, [67] but its "pure cool fountains" had almost as little effect upon his style as upon hers. Keats had been his first love, [68] and his father, although since The New Timon he had come to admire Keats greatly, believed, like Arnold, that his influence had been unfortunate in fostering "the effeminate attention to wording and expression and efflorescent description which characterise the poetry now in vogue." [69] "The Elizabethan School has been overworked. Leave it alone." [70] Bulwer constantly urged also that Robert should try to be "popular," in the sense (the Arnoldian sense) that Homer was; but his reference on one occasion to the popular Charles Mackay, as compared with the neglected Shelley and Keats, might well lead to misunderstanding. [71] At any rate Robert produced Lucile. It cannot be said that Bulwer's own volume of mythological poems, The Lost Tales of Miletus (1866), furnished notable models of the virtues he strove to inculcate, for Robert's facile fluency and tinsel were a direct paternal inheritance. [72]

Robert inherited also his father's versatile energies -- his writing was the by-product of an active diplomatic career -- and he was not content with the reputation of a popular drawing-room novelist in verse. In 1868 he published an ambitious two-volume work, Chronicles and Characters. The first book consisted of three tales from Herodotus, of which one at least, the inevitable Gyges and Candaules, might seem an odd part of what attempted to be a panorama of the development of the human mind. [73]

From these tales of Greece, which the always hopeful and always disappointed father described as "pretty exercises, but not the spring of a great genius into the arena," we pass to the Crucifixion in the second book. The third confronts heroic paganism, in the person of Licinius, "Rome's last Roman," with Christianity, the new gospel of love. The treatment of this theme, which was not yet threadbare, pleased both the author and his father, and it was praised by George Meredith. [74] But Robert Lytton quite lacked the power to do justice to such an impressive scheme, and even in its own day the book was a failure.


[64]. Poetical Works of Owen Meredith (1867), I, 24; Personal & Literary Letters of Robert First Earl of Lytton, ed. Lady Betty Balfour (1906), I, 49-50.

[65]. Personal & Literary Letters, I, 54.

[66]. Ibid., I,206-07, 276; Life of Edward Bulwer First Lord Lytton By his Grandson the Earl of Lytton (London, 1913), II, 385-86. Since Bulwer nowadays seldom gets even disapproving attention, one may observe, quite irrelevantly, that he condemned the "false sentiment" of Enoch Arden (Life, II, 431), which both Swinburne and Arnold considered the best thing Tennyson had yet done (Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Edmund Gosse and T. J. Wise, I, 35; Letters of Matthew Arnold, ed. G. W. E. Russell, I, 277); Arnold did not like Tithonus quite so well. Further, in view of recent changes of attitude, one may quote Bulwer's complaint: "I despair of fellow-feeling with an age which says Pope is no poet and Rossetti is a great one" (Life, II, 431).

[67]. Personal & Literary Letters, I, 84.

[68]. Ibid., I, 42.                          .

[69]. Life, II, 426-28.

[70]. Ibid., II, 385.

[71]. Personal & Literary Letters, I, 55-56. Cf. ibid., I, 146, and Life, II, 396 ff.

[72]. For Bulwer's own comments on this work, see the Life, II, 362 ff. In 1844 he had published The Poems and Ballads of Schiller, which helped to popularize Schiller's mythological pieces; their modern idealism was quite congenial to the translator (see, for instance, Bulwer's notes on Hero and Leander and The Complaint of Ceres). Two years later he adapted Oedipus Tryrannus for the modern stage, but arrangements for production fell through (Life, II, 84-85, 90-91). The third volume (1853) of his Poetical and Dramatic Works included some short classical poems, and it is rather surprising, at this date, to find one, Ganymede, headed by a quotation from the Mystagogus Poeticus of Alexander Ross. Early in his hard-working career Bulwer had essayed an historical work, Athens, Its Rise and Fall (1836), but he wisely abandoned it after the success of Thirlwall and Grote. He turned his considerable scholarship to not very valuable account in the uncompleted historical romance, Pausanias the Spartan (published posthumously in 1876, but written twenty years earlier), and of course in the Last Days of Pompeii.

[73]. The discreet but somewhat luscious rendering drew a parental admonition against being Swinburnian (Personal & Literary Letters, I, 206-08). "Keatsian" would have been more accurate, for the disrobing of Gyges' wife is a pallid imitation of The Eve of St. Agnes.

[74]. See the Memorial Edition of Meredith's Works, XXIII (1910), 121. A similar theme had been touched in Tannhäuser; or, The Battle of the Bards (1861), by "Neville Temple" (i.e., Julian Fane) and" Edward Trevor" (i.e., Robert Lytton).

Last revised: 16 September 2010