Lucile reviewed in Dublin University Magazine,
A Literary and Political Journal (Dublin) LVII (April 1861), p405- 417.
Lucile. By Owen Meredith, Author of "The Wanderer," "Clytemnestra,"&c. London: Chapman and Hall. 1860.
Faithful for Ever. By Coventry Patmore. London: J. W. Parker and Son. 1860.
A Vision of Barbarossa, and other Poems. By William Stigant. London: Chapman and Hall. 1860.
Among the refinements of an age which summons its Social Evils to midnight tea-parties, and turns every rude, uncleanly workman into an intelligent operative, not the least amusing is that which pervades our current criticism on art and literature. The critic of the present day too often approaches his subject with a reverence half real, half feigned, which speaks more for the wide-spread influence of a reigning fashion than for his own power of weighing, fairly and fearlessly, the merits of the work before him. Under the combined attacks of pushing publishers and popular authors, his office seems to have degenerated into the task of adding one cheer more to the cries and clappings of his enthusiastic neighbours. The boldest paradox, if clothed in a due haze of picturesque words, carries him off his legs; and the poorest commonplace, if it finds a ready sale, is not less sure to meet with a hearty welcome from his too courteous or congenial pen. The bulk of our criticism, like the bulk of our religion, flows through many different parties into one common creed, whose outward liberalism covers a vast depth of downright intolerance. It is allowable, for instance, to sneer at Pope, or run clown Byron; but woe to him who misses a beauty in an old English ballad, or finds a fault in "Aurora Leigh." Critics may look down with a fine compassion on the literary leanings of a Dryden, a Johnson, or a Jeffrey; but it is rank treason to charge Shakspeare with writing fustian, or Wordsworth with writing prose. We may fling what stones we please at the idols of other days, if we do but join in worshipping the idols of our own. Hume was a shallow, prejudiced historian, but Mr. Froude is a writer of large sympathies and keen insight, whose worst mistakes the genial critic will pass over as mere spots in so bright a sun. Write an utterly romantic history of some bygone age or personage, and you will appear to"genial criticism" as a great philosopher, or at least a powerful champion of a nobler and truer faith. But say a word, however reasonable, against some living writer, the rising star of some powerful clique, or the established pet of a wide-reading public, and"genial criticism" will at once cry out on you for a piece of irreverent carping and ill-natured intolerance.
That the present fashion of indiscriminate praise sprang in part from a just reaction against the savage criticism of former ages, does not lessen the fact that the present fashion tends to heighten all those evils against which a sound unsparing criticism would prove our surest safeguard. In the far-spreading floods of modern literature, we are daily drifting farther away from our accustomed landmarks, daily growing more and more blind to the true teaching of those literary masterpieces which light up here and there the history of many ages and many lands. In our eagerness to worship small things, to hail the feeblest echoes of our own crude thoughts, and to open the doors of fame to the very poorest comer, we seem to forget that artistic merit, however various in kind, is hardly less various in degree; that sound criticism has not more to do with discovering beauties than with pointing out faults; not more with examining the smaller items than with balancing the broad results of a given whole, be it a picture or a poem. There are lines of beauty in art as well as nature, degrees of glory in the world of literature no less than in the world of life. As man is a nobler animal than a monkey, as the oak ranks far above the mushroom, as one star differs from another star in brightness, as the hills of Scotland are loftier than those of Kent, so does one of Raphael's paintings surpass the skilfulest performances of the Dutch school, and so, each in its own way, do "Macbeth," "Tom Jones," and "Childe Harold," surpass the greatest works of Mr. Bourcicault, George Eliot, or Miss Eliza Cook. A truly catholic taste will see some beauty in many different styles; but a truly tolerant critic, speaking in the interests of his art, and measuring all things by certain clear standards, will decline to take any author at his own valuation, or to accept the popular verdict whenever it runs counter to his own grounded beliefs. It is better to be deemed intolerant for setting a very small value on "The Woman in White," and one-sided for seeing great faults in "Adam Bede," or Mrs. Browning's last poems, than to deal out promiscuous praise in honeyed accents to all seekers for a place in the great republic of letters. The aims of criticism can hardly be furthered by copying the tall: of those very charitable ladies who allow no women ever to be called ugly, or even quite plain, assuring you that this one has such lovely eyes, another so sweet an expression, and a third such exquisite teeth. Even charity, and critics are specially bound to practise that virtue, may sometimes be carried so far in one direction as to prove most hurtful in another.
The first book on the list before us will not make heavy demands on our good-nature. That Owen Meredith is a true poet of a high order, we have not now learned for the first time. If "The Wanderer" did not wholly satisfy, it still helped to keep alive the promise put forth by the author of “Clytemnestra." Containing no long poem quite equal to the best in his earlier volume, it showed abundance of lyric fire, of weird fancy, of fierce half-hidden feeling, of sweet yet powerful music. Amid much carelessness, redundancy, and mock-bird piping, there are many strains which haunt the memory with suggestions of a power and beauty rare enough in writers of the present day. A strange Weber-like plaintiveness thrills through them all. In the ghostly verses that paint the sudden appearance of a dead first love, with her"primrose face," and "full soft hair, and the jasmin in her breast," before her old lover, as he sits with his future bride listening to Mario's exquisite rendering of the most famous air in Verdi's best opera, the voice of a singer as powerful as Mario seems to enthral our hearts and fancies with a wail more passionately expressive than any set to music by the composer of "Il Trovatore." A wilder and ghastlier horror fills that other tale, of a vision that wound up the midnight orgies in another part of the French capital. In "A Love Letter" the poet breathes out a last sad moan of unspeakable tenderness over the sacrifice which duty seems to demand; and in poor Jacqueline's dying words to her husband, a deeper music and a tenderness less sad, but not less moving, blend with an easy flow of graceful imagery, to soothe us into that soft dream of dim religious yearning, which the starry midnight, or a cathedral anthem, has power to awaken after a while in the heart of the most faithful mourner. What a world of loving cheer smiles along these lines:–
“Nor shall I leave thee wholly. I shall be
An evening thought, a morning dream to thee;
A silence in thy life when thro' the night
The bell strikes, or the sun with sinking light
Smites all the empty windows. As there sprout
Daisies, and dimpling tufts of violets, out
Among the grass where some corpse lies asleep,
So round thy life, where I lie buried deep,
A thousand little tender thoughts shall spring,
A thousand gentle memories wind and cling."
Strains like these were still fresh on the public ear when another offspring of the same muse claimed early notice from the pens of all song-loving critics. A stout volume, called "Lucile," made up of one long poem in anapaestic rhymes, with an English Lord and a French Countess for hero and heroine, set off by the contrast of an honest English bachelor with a libertine French Duke, seemed to betoken not only a wider sweep of poetic genius, but also a daring attempt to win success in new fields of danger by methods hitherto forbidden or untried. About the degree of success therein attained or attainable, tastes will probably differ; but that Owen Meredith's ambition has not wholly missed its mark, few impartial judges will deny. Take it all in all, "Lucile" is the best and most original of its author's works, and decidedly the most remarkable poem of all that issued last year from the British press. Reading it even with a critic's eye, you find a growing enjoyment of its many beauties overpower the recurring sense of its glaring faults. Utterly wrong to our mind in metre, tainted with passages of wordy rhetoric, and overrun with traces of a smouldering recklessness, of a hollow reaction from the fever throes of past self-indulgence, it still makes its way into your heart, and enchains your fancy by dint of its glowing language, its most Byronic warmth and depth of feeling, its sensuous imagery and fine insight into characters of a certain class, and not least of all by the growing interest of a tale simple in itself, but worked out with the skill and steady passion of a genuine artist. Perhaps the worst and most fatal fault in the book is its metre. It is simply provoking to see such costly jewels so poorly set. English anapests flow with graceful liveliness in the songs of Moore , and with a vivid power in Byron's "Sennacherib," or Campbell 's"Lochiel;" but they seem utterly unequal to those longer flights which especially suit the heroic couplet, the Spenserian stanza, or that of "Don Juan." They are good, as it were, for detached duties, not for a regular march in line. At any rate, Owen Meredith has quite failed to establish the contrary, and we cannot but regret the delusion which led him, in this one particular, out of the beaten road. Part of the failure should, perhaps, be laid to his own unskilful treatment of a measure which perhaps some future bard may succeed in turning to somewhat better account. The "Ingoldsby Legends" might have furnished him with useful hints on the best way of riding his new Pegasus. In "Lucile" you are borne on the back of an unbroken steed, who keeps tugging at the rein, throwing up his head at unforeseen moments, and suddenly checking himself in the middle of his stride. Attempting to avoid the sameness of a pause at the end of each couplet, Mr. Meredith seldom pauses there, save about once in twenty lines. Few, indeed, are the breathing places allowed us even at the end of single lines. Long stanzas break off at last, maimed, sometimes, of half a line, sometimes of more than half a couplet. The following passage, picked out for something else than its mere faults of style, will make our meaning clearer:–
"Those two whisper 'd words, in his breast,
As he heard them, in one deadly moment releast
All that's evil and fierce in man's nature, to crush
And extinguish in man all that's good. In the rush
Of wild jealousy, all the fierce passions that waste
And darken and devastate intellect, chased
From its realm human reason. The wild animal
In the bosom of man was set free. And of all
Human passions the fiercest, fierce jealousy, fierce
As the fire, and more wild than the whirl-wind, to pierce
And to read, rushed upon him: fierce jealousy, swell'd
By all passions bred from it, and ever impell'd
To involve all things else in the anguish within it,
And on others inflict its own pangs!
––––––––––––––––––– At that minute
What pass'd thro' his mind, who shall say? who may tell
The dark thoughts of man's heart, which the red glare of hell
Can illumine alone?
–––––––––– He stared wildly around
That lone place, so lonely! That silence! No sound
Reach'd that room thro the dark evening air; save the drear
Drip and roar of the cataract; ceaseless and near!" &c.
Fancy this galloping measure, these awkward breaks, repeated through ever so many thousand lines! Pope's epigrammatic sameness were surely less wearisome than this overdone variety – this endless quarrel between the sense and the rhyme. In blank verse, pauses of this kind may relieve the measure without marring its musical flow; but it needs all the nicer instinct of a Keats or a Shelley to give due variety to rhymed couplets, whether in iambic or anapaestic verse; and some will doubt, after all, whether the softer music of "Endymion" be comparable with the grand monotony of "The Corsair." But Mr. Meredith's boldness carries him yet further into some of the most wanton liberties ever taken with English prosody. He repeatedly ends his lines with such words as animál, destiný, circumstánce, exigénce, where the whole stress falls on the wrong syllable – that which, in English, should be the longest and most marked, being thus slurred over in the cruelest way. The fair Constance is just as often, or oftener, called "Constànce;" and words like those we have just quoted sometimes make their way, under a false accent, even into the middle of a line. Is it laziness or love for what he calls "his heart's native tongue" that leads the author into these rash vagaries? And will he help us to scan such lines as this, in page 249?—
“For the Poets pour wine; and when 'tis new, all decry it."
And how about the rhythm in couplets like this, at page 134? –
"Broke the broad moon above the voluminous
Rock-chaos,– the Hecate of that Tartarus."
There is another objection to the metre thus handled by Owen Meredith. It opens wide the door to many forms of that diffuse writing which has become the curse of modern literature, and to which our young poets are peculiarly prone. Poetry needs a given form as much as the spirited horse needs bridling and breaking in; and the wilder a poet's fancy, the stronger his sense of power virüm volitare per ora, so much the more carefully should he go through that stern self-training without which the highest talent will assuredly run to seed, or waste itself in useless efforts to strike out something new. Our author's Pegasus would move much easier for a little more curbing, for the restraints of some metre that should force him to condense his thoughts and gather up his words. Though free from all the prevailing pettiness of style, he is often carried away into moral rhapsodies, suggestive in their eloquence of Bulwer-Lytton, and in their earnestness of Carlyle, but neither in themselves poetical, nor suited to the course of a poetical tale."Sermons in stones" are very good things, but by all means let us find them out for ourselves, or get them done for us by novelists writing for a purpose. Have we not our "Proverbial Philosophy" for one class, our Emerson's Essays for another, besides endless variations of Wordsworth and Longfellow, for all who cannot take either their poetry or their preaching pure? "Lucile" is too much of a modern novel in verse. In its warmth of tone, its gushing rhetoric, its satirical smartness, its affected humour and scorn of things conventional, as well as in the general drawing of its characters, it reads wonderfully like a mixture of"Pelham" and "Ernest Maltravers," with a slight dash of "My Novel." The whole book is not unnaturally redolent of him to whom it is dedicated, and reveals, in every page, the mystery that lurks under the name of "Owen Meredith." But for all its marks of family likeness, the son's poem is essentially his own, stamped with his own separate image, and speaking the thoughts of a generation unborn when"Pelham” first rose into fame.
In poetic power and original thought the son has clearly surpassed his father. He writes poetry because he cannot help it, and the fire of his genius carries him triumphantly over many pages of bootless rhetoric and limping verse. As the reader of Carlyle begins, after a while, to enjoy the grand roll of certain passages in his “French Revolution," so there is surely a music of their own in lines like these:–
––––––––––––––– "As when, sparkling yet
From the rain, that, with drops that are jewels, leaves wet
The bright bead it humbles, a young rose inclines
To some pale lily near it, the fair vision shines
As one flower with two faces, in hush'd, tearful speech,
Like the showery whispers of flowers, each to each
Link'd, and leaning together, so loving, so fair,
So united, yet diverse, the two women there
Look'd indeed like two flowers upon one drooping stem,
In the soft light that tenderly rested on them.
All that soul said to soul in that chamber, who knows?
All that heart gain'd from heart?
–––––––––––––––– Leave the lily, the rose,
Undisturbed with their secret within them. For who
To the heart of the flow'ret can follow the dew?
A night full of stars! O'er the silence, unseen,
The footsteps of sentinel angels, between
The dark land and deep sky were moving. You heard
Pass'd from earth up to heaven the happy watchword
Which brighten'd the stars as amongst them it fell
From earth's heart, which it eased.... ‘All is well! all is well!"'
Better than raving about the woes of genius, than peering carelessly into odd holes and corners of human life, or than chanting the praises of a good dinner after the fashion, but without the wit of"Don Juan," are Mr. Meredith's attempts to paint the workings of human passion and the varying phases of outward nature. If he complains in touching verse of Nature's grand unsympathy with human sorrow, his own soul lies thrillingly open to every look and whisper flowing towards it from without. His sketches of local scenery come in here and there like beautiful glimpses of a world behind that of human feeling, like the fit but unobtrusive background to those human figures on which our interest is mainly centred. The moonlight ride among the"many-faced hills,” that watch
"their fair slaves, the light, foam-footed rills,
Dance and sing down the steep marble stairs of their courts,"
not inaptly ushers in the earlier stages of love-making at Serchon; while the fierce rushing of all forgetful passion and the darkness of consequent despair seem richly foreshadowed in the few strong and vivid lines, that paint the storm rolling and roaring along those same hills a few days after that first ride. After the fierce play of warring emotions that lights up with a lurid glare the closing scenes of Part I, very soothing is the break of that dawn which greets Alfred Vargrave on his return to Bigorre and his betrothed:–
"And the dew of the dayspring benignly descended,
And the fair morn to all things new sanction extended,
In the smile of the East. And the lark soaring on,
Lost in light, shook the dawn with a song from the sun.
And the world laugh'd."
And in the following lines how thoroughly is the soft summer night in tune with the hearts of Lord Alfred and the wife whose love he at last begins to return:–
–––––––––––– “They heard
Aloof the invisible, rapturous bird,
With her wild note bewildering the woodlands: they saw
Not unheard, afar off, the hill-rivulet draw
His long ripple of moon-kindled wavelets with cheer
From the throat of the vale; o'er the dark sapphire sphere
The mild mulltitudinous lights lay asleep,
Pastured free on the midnight....
–––––––––––––––– The place
Slept sumptuous round them; and Nature, that never
Sleeps, but waking reposes, with patient endeavour
Continued about them, unheeded, unseen,
Her old quiet toil in the heart of the green
Summer silence, preparing new buds for new blossoms,
And stealing a finger of change o'er the bosoms
Of the unconscious woodlands."
––––––––––––––––– [Part 2, Canto 4.]
But the great charm of the poem, apart from its story and its poetic brilliance lies in its emotional treatment of human character, in its attempt to portray, under various aspects, that feeling of vague unrest and passionate desire for something far away, to which Byron set the example of giving free voice."The chant of man's heart, with its cease less endeavour,"keeps echoing louder and louder in every corner of our daily life. Our young men and maidens cry out for the food we cannot give them, and spurn the well-meant counsel which satisfied the youth of other days. They feel as prisoned Titans, whose thoughts, like vultures, are eating into their vitals. To any one who speaks out their innermost feelings, who tries to expound the mystery of their broken dreams, their ears and hearts are ready opened. The author of "Lucile" is not quite a Daniel, but his heart heaves with noble yearnings, and his words seem to glow with a dim prophetic rapture. He has a salve to offer for the wounds he has probed, an answer full of cheer for the riddles that have long been puzzling him. The discoveries be makes are not, indeed, very new; but in the process by which he is guided to them, and the manner in which they are set forth, we trace the workings of no common-place mind, and stand as it were soul to soul with one whose life-journey, however darkened with suffering and beset with snares, has never quite lost the whisperings of that better genius which lauds him at the last in a world of patient well-doing, and hopeful calm.
That better genius is here represented by Lucile herself, the noble type of that ideal womanhood whose mission, the author tells us, is to bruise
"The head of the serpent, and sweetly infuse,
Through the sorrow and sin of earth's register'd curse,
The blessing which mitigates all.”
By birth half-French, half-Indian, endowed with every gift of fortune, beauty, and natural genius, she saw and loved Alfred Vargrave too soon in her youth to give up every thing else, and follow the man of her choice. For ten years her"soul was like a star, and dwelt apart," while in the body she dazzled and puzzled all men with the mystery of an aching heart, and the charms of a nature as womanly as it was powerful. At the end of that time she has once more the old lover at her feet and a new one in the person of the Duke of Luvois. These rivals are both types of a manhood noble in itself, but marred and weakened by the tricks of an untoward fate. Both had been men of pleasure, but what in Lord Alfred was the mere light cloak of a brooding unhappiness, showed itself in the other as the keen devotion of a strong will and narrow intellect to any pursuit that came first to hand. In his love for Lucile, the"frivolous tyrant of fashion," the most successful of libertines, Eugene de Luvois feels himself standing on the brink of a future which may either raise him to heaven or hurl him into the lowest deep of hell. His earnest prayer for the love she cannot return, his fury at a repulse so little foreseen, and the entrance into his soul of worse devils than had lodged there before, are told with great spirit and much artistic feeling. Lord Alfred, on the other hand, is one of those who are
–––––––––––––––– "Drawn off one way
By their passions, and drawn back again by their heart."
A man of fine sensibilities, large conceptions, and talents closely akin to genius,"sore with a sense of impossible power," and haunted by a"vague but immortal regret" – a half-sage, whose course –
––––––––––– "fixt by no friendly star,
Is by each star distracted in turn.” –
he no sooner beholds his lost love of ten years before, than, forgetful of his betrothed Matilda, and the promises made to his cousin, he pays court anew to one whom years have decked with a riper beauty than ever. For a moment Lucile almost gives way, but thoughts of the wrong she would thus be sanctioning empower her to treat him as she had treated the Duke; and Lord Alfred, misled by the wrathful Luvois, resigns himself to marry his sweet fairhaired English bride, while the woman he loved best sets off to hide her sorrow in the far Eastern land of her birth.
The second part of the book, which is greatly the best, opens a few years later at Ems. Lord Alfred, though married to "a pretty young wife," and blest with "a pretty full purse," is still unhappy, and Matilda sighs for the love she has failed to win. To their hotel have also come, from different directions, Lucile and the Duke of Luvois. Lord Alfred's marked attentions to his old love encourage Luvois to whisper into Matilda's ear sentiments which a pure English lady in real life would instinctively cut short with a word or gesture of utter scorn. But to individual truth of character Owen Meredith cannot show much claim; and Matilda's weakness becomes the prelude to a very touching interview between her tempter and her saviour, Lucile. Overawed and deeply stricken by Lucile's noble interference and moving words, the Duke leaves the place of their meeting a better and stronger man, to play thenceforth in the world that part in which she had promised to aid him with her blessings, and, if need were, with personal advice. Meanwhile her sisterly persuasions have sown the seed of better feelings in Lord Alfred also, whose heart, yet further softened by bad news from England, smiles back at last a loving answer to the love be had lately been doing his worst to estrange. These later cantos are filled with strains of highly wrought pathos and sustained poetry. And the last and longest canto of all flames out like the mellow sunset that crowns a bright summer afternoon. There is war in the Crimea, and Lord Alfred's youthful son lies sorely wounded in his tent, pining to death for lack of that balm which a certain great general in the French camp has determined to withhold from him; the hand of that general's niece, Constance. A Sister of Charity, who tends the poor boy for love of his father, finds out the rankling sorrow, and, true to her promise of former days, hastens once more to speak, soul to soul, with him whose life had borne much cheering witness to the change wrought in it one summer night under the linden trees at Ems. Once more the stern soldier yields to the soulful eloquence of the noble woman who had made him all he had become, or yet hoped to be – yields, after one sharp struggle, to the reproachful sadness of "those imperial eyes," which but for him might have been speaking out their love for years past to the man for whose child she was now pleading.
"At that moment there rose all the height of one soul
O'er another; she look'd down on him from the whole
Lonely length of a life."
To complete the sacrifice she has won from him, he follows her to the sick boy's presence, and with a prayer for his forgiveness, surrenders, with his own niece, the last shred of bitter feeling against the boy's father. With a few farewell words between Lucile and Luvois in the fading sunset, and a few lines of eloquent moral from the author himself, the poem closes, leaving the reader too deeply enthralled in the grandeur of its dying symphonies to dwell upon the faults which, at calmer moments, a careful critic will be at no loss to see in a work combining the crude haste with the buoyant strength and large purpose of youth. So good a poem as, after all deductions, we think "Lucile" to be, implies the power to do much better; and we trust that in good time our belief in that power will rest on firmer grounds than aught supplied us in the past.
But a poet of quite another kind stops the way. If nature has provided meat for strong men, she is equally lavish of milk for babes. He who has a taste for slops will prefer the weak tea of "Faithful for Ever" to the generous vintage of "Lucile." To some minds there is no poet but Coventry Patmore, and Ruskin is his prophet. This gentleman tries hard to assure the world that "Faithful for Ever" is a great poem. If you object to particular passages, he scolds you for finding fault with those seeming discords which heighten the music of the whole. If you point to something specially mean or childish, you are reminded that Homer also shrank not from showing us a party of women engaged in washing their clothes. Of course it would be useless to say on the other side that Homer sometimes nodded, or that Patroclus paid dearly for having donned the armour of Achilles. It is not every schoolboy who may dare to make false quantities in his Latin verse on the plea that Virgil or Horace sometimes did the same. They who believe in so blind an oracle as Mr. Ruskin will doubtless take him at his word in this matter also, yet even their faith will not stand the strain of such another masterpiece as the present. To those who have formed their taste on classic models, and are not frightened out of their own minds at the hazy rhetoric of a one-sided enthusiast, "Faithful for Ever" will seem to be the last and most outrageous issue of that paltry Chinese realism which Mr. Ruskin has done so much both to make popular and to prove contemptible. But for its having been widely read, and in some quarters extravagantly admired, this new product of Mr. Patmore's muse had needed but slight notice at our hands, had never been raised into a moment's fellowship with the poems of Mr. Stigant and Owen Meredith.
This book is one piece of elaborate childishness from beginning to end. It contains just enough of seeming poetry to render its production the less excusable. Mr. Patmore may once have given promise of something better, but those evil principles of art which have played the fool with many a greater genius, have turned what gifts he also had into a mockery and a snare. If whatever is be right, he seems to imagine that it must therefore be worth painting; and the meaner a thing may outwardly be, the greater his delight in studying it. To such as he Nature looks beautiful only in her shabbiest attire, and Art has no meaning unless it dabbles among weeds and dirt.&c, &c, &c.....
Last revised: 20 August 2010