Lucile discussed in The Forum (1897)
George Saintsbury. “The Poetry of the Earl of Lytton.”
The Forum ( New York ), XXII (September 1896–February 1897), p. 467-482.
"As, in the laurel's murmurous leaves,
‘T was fabled, once, a virgin dwelt;
Within the poet's page yet heaves
The poet's Heart, and loves or grieves
Or triumphs, as it felt."
––"The Wanderer": Dedication
It is not the intention of the present paper to argue for or against the definition of poetry expressed or implied (with a neatness and completeness not invariably achieved by their writer) in these melodious lines. It is sufficient that there is perhaps no theory of the art which is more generally or more excusably popular, and that the manifesto, as it may be called, thus set in the forefront of his first serious book by Owen Meredith (as for many years the first Earl of Lytton signed his poems) was faithfully carried out. Yet, though the poet thus ran up a flag far more engaging than the austerer and extremer theories, which, on the one hand, make perfection of form the distinguishing mark, and, on the other, demand the presence of a "message," of "criticism of life," of "high seriousness," and so forth – though for nearly forty years he fought under this flag with a faithfulness not always exhibited by poets – it cannot be said that at any time his verse has been really and genuinely accepted either by the critics or by the public. Some volumes of it have indeed achieved the success of one or more reprints; and two selections – one, mainly of his earlier lyrical work, the other executed with singular judgment and taste by his daughter, chiefly from the larger mass of his non-lyrical work, have appeared. But he has never been much of a favorite at large; and it has been (and, though to a less extent than formerly, still is) a critical trick to pooh-pooh his claims as a poet. It may not be uninteresting to examine the justice and injustice of this from the critical side; it cannot but be a kindness to the general to point out how eminently readable a poet – the adjective will be expounded and justified later – is thus neglected by poetical readers. For there is some reason for believing that the reading of poetry, as distinguished from the critical study of it,– reading which was common in the earlier part of this century but which almost died out in the middle thereof,– has of late been revived. And it is a pity that hungry sheep should not be led to every good pasture.
The outward life of Edward Robert, second Lord and first Earl of Lytton, who was born in 1831, was chiefly remarkable because of its most unusual repetition of the double bent toward literature and toward public affairs which had distinguished his famous father. In literature his range was less wide, though I at least think that his performance was, at its best, better than that of the author of "The Caxtons." In politics, his sphere being not parliament but diplomacy and administration, he attained a considerably higher place, becoming viceroy of India and ambassador to France . These employments, the highest of their kind open to a British subject, had been preceded by a very long course of minor diplomatic functions, beginning at the age of eighteen, soon after Mr. Lytton left Harrow . He thus missed the university training usual with men of his country and station, and this circumstance, together with the effect of his almost continual residence abroad, has been noted by the most partial and the best informed judges as having had prejudicial as well as advantageous consequences on the character of his work. Cosmopolis is a city of many attractions: its inhabitants are wont to boast themselves a little at the expense of the parochial and the insular, of the provincial and the patriotic. But paradoxers have maintained that Cosmopolis is apt to communicate only the lower, not the higher, cosmopolitanism, and that the intense and wide humanity of Shakespeare and Dante has not a little to do with the fact that Shakespeare is the most English of Englishmen, and Dante a Florentine from tip of nails to core of heart.
In the case of all poets perhaps there is no such satisfactory fashion of criticism as the apparently plodding and uninspired one of going in chronological order through their work, and noting characteristics and "signatures," defects and merits, as they evolve themselves. The butterfly process of haphazard appreciation may look prettier; but, in the words of Béranger's naughty comparison, it has "bien moins de vaillance." And in no case can such a process be more important than in the case of such a poet as Lord Lytton, who has been very seldom criticized as a whole, and of whom there is very unlikely to be, in any considerable number of readers, any distinct total idea, whether right or wrong. That knowledge had better precede opinion is doubtless an old-fashioned idea; but it really has something to say for itself.
"Clytemnestra" was not, I think (though I speak on this point without absolute certainty), ever completely reprinted; and very little of it appears in the "Selected Poems"  in which all those who do not know Lord Lytton's poetry should now make their first acquaintance with it. As is natural, the author's curious and rather heroic indifference to the charge of imitation appears very strongly in a volume most of the contents of which were, I believe, composed at about the age of eighteen, and some of them earlier. In its pages Browning and Heine meet together: Tennyson and Musset not infrequently kiss each other as the volume shuts. Yet in a not long closed experience of perusing, for some twenty years, the new poetry of England, I do not remember meeting anything which struck me as better deserving the greeting, “This will do!" than "The Neglected Heart," which did not, I think, receive any such plaudit from the reviewers of 1855, though Leigh Hunt, always a generous and generally a good judge of poetry, spoke enthusiastically of the book to Forster. The fact is that Lord Lytton, as unlucky in matters of literary fortune as he was lucky in some other ways, experienced the unkindness of the goddess also in this respect. English criticism was by no means at a palmy day in 1855; the critics of the older time being mostly dead or, like Hunt, moribund, the new slashing "persiflage of the "Saturday Review" hardly started and better calculated to snub manifest incompetence than to encourage doubtful genius, and the newest school of aesthetic appreciation yet far off. Besides which, it is the very rarest thing in the world that a poet's first book really reveals him. Spenser, Keats, Shelley, are hardly exceptions: most others directly confirm the rule.
"The Wanderer" of four years later was a great advance. It is true that the "echoes" continued, and that the poets remissness in attention to form was rather slackened than screwed up as the memories of his Harrow education – the only scholarship of the strict kind with which be ever had a chance of being imbued – died down. But the note was stronger, the personal quality – which was always so prominent and interesting in Lord Lytton – was very much more distinct and perceptible, and, though the book was in appearance composed of a large number of occasional pieces, the division by countries, and the interconnection of many of the pieces themselves, gave the thread of continuity which the poet always found useful if not absolutely necessary. There are some poets – Shelley is the chief of them – to whom "a story to tell" is perfectly unnecessary, who indeed cannot tell it when they have one. There are others – and Lord Lytton was one of these – to whom narrative of one kind or another, historic or fantastic, parabolic or direct, is apparently an inevitable form and mould of verse-expression, so that everything they write must take more or less pressure from this.
But the most important thing about "The Wanderer," as a book of poetry, is, after all, that it contains some decidedly good poems. My own favorite (a favorite dethroned by nothing of the author's, though some things in "After Paradise" and "Marah" came to sit beside her) is "Astarte "– a poem which, with not a few of the usual blemishes of reminiscence and want of polish, and suffering as it does from two redundant stanzas (it ought to have ended at the thirteenth), still, after thirty years' acquaintance, seems to me to possess an admirably liquid lapse of metre, a curious clangorous charm of plaintive sound. Not the reckless uncertainty of the rhymes, not the Mrs. Browningisms of "these Earthlies" and so forth, can spoil the delight of such stanzas as–
They fell lightly, as the dew falls, mid ungather'd
Meadow-flowers; and lightly linger'd with the dew.
But the dew is gone, the grass is dried and wither'd
And the traces of those steps have faded too."
"The motion and the fragrance of her garments
Seem about me, all the day long, in the room
And her face, with its bewildering old endearments,
Comes at night, between the curtains, in the gloom."
and especially that with which I wish the piece had closed:
"If I fail to find her out by her gold tresses,
Brows, and breast, and lips, and language of sweet strains,
I shall know her by the traces of dead kisses,
And that portion of myself which she retains."
Nor can anything be more characteristic than the poet's persistent leaving of such easily removed blemishes as the rhymes in question to mar the music of such a "voluptuous, necessary, and right" composition as this would otherwise have been and to a great extent still is. The Dedication to John Forster (the first stanza of which I have chosen for the epigraph of this paper) may please others better than "Astarte," which I myself like so much that, as the critic always does in such cases, I suspect my lilting to be partly uncritical. "Leafless Hours," very short, is also very sweet; and its combination of two famous Spanish and French proverbs—
"And out of the nest of last year's Redbreast
Is stolen the very snow"—
is singularly happy. In truth until the last two of his books Lord Lytton gave none combining various poetical attractions so well as this; and I believe the public – which is not always wrong – has to some extent recognized the fact. But the same public – which is by no means always right – extended an at least equal welcome to his nest venture, which was perhaps the least good book he ever did. That the omission to acknowledge indebtedness to George Sand's "Lavinia" (an omission due to advice from the poet's father, surprising from so old a literary hand and one who had smarted so under critical attack) exposed Owen Meredith to the cuckoo cry of plagiarism, is a, trifle. The actual debt is not great, and it would not matter if it were greater. The real faults of the book are quite different; and they have been stated by Lord Lytton himself in words which require little extension and hardly admit of any improvement. "The whole subject of it," he says, "is fitter for prose than verse,"“the whole composition is inconsistent with the permanent conditions of poetic beauty," and the characters "are described rather than revealed.” Such frankness, which is not in the least exaggerated or affected, deserves respect and saves trouble. "Lucile" is in fact merely a novel of the Sand-Feuillet kind, told in slipshod (the word is the author's) anapestic tetrameters, partly in narrative and partly in dialogue, to the extent of some eight or ten thousand lines. It contains some vivid description and not a few good passages of the lighter kind, the best thing being, perhaps, that rather well-known eulogy of Dinner, which includes the couplet:
“We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized man cannot live without cooks."
Still, on the whole it is a decided failure.
Yet this, like "The Wanderer," was, I believe, much better received than any one of Lord Lytton's subsequent works, all which, with perhaps one exception, were very far its superiors. I suspect, though I do not know, that this was a cause to the author of not unreasonable disappointment. He knew that these were not his best work, nor, as wholes, anything like his best. He did not reflect – he would have been "either God or beast "if he had reflected – that they came at a peculiar time when the public was just recovering its appetite for poetry, and had as yet neither acquired distinct tastes nor had any opportunity of glutting them. During the 'forties and 'fifties the reaction from the palmy days of the 'teens and 'twenties, when poets sold quartos by tens of thousands, was at its very height. For years the public would hardly look at Tennyson, and would not look at all at Browning. But at last Tennyson had attracted, and Browning was in a few years to attract, attention which was very shortly to be shared by the new and dazzling poetry of the Pre-Raphaelite school. "The Wanderer" and "Lucile" profited by the revival of the taste; their successors suffered because they did not hit that taste completely off.
Little need be said of the Servian poems, which were the occasion of another unnecessary and chiefly foolish squabble about plagiarism, and which, though some of them have much merit, exhibit neither any new faculty nor the best expression of any old one. A "free translation" of a translation could hardly be satisfactory; and it undoubtedly contributed to that mistaken yet plausible notion of the second-hand character of Lord Lytton's work which has done it so much harm.
Six years were next spent on the book which, under the title of "Chronicles and Characters," appeared in 1868,– the most extensive, and, unless this epithet be assigned to "Glenaveril," the most ambitious, of all the author's works. A friendly but frank critic, remembering what has been referred to at the close of the last paragraph, would probably have shaken his head over the general form. For it was impossible that this should not suggest "La Légende des Siècles," which (with "Idylls of the King") was the dominant book of European poetry at the time; while the volumes also contained the strongest reminders of Browning. But it must have been already apparent to the poet's well-wishers that no considerations of this kind would ever weigh with him; and the book unquestionably has great merits. The phantasmagoria which its nearly twenty thousand verses marshal before the reader represents all times and countries, from heroic Greece to the present day, and represents them with no little power. The wide range of metre and subordinate form prevent monotony, and the abundance and variety of subject-interest undoubtedly divert attention from those slips of technique which were noticeable earlier. Moreover, though Lady Betty Balfour thinks that her father had not even in this book fully found his way (as to which, in point of scheme, there can be no doubt), I cannot help thinking that he shows himself very close to it. The half ironic, half moralizing study of the facts of life and nature, with escapes from time to time into that passionate subjectivity which was his special forte, could be little facilitated by the boyish experiments of "Clytemnestra," the almost purely personal lyric of "The Wanderer," or the pastiche of "Lucile" and "Serbski Pesme." But the subject-matter of "Chronicles and Characters" lent itself very well thereto. One piece in the strangely mingled contents – the famous "Last Words of a Sensitive Second-Rate Poet " – has secured praise from those who, as a rule, set very little store by Lord Lytton's verses. One poem on the "Melancholia," though it has not the concentrated force of the companion passage in "The City of Dreadful Night" (which came much later), is adequate and fine as an example of a kind of poetry which is rather hackneyed now but was not so thirty years ago. "Genseric" is one of the, alas! too rare instances in which the poet did not write a line or a word too much, and which therefore shows what, with less fluency, his muse might have frequently given. The whole design to exhibit the ideals of the successive ages was too ambitious; and, except in the hands of an almost unimaginably supreme poet, would have required more knowledge than is easily compatible with poetical felicity, and more power of suppressing knowledge than the knower usually has. But as a series of frescoes,– as a sort of world-panorama dashed off freely and with mastery,– it has high value, and as a book to read – a quality of Lord Lytton's verse on which I always insist – it is extremely recommendable.
It was followed by the most curious example, without exception, of that odd capacity for taking pains, which in this instance rather marred than made a genius. "Orval, or the Fool of Time" has never been reprinted, no extracts from it are given in the "Selected Poems"; and it was considered by Lord Lytton himself to be a failure. But its comparative inaccessibility communicates a certain interest. I do not myself think that it is by any means the worst thing that its author did; and above all it is almost supremely curious. That a man of considerable position, literary and otherwise, not writing by any means for bread, with the idea of the "Fables in Song" and "King Poppy" at least germinating in his own brain, and with all the world of literature before him, should take trouble to the extent of about eight thousand verses in paraphrasing the "Infernal Comedy" of a certain Polish Count Krasinski is odd –-is of the very oddest. I cannot read Polish; and though I believe there is a French translation of Krasinski's comedy, I have never seen it. But though "'Orval" is probably an extremely free paraphrase of the "Infernal Comedy," it is easy to see that the original was one of those innumerable semi-dramatic compositions, belonging more or less to the school of "Faust" and adjusted to political ends, which this century has seen. Lord Lytton has put his own readjustment of the Krasinski politics in a long prose preface, only less curious than the poem, and tempting to comment on. The piece itself – describing the fall of a generous and visionary seigneur in circumstances half medieval, half modern, before a revolution which is half Jacquerie and half '89 – is quite worth reading, but its execution is even hastier than usual, and there are few quotable passages. The fact of its existence is the really and, in the case of anybody but Lord Lytton, the almost inexplicably curious thing. It would seem to have been so easy to any man not to write "Orval"; to almost any man so troublesome to write it!
But the book with which he followed this, "Fables in Song," would not have been easy for anyone to write, and it would have been a very great pity if it had not been written. I gather from Lady Betty Balfour's allusions, though I do not remember for myself, that some idiotic cavils were made at the title. This is the sort of thing which has brought discredit on criticism. Any ill-conditioned babe and suckling in reviewing who cares for machine-made epigram can observe on such an occasion that the subjects of his discourse are not fables and are not songs, and can support the dictum by pointing out that Lord Lytton's examples are extremely different in form from Aesop or Phaedrus or Marie de France or the Anonymus Neveleti (only this kind of critic probably never beard of the Anonymus Neveleti) or La Fontaine or Gay. The fact that the they are different is one of their chief titles to consideration. To me, at any rate, it seems that in these pieces Lord Lytton struck a distinctly new vein which nevertheless connects itself in the legitimate manner with the main fable-seams of old. I do not know whether he took the hint from the Prologue to "The Newcomes"; it is quite possible that he did, and it would rather add to than detract from the interest of the product if it were so. However this may have been, the "Fables in Song" coordinate and apply, in a fresh and piquant manner, the scattered and desultory faculties which had been noteworthy in the earlier books. Mr. Arnold had not then formulated his famous "criticism-of-life" definition of poetry; so nobody can say that Omen Meredith borrowed that . But as a fact no book of verse published for many years answers to the description better than "Fables in Song." As was usual with the author, the metrical form of the poems sits rather loosely and is often changed. Perhaps the commonest measure is the heroic quatrain-sometimes printed straight on, sometimes combined in stanzas. But there are also to be found six- and eight-line decasyllabic stanzas, "Christabel" tetrameters passing into Ingoldsbian "tumbling verse," short Heinesque blank lines, Pindarics, triplets, and other things. All these are pressed into the service of a kind of double-shotted narrative, the shot being sent home more or less by a moral of the old fable kind. “The Blue Mountains: or the Far," “The Wheatstalk: or the Near," “The Ass and the Wagtail,” “The Philosopher and the Bird," tell, to a certain extent, their own story: elsewhere and rather more frequently some reading is required before the author's drift is clearly seen. But always what is attempted – and in a large majority of the sixty examples what is achieved – is the presentation, with the "cane and sword"of verse, of a kind of moral lesson; enforced with much knowledge of the world, touches of pessimism, a great deal of by no means boisterous irony, and above all not a little Wisdom. Let me on this occasion be permitted, though I do not greatly love it, the capital letter which used to bring such not undeserved ridicule on Lord Lytton s father, and which he, a loyal son, often adopted. We do not like Wisdom nowadays; when she cries in the streets (which it must be admitted she does not very much) we call her obvious, uninspired, rococo, provincial, vieux jew. We have, it seems, outgrown Wisdom. But whether our state is therefore the more gracious might be the thesis of a considerable argument.
It was all the more disappointing when, after the long gap noticed above, Lord Lytton returned to the publication of poetry, to find that the result was "Glenaveril." He himself, it seems, believed in the book; the more sacred band of his admirers believes in it; there are undoubtedly good things in it; and I recently found it easier to read it a second time than I did, when it came out, to read it a first. But I am quite unable to regard it as anything on the whole but a huge and creditable mistake. As we have seen, Lord Lytton had very justly condemned its kind from more points of view than one, in reference to "Lucile." Yet, except that it shows a much riper science of life and to some extent a less "go-as-you-please" scheme of verse, "Glenaveril" is exposed to every objection which condemns "Lucile," and to more also. It is double the length: the metre is not superior as the vehicle of a complicated plot. I do not know that the characters, though they are less conventional, are really nearer to full dramatic presentation than those of the earlier book ; and there is a mixture of obscurity and lack of "go" about the story merely as a story. Its best parts,– and they are very good,– "The Falcon and the Dove" and "Marietta's Needle," are Fables which have unhappily deserted the state of single blessedness, and have rashly undertaken unlimited liability in connection with a mass of heterogeneous companions.
But this was the last of Lord Lytton's books, published by himself or posthumous, against which any such charge could be brought. The small volume entitled "After Paradise, or Legends of Exile" contains matter, partly in the key of the "Fables," partly lyrical, of far higher value than "Glenaveril," and showing that mounting tide of blended passion and humor which, contrary to the wont of poets, flowed in this poet higher and higher as he grew in years. "Uriel" and "Strangers," though a little over-dashed with pessimism (Lady Betty Balfour tells us that at this time he was reading much Schopenhauer), are very admirable poems; and indeed there is little that is not admirable in the book. The two posthumous volumes, "Marah" and "King Poppy," were even better; indeed, if they had been the first books of an unknown writer instead of the last books of one as to whom opinion had made itself up with that curious obstinacy which appertains to opinion that is wrong, they must have made no common sensation.
The first of this pair may be described as a sequel to the strongest and best parts of "The Wanderer," very much improved in workmanship, concentrated, and heightened in tone, and, while retaining all the freshness of feeling, fortified by thirty years' growth in knowledge, experience, and thought. Those who, like the Princess, object to a "moan about the retrospect" may quarrel with the bitterness indicated by the title and fully present in the book. But that was one of Her Highness Ida's unregenerate utterances. "Marah" is full of goodness; and it is rare to find two of its numerous short pieces together that lack a distinction and an intensity the want of which was, as a rule, the fault of Lord Lytton's earlier work. Here he has attained that seventeenth-century soar and throb of wing which is not common in any poet of our day.
But I should have to notice half the contents of this remarkable book to do it justice. I shall only say that if any critic can read "That is the Question," "If . . . ?," "Summer Night," "Experientia Docet," "Dreams," "Seaward," "Moonland," "Selenite," without finding "nothing common there nor mean," I am sorry for him.
Had, however, "Marah" remained unpaired by "King Poppy" we should not have known the completeness of the advance which Lord Lytton had made all along the poetic line. "Marah," though not without touches of humor, is nearly all passion: "King Poppy," not without touches of passion, is nearly all humor. The moralizing spyglass of the "Fables" is here taken up and applied to politics – vignetted, so to speak, in a frame of mystical fancy, and adjusted to a sort of half sincere, half ironical hymning of "King Poppy," the monarch of oblivion and dream. The satire on popular and constitutional government is pretty sharp; though so adroitly wreathed in flowers of phantasy that the duller reader may not feel himself galled, while the astuter may affect to disregard the point of it. An argument of "King Poppy" would be a rather serious undertaking; and besides it is supplied already, to those who can understand it, by the author in a running marginal commentary elegantly rubricked. And the blank verse which Lord Lvtton has here definitely adopted is far superior, as a medium for his peculiar style of fantastic narrative and dissertation, to the rhymed forms which he had tried earlier. Not that the book is by any means pedestrian: there are not a few distinctly ambitious passages, such as the history of the birth of gems, and a good many others. But whereas in many of the earlier books the equipment of verse has something of the same worrying effect that rhyme has in drama, here it simply helps and heightens. In fact, it would, I think, be difficult to produce any instance of two books by the same author, appearing practically at the same time, which displayed more different and at the same time more happily complementary gifts of poetical handling than these two. And if they stood alone there could be very little doubt what the verdict of the great majority of competent critics on their author's claims would be. But they do not stand alone; and hitherto the fate of their author has justified the practice which "Saint Architriclin" (as the inexhaustible felicity of the Middle Ages dubbed the Master of the Feast at Cana) pronounces to have been usual in his time – the practice of putting forth the best wine first. Faultless these two books certainly are not. Monotony may be objected to "Marah," a want of further compression and direct adjustment to "King Poppy"; and, though the technique is far better in both than in the earlier books, there are still lapses. But in a just appraisement their faults are as nothing in comparison with their merits; while, certainly, no dog, however currishly inclined, can with the least justice bark the old bark of "echo" against them.
It is, I know, often thought that critical apology for admitted defects is even more superfluous than the rest of the critical business. It teases admirers who do not want to criticize: it is neglected by ill wishers who do not want to be converted. Nevertheless something of the kind must be attempted here, though it be done shortly. If epigram were any longer permissible (and perhaps it still is under Gautier s kindly insult afin de prouver aux sots qu'on pourrait étre leur égal) the difference between Lord Lytton and a plagiarist could be put very briefly. The plagiarist endeavors, usually without the least success, to give other people's work the color of being his own: Lord Lytton, for many years, endeavored, only too successfully, to give his own work the color of being other people's. The chorus in "Clytemnestra," which drew tears from Leigh Hunt, does perfectly superfluous suit and service to Tennyson. "The Wanderer" is full of apparent echoes of Browning, Heine, Musset, even Poe. It has been shown with what guileless and gratuitous heedlessness the poet exposed himself to the charge of plagium in "Serbski Pesrne" and "Lucile"; what a waste of labor and fancy lie made in dressing up another man's doll (this time with the fullest proclamation of the fact.) in "Orval"; how even "Chronicles and Characters" were capable of being misrepresented by no extraordinarily unscrupulous persons as half "Men and Women," half "Légende des Siècles."
Yet a narrow examination will reveal to any fair and competent reviewer some very curious notes in this echo, some quite unaccountable turns in this imitation. There are some of the Tennysonian and Browningesque echoes in "The Wanderer" which are like things not published by either master till long afterward; and a "Chain to Wear" has a strong Swinburnian ring though written before Mr. Swinburne had published anything (even the "Queen Mother" and "Rosamond") and some twenty years before the piece which it chiefly resembles was printed. The fact would seem to be that Lord Lytton's poetical instrument had an Aeolian-harp quality, that it was specially liable to be swept by whatsoever wind of poetry was blowing strongly at the time, and to give forth sounds in key with those which more individual inspirations had set going. The phenomenon is not a very uncommon one, though there is perhaps no other case in which it is found to so considerable an extent and in conjunction with so much original power. Certainly there is no other instance in which a poet has been so entirely free from the essential and damning sin of the plagiarist – the attempt to clip and doctor, to dye and disguise what he borrows. Less confident excuse must be made for his other ascribed fault – the want of patient and disciplined attention to form. It would indeed be idle to attempt to defend a culprit who pleads guilty in more than one not unnatural, though rather unwise, fling at critical respect for form itself. And it ought to be remembered to his great honor that in one of the neatest and most genial of the "Fables," "Diogenes, or Alexander?"– turning on the contrast between a neatly cut water carafe and a champagne bottle,– Lord Lytton, though he begins with something like a satire on form, ends by confessing that form lasts and that its opposite does not. That his own form was defective, in his early days, especially, that it was often most unfortunately so, no one, I think, can deny. His distressing laxity in the matter of rhyme – which sometimes reminds one of, though it never equals, the enormities of Mrs. Browning – may have been partly caused and must certainly have been encouraged by his almost constant exile from his native country; for an ear so receptive as his could hardly fail to be affected by the daily hearing of Italian and French, German and Portuguese. But it must have been partly congenital, and partly due, like his companion laxities of metre, to a more general impatience – also congenital and increased by education and circumstance – of the labor of the file. And I do not know that either peccadillo bas done him so much harm as his extreme facility and fluency. "Jewels five words long" will of necessity be seldom found in the work of a man who can write easily: has not Lord Lytton himself admitted that it took the dragon in "King Poppy" a year's exertion of the most violent kind to produce each gem? Yet of this; as of the other fault, he has produced at once explanation and apology in a couplet of merit–
"Clothing myself in all hues that be
And taking all forms that seem fair to me”—
that is perhaps as good a motto for his own earlier poetical performance and position as could be selected.
To unravel the apparent contradictions of such a career I believe there is only one clue; though indeed it is scarcely necessary to make the limitation, for there is only one clue that unravels anything,– to wit, history. The longer literary history is studied with an open mind the more clear does it become to the student that there are times and circumstances when a poet of the fresh and complete kind is practically impossible, or, if found, is a miracle. These times and circumstances will sometimes be long and complicated, sometimes short and simple. They may be estimated by centuries or estimated by decades. They never can be fully explained at all. But they exist. If a man is born in the early 'thirties of the seventeenth century in England he is fairly entered for the chance of being one of the chief agents in the transformation of English prose; later or earlier he will miss that chance by a few years. If be is born in the early 'seventies of the eighteenth century he will have a throw for being one of the chief agents in the transformation of English poetry; a few years earlier or later and he will miss that privilege. These are the gros lots in the raffle; but the minor prizes follow the rule. The writers of one decade will be born to honor; those of another, if not to dishonor (for on the artist's brow, however unlucky he may be, shame is ashamed to sit) yet to an honor maimed and stunted, grudged and denied.
Lord Lytton was by time and circumstance placed among the less fortunate of his brethren. He was born too late for the last splendid flowering of the great Romantic period – that which produced Tennyson and Browning. He was born too early and educated in the wrong way for the aftermath of Pre-Raphaelite poetry; for, though he was actually a younger man than Rossetti, his early exile from England took him out of the current and left him exposed only to the same vague and indeterminate influences which produced the Spasmodics and others. Hence, beyond all doubt, his early imitativeness, and hence also, I think, (though it is difficult to pronounce on the latter point with equal certainty) the lateness with which lie reached, and the comparative slackness with which he grasped when he had reached it, the true vocation which is unmistakably displayed in "Fables in Song" and "King Poppy." For the early lyrics of "The Wanderer" and the later ones of "Marah," though to some of us they may have had a stronger personal appeal than the half mystical, half satiric fable, yet give him a less distinct poetical position than this latter inasmuch as they are more common to the human race at large. It is a proof, an inestimable and irrefragable proof, of his poetic faculty that he should not merely have written the best things of "The Wanderer" at twenty-five, but the best things of "Marah" at fifty-five. But to those who demand a special poetical vocation, not occasional poetic moments, the "Fables" (with "King Poppy" always to be included) must be more valuable. Yet, even after "Fables in Song" itself, it is clear that he was not sure of his path, as the great digression to "Glenaveril" shows.
Of the poets who have suffered from this metaphysical hindrance, not aid, of fate and chance, the chief in English is Gray. And it so happens that Gray shows us, with the most obliging contrast, how inauspicious stars of the kind may be baffled to a certain extent, though not wholly. Nobody who has the least critical acquaintance with the life and works of the author of the "Elegy" can be for a moment under the delusion that he was a satisfied or a fully developed poet. It is clear, not less from the works than from the life, that he "never spoke out" what was in him. He too was under the sway of the demon of imitation. He could never make up his mind whether to be a classical or a romantic poet, whether to write narrative or elegy, lyric or satire. He never hit upon anything at all original in form. Even his great learning, though it found a subject exactly suited to his tastes and capacities,– the projected History of English Poetry,– was blocked and baulked by his want of distinct "line,"of definite pli . But Gray, if his hindrances were even increased, was in the end saved by the results of an English academic education coinciding with the drift of an intensely critical temperament. Fate would not allow him to write much that was good, or anything that was in the highest sense original. But he would write nothing that was bad in point of form; nothing that was undistinguished, unfinished, destitute of the evidence of an anxious craftsmanship in style. And the consequence is that he lived, lives, and will live; that people have even gravely inquired whether he is not a "great" poet; that the quintessenced commonplace of the "Elegy," the artificial mannerism of the "Bard," pass (and pass rightly too) for something a very long way out of the common, for artifices that fully deserve the name of art. He was so conscious how much there is for a poet not to say that he may have said too little: he was so conscious that a poet cannot be too careful how he says it that whatever he said survives.
The full, and I believe faithful, survey of Lord Lytton's work which has been given above dispenses me from saying or re-saying much as to the other side of the contrast which we find in Owen Meredith. He was subject to much the same disabilities, had perhaps an even more ardent desire to write poetry, and had, as I verily believe, not much less if any less share of the indispensable requirements of a poet. And it seems to have been impossible for him not to write. The collection of his work which I have before me (including nothing twice over and excluding the original "Clytemnestra") consists of twelve volumes, of which only one I think holds less than six thousand lines and some contain nearer twelve. Nor was he ever tired of rewriting, though his revision seems to have taken rather the form of expansion than of compression. Given these facts, the defects of the total result – defects excessively and sometimes both ignorantly and unfairly commented upon – are not surprising: it would have been their absence that would have given reason for surprise.
But its merits and not its defects are the things by which the true critic judges poetry, and the merits of this poetry are abundant in quantity and not low in degree. There is, for those who can taste it, a certain paradoxical compensation in writers of the class just described, if only they have talent enough. In their lack of single over-mastering vocation they display a singular compensating variety; in their refusal to be bound by narrow critical exigencies, a compensating exuberance and ease. The volume of enjoyment which a poet provides ought not to be overlooked; and we have, perhaps, of late years been a little prone to underestimate in poetry the quality of readableness. "Chronicles and Characters," the "Fables," "After Paradise," and "King Poppy" are books that one can read and re-read – which is very much more than can be said of some poems which have taken rank apparently once for all as "great."And yet in parts of these, continually – still more in the best things of "The Wanderer" and “Marah" – the poet is not in the very slightest degree a mere amuseur. On the contrary Owen Meredith possessed and was able to express, not very seldom with intensity, very often with more than adequate success, two of the highest qualities or functions of literature – two, moreover, the conjunction of which in poetry is of the rarest. The poet who has neither passion nor humor is in a sufficiently parlous state, though sometimes, as in the famous case of Wordsworth, he may attain the heights to which he cannot soar on these two wings by arduous pedestrian labor up steep mountain byways of thought and observation. The poet who has passion only is constantly liable to become extravagant or ridiculous, conventional or saugrenu. The poet who has humor only is scarcely conceivable; for, though passion unfortunately may and frequently does exist without humor, humor, by the very terms of any valid definition of it, always implies passion in the background. But when a man can show in verse that he has both humor and passion, it will go hard, very hard indeed, but he will be saved. And it cannot go hard with him who in his last and most mature work held out to us, as presents from the grave, "King Poppy" in one hand and "Marah" in the other.
 "Selected Poems." By the Earl of Lytton (Owen Meredith). New York Longmans, Green & Co.
Last revised: 25 August 2010