Lucile Reviewed in The Literary Gazette
London, Saturday, May 5, 1860
LUCILE. By Owen Meredith (Chapman and Hall)
It is not very often that we are called upon to review a poem which runs to the length of several thousand lines, and stalks in all the dignity of cantos and books. Fortunately the languid genius of our modern rhymers is content with humbler flights: we might more aptly compare them to the silken-winged flies who buzz about the world in May, than to the swan who sings "amid the sun's dominions." Many of them seem to be conscious of the terrible foregone conclusion that they are only creatures of a day, and wisely make no provision for the morrow. It is a cruel and superfluous office to crush them; granted that they are a little annoying, yet the world is wide, and it is hard if they alone are forbidden to spread their little, wings, and chirp their little songs till the shadows fall. In the present case, however, we are considering an altogether different phenomenon. "Lucile" is a poem equal in length to the "Odyssey" or the "Excursion;" it is not the author's attempt, and therefore, on both considerations, demands a more serious and detailed examination that the ordinary run of poems which appear about this season of the year.
"Lucile" is dedicated to the author's father, and in this dedication he embraces the opportunity of telling us that "he has abandoned those forms of verse with which he had most familiarised his thoughts, and endeavoured to follow a path on which he could discover no footprints before him, either to guide or to warn." There is much wisdom in this resolution; we recollect that when we first looked through his earlier volume we were everywhere haunted by a perpetually-recurring impression that we had heard all this -- or something astonishingly like it -- before. Now, it was a line of Ternnyson -- now some winged words from Shelley, which fluttered like disembodied ghosts about his pages. On one occasion we were quite at fault: we had come upon a thought of Wordsworth's; we were almost sure we recognised it, and yet it seemed to us to undergone some curious transformations in its wanderings. A friend solved the mystery for us. Owen Meredith - his explanation ran -- borrowed this from Mathew Arnold; Matthew Arnold in his turn borrowed it from Wordsworth; "voila tout." Once only, if we may believe Milton, was Satan, among all his misfortunes, thoroughly put out of temper, namely, when the virtuous Ithuriel really did not appear to know who he was. In a somewhat similar way, we may imagine (oh, great poet, pardon this illustration) the spirit of Wordsworth contemplating with disgust the strange transformations which it is his lot to undergo in the pages of so many succeeding books. But it is perhaps not quite true that Owen Meredith is set totally without a guiding star in his new pilgrimage. The metre of "Lucile" is a close syllabic trochaic, the pet measure, as all the world knows, of Tom Moore; while in the matter of his verses, he is under constant and most obtrusive obligations to the French poet, Alfred de Musset, as we shall show presently.
Still there is much which is the writer's own in this book, and we confess to have been often amused, and sometimes driven to more serious thoughts, while occupied with it's pages.
We shall presently devote a little space to a consideration of the ethics of this volume; our more immediate business now is with the story itself, and the merits or shortcomings of its execution. And here, in the first place, we must enter our most hearty protest against the employment of the metre he has selected, in any poem of such length and pretensions as the present, on any future occasion. It becomes tedious and monotonous to a degree which is incredible; only in the lighter passages does it strike us as being at all appropriate; and whatever the author's cue is to be profound, earnest, or pathetic, we can only compare the effect to that which we fancy might be produced by setting the Te Deum to one of Jullien's quadrilles: e.g., from the concluding moral of the whole --
----------------------------------------- Who knows
What earth needs from earth's lowest creatures? No life
Can be pure in its purpose and strong in its strife,
And all life not be purer and stronger thereby,
The spirits of just men made perfect on high,
The story of martyrs who stand by the Throne,
And gaze into the Face that make a glorious their own,
Know this surely at last. Honest love, honest sorrow,
Honest work for the day, honest hope for the morrow,
Are these worth nothing more than the hand they make weary,
The heart they have sadden'd, the life they leave dreary?
Hush! the sevenfold heavens to the voice of the Spirit
Echo: He that o'ercometh shall all things inherit.
There is nothing very new in this - and yet it does not even leave the impression which the earnest repetition of some ancient and sacred truth ought everywhere to effect. Most readers, we fancy, will instinctively skip the serious passages. All will be amused by such as the following, which paints, with such felicitous abandon of expression, the horrors of that terrible nightmare of the "dejà" "connu." The readers of French poetry will detect an aroma of M. de Musset here as elsewhere -
"This accursed, aesthetical age,
Hath so finger'd life's horn-book, so blurr'd every page,
That the old glad romance, the gay chivalrous story
With its fables of faery, its legends of glory,
Is turn'd to a tedious instruction, now new
To the children that read it insipidly through.
We know too much of Love ere we love. We can trace
Nothing new, unexpected, or strange in his face
When we see it at last. 'Tis the same little Cupid,
With the same dimpled cheek, and the smile almost stupid.
We have seen in our pictures, and stuck on our shelves,
And copied a hundred times over, ourselves.
And wherever we turn, and whatever we do,
Still, that horrible sense of the déjà connu!
------- p. 178.
From this passage the discerning reader might almost - as Professor Owen from a single bone constructs his antidiluvian mammoth - construct a skeleton of the story, which would not be very far from the mark in all essential characteristics. We at once picture the form of a young man, abundantly clever and fit for anything, but who, like Hamlet, has - why, he knows not - lost all his mirth, and is standing idle in this very busy universe. Such is Lord Alfred Vargrave, the hero of the present poem. The story opens at Bigorre, in the Pyrenees, where he is sojourning in attendance on a Miss Darcy, a young lady who is pictured to us in some charming lines --
"In her habit and hat, with her glad golden hair,
As airy and blithe as a bird blithe in air,
And her arch rosy lips, and her eager blue eyes,
With their impertinent look of surprise."
----- p. 21
For all this Lord Alfred, who is engaged to her, is hardly a bit in love with her, and indeed, owing to a letter received from the Comtesse de Nevers (Lucile), for the time absolutely forgets her. Some passages of love had, it seems, taken place between Lord Alfred and Lucile in former years; and when they parted, it was agreed that each was to keep the other's letters till called upon to surrender them in person. This Lucile now does; and, in spite of the remonstrances of his cousin John, Lord Alfred sets off to Serchon, to see the Countess. Several pages are then given to a merciless analysis of Lord Alfred's character, and his mental and moral habits are accounted for. When we upon this, we at once abandoned the hope that "Lucile" could turn out a really great work of art. The true poet never thus murders to dissect. Nothing is more fatal, in our judgment, to a poem than that favourite practice of French novelists, and French thought generally, of laying the foundations of their plots in this complete exposure and dissection of motives. It is at once a confession that the hand of the creator is palsied, and indicates a thoroughly low appreciation of the source of our best sympathies. Let us try to think what would have become of some of the episodes in Dante, or of the "Paradiso Lost," if, instead of permitting their consummate and imperishable truths to deepen into our very nature from the harmonies and movement of the whole, we had first been regaled with a painfully-minute analysis of the causes and growth of Satan's discontent in Heaven, and the conflicting emotions which governed him in hell. We do learn, from his own words and acts, as much about this as it is good for us to know; but had we been told it all beforehand, we should have cared very little either for him or his woes, and should only have borne away this impression, that a certain John Milton, between the years 1666 and 1671, had, as the moderns say, such or such a subjective view about them; a matter of no very great moment to us or posterity in general. We cannot linger over this analysis, the sum of which most readers will readily anticipate, but proceed with our sketch of the story. Lord Alfred visiting Sechon, is so fascinated by Lucile, that. Forgetting his present engagement, he proposes to her. This is managed, in the true melodramatic spirit, on the brink of a precipice, amid the roar and crash of mountain storms. A certain Duc de Luvois - a French edition of Lord Alfred - (Lucile being the feminine counterpart of both, plus a woman's heart) - who had been refused by Lucile the day before, is a witness of this scene, and naturally feels not a little disgusted at the whole affair. There follows the usual amount of quarrels and explanations, and the net result in that Lord Alfred goes back and marries Miss Darcy, while the Duc and Lucile pursue their separate destinies. Thus end the first part of the poem. In the second, the above personages are all brought together again at Ems. Lord Alfred and Matilda are bored with each other, and the former seeks relief in occasional gambling. The Scene at the gambling-table is well put before us - though here, again, several lines from a little piece of de Musset's "Une bonne Fortune," for example
"Me voici donc à Bade, et vous peinez sans doute,
Puisque j'ai commence par vous parler du jou
Que j'eus pour premier soin d y perdre quelque peut.
Vous ne vous trompe a pas, je vous en fais l'aveu.
De même que, pour mettre une armée en déroute
Il ne faut qu'un poltron qui lui montre le roule.
have been before our author, when he dances along to the tune -
"'Tis a fact all history placed beyond doubt,
That there needs nothing more a whole army to rout
Than one coward that takes to his heels."
The obligation, we think, is obvious: but we have no space to trace it further. Lucile is also found to frequent the roulette-table; so also does the Duc de Luvois. The reason, of course, is their immortal ennui and want of a career. All these personages, indeed, in the often-repeated language of our poet, are -
"Grown weary ere half thro' the journey of life."
And then he breaks forth -
"Oh, Nature, say where, thou gray mother of earth,
Is the strength of thy youth? that thy womb brings to birth
Only old men to-day!"
And then he contrasts with this the ancient and unwearied joy of winds and waves. It is a complaint too often heard in these centuries, to be set aside as merely a piece of unreal, spasmodic affectation. But we hear a little to much of it in "Lucile;" and as in the concluding pages everybody, from very ordinary and obvious considerations, becomes most urgently moral and earnest, and all the rest of it, we naturally look upon their previous divine idleness of despair with considerable scepticism. At first we thought that "Lucile," after the manner of French novels, would close in a maze of what Byron called "compound adultery," but we can assure all our readers that it is as moral and edifying as Sir Bulwer Lytton's later manner. Lucile rejects lord Alfred's advances, permitting him, however, a friendship with which awakens his wife's jealousy, and piques the Duke. This latter, who is also analysed at considerable length, looking about him for some employment, decides upon revenging himself on Lord Alfred, by robbing him of his wife's affections; the progress of his insinuations and the flattery of his sympathy are drawn with great force and point. In the middle of a critical interview he is interrupted by Lucile, who acts the part of the good fairy, explains everything, reconciles everybody, and then vanishes away, doubtless in a high state of moral self-approbation. The misunderstanding is cleared up between Lord Alfred and his wife, and the meeting in her boudoir is prettily told, though, perhaps, some may think that certain physical aspects of it are brought a little too prominently forward. She is praying when he enters the room, but apparently in a highly undevotional state of undress -- "With her simple and slender white bodice unlaced." Clearly it is a case where we must fall back on the safe principle of "Honi soit qui mal y pense." It had further happened that this day had brought him news that the whole of his wife's fortune had been swallowed up in the failure of her uncle's (a sanctimonious old hypocrite) bank. From this time we leave him, but are given to understand that he becomes a highly useful member of society. Lucile, as we all along anticipated, becomes a Sister of Charity, and meets with the Duc de Luvois, an earnest and popular commander, at Scutari. A novel, 'Sword and Gown,' which was reviewed in the "Literary Gazette" at the time of its first appearance, has much in its tone not unlike the tone of "Lucile." It ends almost precisely as the present book does. Sisters of Charity - brave soldiers - Scutaris and Inkermanns, are the final impressions left on our mind by both. Is this owing to the fact that both writers so habitually look to the passions as the only springs of great actions, that they have ended by forgetting how the results of that civilisation which they despise have been attained -- viz., by average reason, average honesty and patience in the conduct of life? Both exalt the passions at the expense of the reason and conscience. Owen Meredith forgets, in his passionate assertion of the littleness and unsatisfactoriness of life, that oracle of a greater poet -- the Epicurean Lucretius --who also looked deep into the abysses of being,
"Vitaque manciple nulli datur, omnibus usu;"
or, if he remembers it, it is only to attack it in the shape of a jejune moral to a story, which throughout emphatically gives it, the lie.
We have indirectly, in the course of the above remarks, anticipated anything which it occurs to us to say about the ethics of the book. We are quite familiar with its types of modern ennui, and we can very well believe that many of them exist, and that they are further drawn in these pages with much freedom and truth of detail; but we protest against the conclusion as feeble, unnatural, and, what is worse, stupid. We don't want to read through 400 pages of rhyme only to learn that a parcel of ennuyés, by a certain sentimental legerdemain, may be made awake to the fact that there is such a thing as duty in the world, and begin to practice it at the eleventh hour. We cannot learn that "Lucile" teaches us any more than this. We are far from holding that a work of art ought necessarily to inflict on the conscience some definite moral lesson; but when it comes before us with a parade of morality, as in the present instance, in self-defence we are driven to examine the worth of the lesson. We are free to confess, then, that had the last 100 pages of "Lucile" been omitted, we should have been all the better pleased, and yet without one conviction less than we have at present, that a light of duty shines on every day for all.
Last revised: 18 August 2010