Lucile Reviewed in Living Age in 1860 and in 1868
Living Age (New York) 66:848 (September 1, 1860), p564-567
From the Examiner.
Lucile. By Owen Meredith, Author of "The Wanderer,” "Clytemnestra," etc. Chapman and Hall.
Three narrative poems have appeared during the season now closing, namely, Lucile, by the writer signing himself Owen Meredith, Virginia's Hand, by Miss Power, and A Man's Heart, by Mr. Mackay. Of the numerous volumes of minor poetry few have risen above the monotony of undistinguished cleverness; two or three, however, including Mr. Stigant's Vision of Barbarossa , have been worth reserving for a word of welcome. Add to the list the poem of St. Stephen's, some of Mrs. Browning's poems on Italy, and the new matter in Mr. Landor's Hellenice, and in this branch of literature the chief gains the season are enumerated. But the gain is great that includes a work like Lucile, rich in the overflow of a luxuriant fancy, and, more than any of its author's former works, ripe with a sense of what is true in character and life.
Until the book has been read fairly through, however, its right the praise of truth may appear somewhat questionable. The story is defined, at the close of its first part, as a drama in which the actors are the Heart and the World. It is
“The chant of man's heart, with its ceaseless endeavor;
As old as the song which the sea sings forever.
It is the author's purpose, in the earlier portions of the poem, to show under the conventionalities of the world of fashion hearts panting and pining; and perhaps inseparable from such a plan, there are many indications at the outset of a feeling not altogether sound or true. It is not until we have advanced far enough to enter into the whole spirit of the design, in spite of some fine strains of healthy feeling which should serve to reassure us, that we find it easy to be quite free from distrust. Everybody is a demonstrator of his or her own moral authority. Lucile, while we know her only as a fascinating French widow, with the lover of her youth engaged to marry some one else, and falling into difficulty relations with the polished and worldly duke who is her suitor, suggests an old French friend whom we perpetually meet in comedy and novel, and do not greatly esteem. When Lucile says
“I have burned out within me the fuel of life,
Wherefore lingers the flame? Rest is sweet after strife.
I would sleep for a while. I am weary.”
and when the hero and his innocent wife are represented as having
“Grown weary ere half thro' the journey of life,”
we are tempted to feel in the poem what its author condemns in a society without freshness of enjoyment:
“—Wherever we turn, and whatever we do,
Still that horrible sense of the déjà connu!"
So, when Lucile reappears in the second part of the poem, we are told that under her pale beauty
“There yawned an insatiate void, and there heaved
A tumult of restless regret unrelieved.”
-- but we read on and the void is filled, the restless regrets are still forever. The hearts of the young husband and wife, prematurely old and weary, become fresh and warm again; the conventional duke, gay leader of fashion outwardly, and inwardly moral volcano, becomes through honest work and noble suffering a hero; and in Lucile herself, developed with all the riches of the author's feeling and fancy, we have his highest and purest embodiment of intellect and virtue. First subduing her own nature, she is content to spend all the treasures of her life and genius in offices of well doing, and from the heart of a woman thoroughly true and good, and ever ready for self-sacrifice, she finally diffuses health and strength into the hearts of all around her. Her story, told with a wealth of imagery and a charm of language that only a very few poets of our century have equaled, is of a woman's conquests in their grandest sense. Hers was
“The mission of genius on earth! To uplift,
Purify, and confirm by own gracious gift,
The world in despite of the world's dull endeavor
To degrade, and drag down, and oppose it forever.
The mission of genius: to watch and to wait,
To renew, to redeem, and to regenerate.
The mission of woman on earth ! to give birth
To the mercy of Heaven descending on earth.
The mission of woman: permitted to bruise
The head of the serpent, and sweetly infuse,
Through the sorrow and sin of earth's registered curse,
The blessing which mitigates all: born to nurse,
And to soothe, and to solace, to help and to heal
The sick world that leans on her. That was Lucile.”
It is a story meant to tell us that
“---------------------------- 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 army of martyrs who stand by the Throne,
And gaze into the fare that makes glorious their own,
Know this, surely, at last. Honest lore, 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 saddened, the life they leave dreary?
Hush! the sevenfold heavens to the voice of the Spirit
Echo: He that o'ercometh shall all things inherit."
A little too much stress may probably be laid to the last upon the weariness of life, but the true cure for it is also manfully asserted. The poem opens with such pictures of the world as might have been presented by Lord Byron, and in verse bright with a richness of fancy and a facility of expression which Byron himself has rarely surpassed; but it rises to heights of its own, when, in its later scenes, it responds to empty plaints of sentiment with a brave call to Christian duty. The lightness and persiflage of the earlier cantos, in which there is yet a lightness and vividness of touch, joined to a keenness and truth of observation and character, which we should vainly look for in any other living poet, are more than counterbalanced by the solemn feeling and earnest teaching into which the poem deepens at its close. Over the bed of the wounded and heart-broken soldier -- Alfred Vargrave's son -- whom she is nursing and comforting, thus Lucile teaches:
"'Treat to me!' (His two feeble hands in her own
She drew gently.) 'Trust to me !' (she said, with soft tone):
'I am not so dead in remembrance to all
I have died to in this world, but what I recall
Enough of its sorrow, enough of its trial,
To grieve for both -- save from both haply! The dial
Receives many shades, and each points to the sun.
The shadows are many, the sunlight is one.
Life's sorrows still fluctuate: God's love does not.
And his love is unchanged, when it changes our lot.
Looking up to this light, which is common to all,
And down to these shadows, on each aide, that fall
In time's silent circle, so various for each,
In it nothing to know that they never can reach
So far, but what light lies beyond them forever?
Trust to me! Oh, if in this hour I endeavor
To trace the shade creeping across the young life
Which, in prayer till this hour, I have watched through in strife.
With the shadow of death, 'tis with this faith alone,
That, in tracing the shode, I shall find out the sun.
Trust to me!'”
As to other poets of our day, so to the author of Lucile, the rough trials of war are not without their healthfulness and use. His poem closes on the battle field of the Crimea , whose heroes it apostrophizes:---
Whom this song cannot reach with its transient breath,
Deaf ears that are stopped with the brown dust of death,
Blind eyes that are dark to your own deathless glory,
Silenced hearts that are heedless to praise murmured o'er ye,
Sleep deep! Sleep in peace! Sleep in memory ever!
Wrapt, each soul in the deeds of its deathless endeavor,
Till that great final peace shall be struck through the world;
Till the stars be recalled, and the firmament furled
In the dawn of a daylight undying; until
The signal of Sion be seen on the hill
Of the Lord; when the day of the battle is done,
And the conflict with time by eternity won!
"Till then, while the ages roll onward, through war,
Toil, and strife, must roll with them this turbulent star.
And man can no more exclude war, than he can
Exclude sorrow; for both are conditions of man,
And agents of God. Truth's supreme revelations
Come in sorrow to men, and in war come to nations.
Then blow, blow the clarion! and let the war roll!
And strike steel upon steel, and strike soul upon soul,
If, in striking, we kindle keen flashes and bright
From the manhood in man, stricken thus into light."
And again, in the same wholesome strain, this doctrine is taught by Lucile :---
----------- “‘I am but a woman, and France
Has for me simpler duties. Large hope, though, Eugene
De Luvois, should be yours. There is purpose in pain,
Otherwise it were devilish. I trust in my soul
That the great master hand which sweeps over the whole
Of this deep harp of life, if at moments it stretch
To shrill tension some one wailing nerve, means to fetch
Its response the truest, most stringent, and smart,
Its pathos the purest, from out the wrung heart,
Whose faculties, flaccid it may be, if less
Sharply strung, sharply smitten, had failed to express
Just the one note the great final harmony needs.
And what best proves there's life in a heart? that it bleeds!
Grant a cause to remove, grant an end to attain,
Grant both to be just, and what mercy in pain !"'
We are extremely limited in our space for extract, and we have preferred to take such passages, by no means the best in point of poetry, which most strikingly express the author's moral design and purpose. But the range of thought and feeling displayed throughout the poem is very wide. There is the lightest social raillery, there is sound and truthful satire, and there is the manliest earnestness in dealing with questions of human life. There is a full sense of the poetry of nature in the earth and sky, varying between playful garden pictures and expression of the grandeur of the mountains or the glory of the sunrise and the sunset. Nor can the writing of such a poem have failed to give to its author some of that reward of genius worthily described in the one passage more that we must find room to quote. If the reward of work were but the praise it wins, he tells us---
-----------------"Thrice better, Neaera, it were
Unregarded to sport with thine odorous hair,
Untroubled to lie at thy feet in the shade
And be loved, while the ruses yet bloom overhead,
Than to sit by the lone hearth, and think the long thought,
A severe, and, blind schoolmaster, envied for nought
Save the name of John Milton! For all men, indeed,
Who in some choice edition may graciously read,
With fair illustration, and erudite note,
The song which the poet in bitterness wrote,
Beat the poet, and notably beat him in this---
The joy of the genius is theirs, while they miss
The grief of the man: Tasso's song -- not his madness!
Dante's dreams -- not his waking to exile and sadness!
Milton 's music -- but not Milton 's blindness! . . .
My Milton , and answer, with those noble eyes
Which the glory of heaven hath blinded to earth!
Say -- the life, in the living it, savors of worth:
That the deed, in the doing it, reaches its aim
That the fact has a value apart from the fame:
That a deeper delight, in the mere labor, pays
Scorn of lesser delights, and laborious days:
And Shakspeare, though all Shakspeare's writings were lost,
And his genius, though never a trace of it crossed
Posterity's path, not the less would have dwelt
In the isle with Miranda, with Hamlet have felt
All that Hamlet hath uttered, and happy where, pure
On its death-bed, wronged love lay, have moaned with the Moor !"
Before we part from a book that contains such noble promise of another poet to our country, we may call alight attention to occasional blemishes on its surface, arising from what we cannot but hold to be a departure from the sound theory of poetical composition. Question as to the relative advantages of rhyme and blank verso in a long metrical story that demands extreme variety of expression, and has no affinity to the old ballad tales, we shall not raise; but in our belief the discussion would necessarily turn upon the same ground taken in Dryden's time for discussion of the rhymed and unrhymed drama, and would finally be decided, as that was practically decided, against rhyme. But the essential nature of verse, rhymed or unrhymed, is the same. By providing a fixed system of pauses and modulations of the voice it ensures a place of emphasis for every emphatic word, and thus gives to expression a peculiar vigor. One of these places of emphasis is the last word to a line, and no good English poet until these days ever marred his verse by putting unessential words into this prominent position. Neither does the author of Lucile, as our extracts will have shown, when he puts on his singing robes; but he appears too hastily to have accepted the doctrine that a story in verse should in its lighter passages be only metrical prose, and that it can be made colloquial simply by violation of the fundamental theory of verse. This is, of course, fighting vainly against nature. The mechanism of the verse must and will make its usual emphasis, and nothing is obtained but the jar of emphasis in the wrong place by such division as
---------------------------"forever at hide
And seek with our souls---”
-------------------------"thinking of those
Strange backgrounds of Raphael."
As rhymed verse gives to the last word of each line a double claim on attention, the defect here is even more to be avoided than in blank verse, to the vigor of which also it is yet always fatal.
We have probably indicated, in these few words, what may serve to intercept from this poem, for the present at least, the full acceptance and praise to which on every other ground it is entitled. Its claims are too marked and various, however, not to obtain recognition. This may come when the author shall have determined his place in poetry by more matured productions; but it will come not less surely even if he should not publish again. For Lucile is remarkable for what it is, and not merely for the promise it contains. We know of no such performance of surpassing merit in English verse which has not sooner or later found fit and sympathizing audience.
Francis Jacox. “Unready-Witted.”
Littell's Living Age 1262 (August 8, 1868), p374-5.
(Reprinted from St. James Magazine).
. … The curate, in Colonel Hamley's clever story, is watched with a sort of amazed interest by his housekeeper, as he goes through a series of curious gesticulations, just after parting with Lady Lee. He mutters to himself, smiling; bends his body constantly forward, as if explaining something, waves his hand argumentatively, raises it deprecatingly, and brings the palms together with earnest emphasis. "He's certainly acting a play," says Jennifer to herself, looking out of the window at him as she dusts the books. Nothing of the kind, however; he is merely continuing in imagination the conversation he has just held with Lady Lee. He is saying brilliant things to her, and greatly distinguishing himself in that imaginary conference, and taking that share in it which he would have taken to the real one if he had had a little more presence of mind. "He carried on with her, while alone in his elbow-chair at the parsonage, more imaginary conversations than ever Walter Savage Landor wrote, and would thirst for the next visit, that this airy eloquence of his might take actual sound, and receive audible replies." And he used, as we are assured, to be so brilliant, so lively, so irresistible in argument, in these ideal interviews, that he would sometimes, at the conclusion of a real one, marvel why he should depart with a sense of having acquitted himself in a manner so inferior to his thought. Shy curates are not the only class liable to this sort of break-down. So accomplished and high seasoned a man of the world as Alfred Vargrave, in " Owen Meredith's" rhymed romance, is in like case, on at least one occasion of his eventful life:
"He saluted the countess, and sought, much perplexed,
For some trivial remark -- the conventional phrases --
Irreproachable manners, appropriate praises,
But in spite of himself, some unknown agitation,
An invincible trouble, a strange palpitation,
Confused his ingenious and frivolous wit,
Overtook, and entangled, and paralysed it
That wit so complacent and docile, that ever
Lightly came at the call of the highest endeavour,
Ready coined, and availably current as gold,
Which, secure of its value, so fluently roll'd
In free circulation from hand on to hand,
For the usage of all, at a moment's command;
For once it rebell'd, it was mute and unstirr'd,
And he look'd at Lucile without speaking a word."
Last revised: 20 August 2010