Lucile reviewed in The London Review
“Recent Poetry.” The London Review XVI (April and July 1861), p393-412.
Reprinted in The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature (New York) 54:1 (September 1861), p93+.
Art. V.-1. The Wanderer. By Owen Meredith. Chapman and Hall, 1859.
2. Lucile. By Owen Meredith. Chapman and Hall, 1860.
3. Poems before Congress. By Mrs. Browning,. Chapman and Hall, 1860.
4. Poems. By the Author of “John Halifax, Gentleman.” Hurst and' Blackett,1860.
5. Faithful for Ever. By Coventry Patmore. J.W Parker and Son, 1860
[and a concluding note on Meredith's Serbski Pesme].
THE diffusion of civilization through all classes is producing singular results in literature. This, is an age of experiments in literature generally, and especially in poetry. Never was the adage that experiments are dangerous more signally verified, “The men of to-day contrive to extract a larger amount of excitement out of life than was possible at any former' period, both doing harder work and demanding fiercer pleasures. Civilization; on the one hand, adds fury to the battle of life, and gradually increases the difficulty of obtaining the means of living; on the other hand, it creates a demand for pleasure and novelty, which is unsatisfied by the relaxation of mere leisure. Literature consequently is compelled to recommend itself by every artifice. Piquancy, smartness, and at least the semblance of wit and humour are indispensable qualities for literary success. A writer must now be amusing, whether he be instructive or not.
Another result of the spread of civilization is the enormous increase of the number of readers, and the vast quantity of printed matter daily and almost hourly published for their consumption. While it may be questioned whether there is not a diminution in the number of real readers, of those who can bring taste and cultivation to the discussion of an author, and who make a demand for the higher species of literary composition; those readers who glut themselves with magazines and newspapers; without care for anything better, are numerically on the increase. The literary world presents the strangest anomalies. More ephemeral literature is produced, and less that will live for ever, than in any former time. The literary profession is so common as to be scarcely a profession at all: Every man you meet at a public dinner is a contributor to a periodical; a third of the number consists of authors of books. Literature is a source of occasional income to most members of the professions; and literary labour is so cheapened that those who are really fitted for it can find in it neither honour nor profit.
All these anomalies act with double force upon the highest form of literature. Poetry exhibits them in the highest intensity. The number of persons now living who have published volumes of poetry has been estimated at about one thousand:– a number, that is, which may show its twenties for the tens of real poets that the whole human species has produced. On the other hand, the public sale of a book of poems is not much, as a rule; and publication generally entails loss. There is no demand for poetry as a separate thing; and, many of its noblest forms are extinct. When we read of the salary of old Ben Jenson being withheld ‘until he should have produced some fresh specimens of his art,' we are enviously reminded that there actually was once a time when there was a public curiosity about poetry. And yet poetry of a certain kind (of what kind we shall see presently) must be in vogue; for it forms a standing ingredient in the magazines. And this circumstance re-acts, again, unfavorably upon the prospects of genuine poetry. The, majority of readers take their standard of perfection from the magazines; and are unprepared to appreciate or comprehend anything of higher character. The chance which a real poet, on his first appearance, has of a proper reception, is diminished by the very fact that a vast amount of inferior poetry is read and relished by his countrymen. The reverence which an entirely unaccustomed nature might feel in the presence of mighty art, is superseded by half familiarity. Real criticism, moreover, is very rare. There is scarcely a professed critic in any one of the periodicals who knows anything about poetry. The newspaper critics, in their treatment of poets, alternate between ignorant indifference and insolent contumely. We may remark in passing, that if poets themselves would occasionally contribute some idea of the principles of their art to the public, in the shape of criticism, in the periodicals, it would tend to improve the prospects of poetry. The great duke's maxim, that every man is the best judge in his own profession, holds good in the case of poetry. A poet alone is truly able to criticize a poet. It may be answered that the inspiration of a poet does not necessarily entail acknowledge of the principles upon which poetry proceeds. Whether this were true in earlier ages or not, it certainly is not true now. In this advanced age every one who hopes for eminence is compelled to go through a preparation, which must involve the sifting of principles. And as matter of fact the few criticisms that have been written by poets are most valuable. The observations on Milton in the letters of Keats recur to us as an example. They are generally minute and finished expositions of particular passages, which show how inestimable would have been a more extended criticism. Among our poets there are many now living who are obviously in the fullest degree in possession of their own principles, and capable of imparting them to the public. The amiable professor of poetry at Oxford has ably entered upon this work in the dissertations prefixed to his own volumes. Mr. Alexander Smith has combated some of the popular errors regarding poetry in his Essay on Burns. Owen Meredith is certainly versatile enough to criticize others as well as to write himself, and would do it with a poet's sympathy, knowledge, and discrimination. Since poetry has lost favour with the public, it becomes the duty of poets to “speak prose,'– to let the world know what their work really is, and how important it is for the good of the world that the noblest of the arts should not suffer from public discouragement.
One living poet alone can be said to have gained the ear of England; and we are far from a desire to undervalue the importance of Tennyson, when we say that we wish heartily that his empire were divided. The innumerable imitators of Tennyson in the magazines are the men who present the literary world with the conception which it entertains of the nature and ends of poetry. And it is precisely the weakest points in Tennyson that these imitators select. There is no masculine grandeur in him; but, on the contrary, a feminine sweetness and passionateness pervade his poetry. This quality is conjoined with wonderful breadth of imagination, suggestive and associative power, sense of beauty, perfection of language, and depth of heart, which render him one of the greatest of English poets. But his popular imitators do not attempt, as a rule, to penetrate the real secret of the man, to get at the root of his greatness: they are merely intoxicated with the atmosphere he breathes forth, and catch his manner. It is in his feebler, more feminine and domestic pieces that he is most frequently caricatured. The ‘Miller's Daughter,' `The Day Dream,' and parts of `Will Waterproof,' are, in style of reflection, kind of painting, and even in metre, repeated week by week, and month by month, until the public must be saturated with the idea that the office of poetry is really little more than to exhibit ‘houses with their fronts off.' The domestic hearth, its joys and sorrows, connubial and parental, are the eternal theme of the Clio of the nineteenth century.
A half-terrified sense of the discrepancies of life, a mournful lament over toil and suffering, are joined, in this kind of verse, with a faith which believes only in itself, and eschews any religion more positive. Hence arises the shallow, off-repeated creed of the arising of good out of evil. This idea of the good perpetually succeeding to the evil is the grand notion pervading the poetry of Longfellow, and to which his popularity is mainly due. It is the first idea which faith conceives; but men of deeper heart perceive that evil succeeds good, as well as good evil, and learn at last to leave the:problem to its only Solver, or, if they must needs speak of it, try to present it in its entirety, omitting nothing and traducing no one. From such deeper insight alone can arise true grandeur of song, grandeur of emotion, grandeur of those who ‘refuse to be comforted'. But lesser men seek comfort, and find it chiefly in family joys. They delight to see their comfort reproduced in poetry; and hence the domesticity of the popular English muse. Is it not rather the true office of song to set before even these men that there is another side to the questions which; they, think are, answered?
We might extend these remarks, but our present purpose is to show what we believe to be the dangerous effect of these anomalies on several persons unquestionably possessed of real poetical talent. We revert, then, to what we said at the outset, that the poetry of the age shows the danger of experiments. Almost every work of genius now published is peculiar in this, that it is totally unlike anything ever seen before. It has, or ostentatiously aims at, something entirely ‘new and strange.' There is a general tendency to force thought and expression; continual attempts are to be witnessed to institute new directions of fancy and feeling. We cannot complain of want of originality, though that is sometimes affirmed against the age. We rather murmur at the undue pursuit of originality as a primary object. We would ask our poets whether originality ought to be their first aim? Is it not in danger of degenerating into straining after effect? Ought it to be sought before truth and beauty? Originality is not in itself a very valuable quality. A madman may be an original without being an original genius. The originality of much even of the genuine poetry of the age is gained, we unhesitatingly affirm, at the expense of reverence for authority, good taste, beauty, and, above all, that tranquil fulness and serenity of soul which is indispensable to the highest art. It is usually originality of aim rather than of mind; and it is precisely because men so often dream of gaining fame simply from putting poetry to some use for which it was never intended while they, in such cases, only possess very ordinary powers of composition, and therefore only rhapsodize, that we hear the hackneyed charge of want of originality in the age. The age is only too original; and the greatest poetical ages never have been so at all, in this use of the word. We wish especially to advert to one particular, the abandonment of the old time-honoured types or forms in which poetry used to be cast. The greatest poetical intellects have in every age shown a tendency to mould themselves in the forms left by their predecessors. Virgil, one of the greatest masters of language, threw his poem into the type of Homer. Was Virgil's originality destroyed in so doing? Not at all: his style and mode of conception is so distinct from that of his master, as to be even dissimilar; and he has shone forth ever as one of the great prompters and directors of human speech and thought. Milton, again, framed his grand work upon the epic of Virgil, and found that most fitting for the display of his own mighty qualities. Keats was obviously forging his Titanic epic into the proportions of the 'Paradise Lost,' when death cut short what would have been one of the grandest poems in the language. These are weighty examples, and would that they were borne in mind! At present, the very last thing we expect on hearing of a new poem is, that it will be an epic, or an ode, or a genuine drama, or, indeed, that it will resemble in its general form any thing that has gained the sanction of antiquity. We speak the more strongly on this point, because we belong to the 'new school' in poetry, and are far from wishing to trammel a poet either in his rhythm or metre by the exploded canons and conventional rules of the so-called 'Augustan age' of Queen Anne. It is of the general abandonment of the old forms, which the greatest masters have sanctioned, that we complain, and that not so much for the sake of these forms themselves as because of the uncertainty of aim, or restlessness of purpose, which their abandonment surely must imply.
We suppose that among living poets the third place is due to Owen Meredith. We well remember the sensation caused in the undergraduate circles at one of the universities by the appearance of his first volume, containing 'Clytemnestra' and 'The Earl's Return.' That volume gave unmistakeable evidence that its author possessed two of the very highest poetical qualities,– dramatic passion, (we do not say dramatic power,) and melodious sweetness of versification. To these were added an assemblage of many other faculties which go to the making of a great poet. It is true that the book wanted weeding; there was a great deal of nonsense in it,– studies of other poets which had better been left out; and several vicious tendencies were observable, as, for example, in the song about hollyhocks, where the forced adherence to a peculiar metre, or even the recurrence of a particular rhyme in one part of the stanza, is supposed to give value to verses which the poet himself must acknowledge to be void of feeling and worthless. The same mistake is committed, for instance, in Leigh Hunt's ‘Song of Flowers.' Yet no first work had borne greater promise. The great redeeming feature in it was vigour and freshness
The next publication of Owen Meredith was ‘The Wanderer,' in 1859. This is the title given to a vast number of miscellaneous short poems, which were written in different countries visited by the author. But very few of them profess to be descriptive of man or nature in various climes; the bulk of them might have been written anywhere. The first thing to be said of them is that there are too many of them by half. Four hundred and thirty pages of miscellaneous poetry in a young author's second volume! As a mere feat of fertility it is remarkable; but we presume that the author would not desire this praise alone. Keats, who threw away sonnets in letters; Burns, who could produce his pencil and improvise a dozen stanzas at a dinner party, could have rivalled this fecundity, had either of them chosen. But none better knew than they that the only facility of composition which is of value must be the result of long practice and completely-mastered thought. The true master will aim at condensation as the first requisite; rapidity or ease of writing will be a thing that he will care literally nothing about. He will be thankful for it when it comes; but meanwhile do his work slowly. Along with this fecundity there is, in ‘The Wanderer,' a fearful diffuseness, which is among the greatest of poetical crimes. We are tempted to ask the Carlylean question, ‘Could he not have taken pains, and written it in half the number of verses?' There is another defect in 'The Wanderer,' as compared with the earlier poems; it shows a conclusive failure of power of language. This is the natural result of the diffuseness of which we have complained. A further fault must be noted in the tendency to run into strange metres, which are sometimes elaborate without being effective, sometimes irregular without being wild. ‘The Wanderer,' on the other hand, shows increased power of thought and wider knowledge and sympathy; its author does unquestionably possess ‘the deep poetic heart,' with its tremulous compassion of human life, its sense of mysteriousness and infinity, its faculty of discerning sorrow in joy, and evoking joy out of sorrow. But this sympathy is, we think, not so natural nor so healthy as in the earlier volume: it is less inclined to deal with noble and honest things: it escapes on the one hand into depiction of human nature in its baser and more voluptuous moods; on the other, into the common-places of the grotesque, into a disgusting communion with ghouls, goblins, vampires, and worms. This last peculiarity, especially, which is strongly marked in ‘The Wanderer,' is the sign of a morbid feebleness singularly in contrast with the beautiful health of the first volume. How different is that real power over apparitions, possessed by such glorious natures as Shakspeare or Titian, whose spiritual creatures walk the earth, or ‘wing, up and down the buxom air,' in perfect beauty, from the peevish, ghastly, and horrible imaginings in which modern poets have too often indulged!
Some poetical minds seem incapable of cultivation, and can therefore never attain the highest perfection. Longfellow is one of these. His poetry is the most uncultivated possible. It has, however, a superficial smoothness, both in versification and tone of feeling, which satisfies the general run of readers, though no real judge of poetry would for a moment mistake this for true melody or deep reflection. Such a mind has its use, and Longfellow has fulfilled his vocation. But Owen Meredith is a very different and higher nature. Were he not so, we should have been much more lenient in our remarks. He is capable of extremely high cultivation, and is himself conscious of the fact. In the immense number of pieces published in ‘The Wanderer,' there is not one that is self-satisfied. All bear marks of a restless anxiety to render them effective; all bear marks, that is, of an attempted cultivation. It is this very anxiety which partly renders them, as we unwillingly pronounce them to be, failures. Poetical cultivation is the education of the whole man; the increase of the spirit in serenity, temperance, joy; the purifying and strengthening of the vision; the gentle reception of the teaching of the Divine Framer of the outer world and inner soul; not the restless adoption of man's devices or the fever of ambition. We cannot trace this growth of the soul in ‘The Wanderer.' There is no love in the work, except of a painful and horror-struck kind. The single sonnet which Juliet shares with Romeo on the night of the Capulet festival is worth it all.
We believe Owen Meredith to be capable of very high cultivation; and we further believe that he has sedulously attempted to educate himself; but we are also of opinion that he has proceeded in a wrong direction, upon a false method, and has made mistakes of a magnitude which, under other circumstances, would settle the question whether or not be is a great poet. Great poets may make mistakes, but they do not in general persistently carry them out. But Owen Meredith lives in a peculiar age under peculiar circumstances. The age is given up to experiments. He is, all the world knows, the son of an eminent writer, and is doubtless fevered with the filial anxiety to support his father's laurels,– born to the purple, and eager to win battles. All this must be kept in mind while we estimate his, position and work. If circumstances were different, the vast mistakes which he has made might be considered irretrievable. We believe them not to be so, and maintain that the world may yet receive something of real value from his pen. Part of his mistake has been over-anxiety and over-cultivation, or rather over-production. He seems to have set himself to the production of a vast number of verses as rapidly as possible, confiding in his poetical cleverness for their being good, without remembering that production is only one part of the poet's duty. Incessant production is not to be confounded with real poetical education. Rest is essential to the poet; and no mind can fail to deteriorate without this.
The year after the publication of 'The Wanderer,' ‘Lucile' appeared. In this poem we have the result which Owen Meredith's poetical education has attained. 'The Wanderer' is more in the character of a process, somewhat incautiously given to the public. ‘Lucile' is a work; it is the first finished product of that process. Its author has acquired his skill; and now the question is whether what he has gained the power to do be worth the doing. It is with heart-felt reluctance that we pronounce ‘Lucile' to be not of great value as a work of art. Although we grant it to be a great deal more important than ‘The Wanderer,'– so far as the two can be compared, either by regarding ‘The Wanderer' as a whole, or by cutting ‘Lucile' in pieces,– yet it falls far short of the promise displayed in the 'Clytemnestra' volume. In the first place it has the faults of ‘The Wanderer.' It is excessively diffuse; and although the language displays a kind of appositeness which is frequently brilliant, yet, as compared with the work of the great masters of language, it is defective in power. Then the length! Owen Meredith's first volume must have been printed about 1855. Within the five years between then and 1860 he has published ‘The Wanderer,' the length of which is considerably over eight thousand verses, and 'Lucile,' which exceeds seven thousand. Is he aware that, if he publishes fifteen thousand verses every five years, in a comparatively short working life of twenty years he will be the author of sixty thousand verses? Chaucer only wrote seventy thousand in the course of at least double that number of years. Milton 's poetical works amount to about twenty thousand. The poems of Tennyson or of Browning fall somewhat below that sum. Spenser, Shelley, and Wordsworth are, indeed, instances of a similar fecundity to that of Owen Meredith; but diffuseness was the bane of all three, even of the first, whose conceptions of art were superior to those of the other two. Byron was equally rapid, it is true, and much mare concentrated; but be is a solitary example. We certainly think that Owen Meredith would do well to consider the necessity of retrenching. His works might then acquire a very much higher value than at present belongs to them.
In the dedication of ‘Lucile' the author says; "In this poem I have abandoned those forms of verse with which I had' most familiarized my thoughts, and endeavoured to follow a path on which I could discover no footprints before me, either to guide or to warn.' We may grant, indeed, the claim of orginality, but still the question of value remains. In the first place, the author, whom we acknowledge to be a poet, and one of no ordinary powers, would perhaps be surprised to hear his critic ask the question,– ‘Is "Lucile " a poem at all?' It might almost be described as a three-volumed novel rendered into a' kind of verse. And another Carlylean inquiry comes in with terrible force, ‘Could not this have been written in prose?' There are certain subjects and modes of feeling that are sacred to metre, and set themselves naturally to song; they could not be adequately expressed in any other manner. Is ‘Lucile' such.a subject? Is modern life in saloons and at watering-places a fit theme for poetry? In some of its aspects it may indeed afford scope for passionate or indignant lyric; but can it bear such a studied and length work as 'Lucile?' The author found no footprints of direction or warning; was it not sufficient warning if he found no footprints at all? Exceedingly poetical we grant his work to be, but not more so than many novels: there are many parts, in fact a large share of the volume, which are necessarily prosaic, and many other parts which are only redeemed from prose by satire, which is the lowest form of poetry. On the whole, we question whether it is a poem. We may remark, that there is now a tendency to desert the common walks of poetry, and choose out strange unfrequented bye-paths, which too often lead nowhere. The only answer in favour of Owen Meredith appears to be that lie evidently takes pains to represent the life which he has seen himself; no great man really cares for what lie has not seen and Owen Meredith unquestionably shows in all his works the very highest conscientiousness and love of truth. To this consideration great importance ought to be attached.
The originality of 'Lucile' consists in its being an attempt to revive the forgotten art of telling a story in verse. It is unsuccessful, because the verse is made subordinate to the story. It is a very interesting and, indeed, exciting book, so long as the reader does not regard it as a poem. When looked at as a work of poetic art, its grave defects become only too manifest. Its anapaestic metre is the most unmelodious of all metres, and least of all adapted for a continued effort. Nor can we say that, bad as it is in itself, it is well managed. There is no poem of such pretensions in other respects, which has such small pretensions to the rather important merit-of melody. On the other hand, this anapaestic metre is the easiest of all to write in; it is the next remove from prose. It might be argued, that in this bold attempt to revive a forgotten art; Owen Meredith has a right to take the easiest metre. But the object, in the first instance, in telling a story in verse rather than prose is, that the story may gain by verse, not that verse may lose by the story. So far as a story is unfit for verse, it should be discarded; at all events the dignity of poetry must not be conceded. This seems the reason why in Shakspeare many unpoetical things are set down in plain prose. It is also the reason why the poets who have been most endowed with the story-telling faculty have been noticeably fond of 'twice-told tales,' of stories already well-known, rather than of self-invented ones; so that there is in the world a regular cycle of poetical legend which the poets are never weary of repeating each in his own way. For the poets dread mere narrative, and, as a rule, wisely prefer well-known stories, which they need not elaborate to issues of known beforehand, which they can at pleasure diversify with incident, and treat as they like. It is true, that at first sight there seems no reason why a new story should not be told in verse. Scott and Byron wrote new stories in verse. But then, in their stories the poetry was everything; the story would have been poor indeed, if set down in plain prose. Tennyson's `Maud' is a case more in point, because it is a story of modern English life. We think that it offers a very complete contrast to ‘Lucile.” The story in 'Maud' is extremely slight, the charm of the poem entirely depends upon the treatment. The interest is concentrated upon one figure, one tone pervades the whole; it is a tale of ` star-crossed love,' like 'Romeo and Juliet; this keynote is struck at once, and repeated again and again; we feel the lovers are predestined to misfortune, and so we are at once prepared for its coming, and care the less how it comes; all manor interests are suspended in presence of the one catastrophe which is imminent from the first. For these reasons we regard 'Maud' as a masterpiece of treatment, and this noble unity of purpose has enabled its great author to throw his whole strength into the versification; so that we know of no poem in the language which is so wonderful a piece of connected and varied melody. It is a sonata with every movement except the scherzo. 'Lucile' is the opposite of all this. The interest is certainly not in the versification, it is therefore in the story, or, to be more just, in the story together with the powers of thought exhibited in considerable width and depth by the author. There is no unity of purpose, and the interest is scattered over the three or four principal personages. There might have been many endings to the story; several apparently impending catastrophes are got over, and the action still continues; or rather, the action changes while the actors continue the same. The versification is what we have described. It is so bad as again and again to interrupt with disgust what would otherwise have been a very interesting story. But there remains also the graver difficulty of deciphering the moral purpose of such a poem. Has it a deep moral meaning? Is it, or is it not, a great woe-begone poet's complaint on life and fate, like 'Maud?' or does it set forth a poet's insight into the sources of human encouragement? The author seems to sum up its intent in the following verses.
–– For her mission, accomplished, is o'er.
The mission of genius on earth! To uplift,
Purify and confirm by its own gracious gift
The world, in despite of the world's dull endeavour
To degrade, and drag down, and oppose it for ever.
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 bead 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. This was Lucile'
The old moral of the coming of good out of evil might have been illustrated in a much shorter and simpler way.
We shall not attempt an analysis of the story of 'Lucile.' It is very interesting, and very completely told. The characters are very graphically drawn, and show great power of analysis. Indeed, unflagging vigour in description of men and nature is one of the great features of the work. There is vast knowledge of modern life, and the keenest, occasionally the most satirical, observation. The reflective element, also, the amount of miscellaneous thought upon such subjects as art, art-morality, the claims of poetry on the world, is extremely remarkable: These are some of the characters which claim our most willing admiration.
If these remarks should ever chance to meet the eye of Owen Meredith, he may be assured that they are those of a friend and well-wisher,– of one to whom the interests of poetry' are as dear as they can be to himself, – of one who has watched his career with great interest, and who believes that he only needs more judicious self-training, and legitimate ambition, in order to become a great poet. The hand that has drawn the strangely reserved, strangely passionate, strangely bold, strangely spiritual "Lucile" is surely capable of grand dramatic effects. But we will not impertinently advise; we only criticize. We conclude by quoting what is perhaps the finest passage in the book, the description of a storm in the Pyrenees.
‘And the storm is abroad in the mountains! He fills
The crouched hollows and all the oracular hills
With dread voices of power. A roused million or more
Of wild echoes reluctantly rise from their hoar
Immemorial ambush, and roll in the wake
Of the cloud whose reflection leaves livid the lake.
And the wind, that wild robber, for plunder descends
From invisible lands o'er those black mountain ends;
He howls as he hounds down his prey; and his lash
Tears the hair of the timorous wild mountain ash,
That clings to the rock, with her garments all torn,
Like a woman in fear. Then he blows his hoarse horn,
And is off, the fierce guide of destruction and terror,
Up the desolate heights, 'mid an intricate error
Of mountain and mist.
––––––––––––––– There is war in the skies!
Lo! the black-winged legions of tempest arise
O'er those sharp splintered rocks, that are gleaming below
In the soft light, so fair and so fatal, as though
Some seraph burned through them, the thunderbolt searching,
Which the black cloud unbosomed just now. Lo! the lurching
And shivering pine-trees, like phantoms, that seem
To waver above in the dark; and yon stream,
How it hurries and roars, on its way to the white
And paralysed lake there, appalled at the sight
Of the things seen in heaven!
–––––––––––––––––––– Through the darkness and awe
That had gathered around him, Lord Alfred now saw,
Revealed in the fierce and evanishing glare
Of the lightning that momently pulsed through the air,
A woman alone on a shelf of the hill,
With her cheek coldly propped on her hand, and as still
As the rock that she sat on, which beetled above
The black lake beneath her.
–––––––––––––––––––All terror, all love
Added speed to the instinct with which he rushed on.
For one moment the blue lightning swathed the whole stone,
In its lurid embrace, like the sleek, dazzling snake
That encircles a sorceress, charmed for her sake,
And lulled by her loveliness; fawning it played
And caressingly twined round the feet and the head
Of the woman who sat there, undaunted and calm
As the soul of that solitude, listing the psalm
Of the plungent and labouring tempest roll slow
From the cauldron of midnight and vapour below.
Next moment, from bastion to bastion, all round,
Of the siege-circled mountains, there trembled the sound
Of the battering thunder's indefinite peal,
And Lord Alfred had sprung to the feet of Lucile.'
Mrs. Browning speaks, in her preface to ‘Poems before Congress,' of the necessity which poets are under of justifying themselves ‘for ever so little jarring of the national sentiment, imputable to their rhymes.' That national sentiment, which prefers to meet with assonance where it is to be expected, has often enough been jarred by her rhymes. In the same preface, Mrs. Browning expresses a supposition that her verses may appear ‘to English readers too pungently rendered to admit of a patriotic respect to the English sense of things.' They are rendered too pungent, not merely by unpatriotic fury, but by bad taste. They are a perfect shriek. When we were reviewing Owen Meredith, we felt inclined to quote Waller to the effect that—
'Poets we prize, when in their work we find
Some great employment of a worthy mind.'
We now feel more inclined to refer to a certain text about meddling with things too high. We regret to find in this volume the old, wild, reckless propensity to use the most sacred names and associations in a totally irreverent connexion. Mrs. Browning surely cannot expect to influence the English people by frantic all-to-nothing rhapsodies. The volume contains some of the very worst specimens of her worst mood. In one of her raptures on ‘the gloomy sporting man,' Napoleon III., which we wonder whether he has read, she says,–
‘Is this a man like the rest,
This miracle made unaware
By a rapture of popular air,
And caught to the place that was best?
You think he could barter and cheat,
As vulgar diplomatists use,
With the people's heart in his breast?
Prate a lie into shape,
Lest truth should cumber the road;
Play at the fast and loose,
Till the world is strangled with tape,
Maim the soul's complete
To fit the hole of a toad;
And filch the dogman's meat
To give to the people of God?'
However, we will say no more about this strange book, and its almost disgraceful close in the celebrated ‘Curse,' but that it contains one passage at least of splendid lyrical power. The whole (chapters vi. and vii. of ‘Napoleon III. In Italy ') is too long for quotation; we give the end of it:–
‘Now, shall we say,
Our Italy lives, indeed?
And if it were not for the beat and bray
Of drum and tramp of martial men,
Should we feel the underground heave and strain,
Where heroes left their dust as a seed
Sure to emerge one day?
And if it were not for the rhythmic march
Of France and Piedmont 's double hosts,
Should we hear the ghosts
Thrill through ruined aisle and arch,
Throb along the frescoed wall,
Whisper an oath by that divine
They left in picture, book, and stone,
That Italy is not dead at all?
Ay, if it were not for the tears in our eyes,
Those tears of a sudden, passionate joy,
Should we see her arise
From the place where the wicked are overthrown,
Italy, Italy ? loosed at length
From the tyrant's thrall,
Pale and calm in her strength?
Pale as the silver cross of Savoy,
When the hand that bears the flag is brave,
And not a breath is stirring, save
What is blown over the war-trump's lip of brass,
Ere Garibaldi forces the pass.'
The poems of the author of 'John Halifax' are not by any means so good as her prose. They may be taken as a favourable specimen of the many volumes which in these days are written by persons of sensibility and thoughtfulness, who have certainly no vocation to be poets. Such persons very frequently produce pleasing verses; but to feel thoughtfully or even deeply is not enough to warrant them in coming before the public in the character of poets. There is an amateur appearance in this lady's volume; her pieces are generally of a languidly mournful nature, containing the usual things which everybody now seems to think it necessary to say about life and death, and grief and angels, and statues and flowers. In the midst of all this we are startled by a lyric so beautiful and passionate, that it might have been written by Burns himself. It is entitled, 'Too Late.'
‘Could ye come back to me, Douglas, Douglas,
In the old likeness that I knew,
I would be so faithful, so loving, Douglas,
Douglas, Douglas, tender and true.
'Never a scornful word should grieve ye,
I'd smile on ye sweet as the angels do:–
Sweet as your smile on me shown ever,
Douglas, Douglas, tender and true.
'Oh to call back the days that are not!
My eyes were blinded, your words were few;
Do you know the truth now up in heaven,
Douglas, Douglas, tender and true ?
‘I never was worthy of you, Douglas;
Not half worthy the like of you;
Now all men beside seem to me like shadows—
I love you, Douglas, tender and true.
'Stretch out your hand to me, Douglas, Douglas,
Drop forgiveness from heaven like dew,
As I lay my heart on your dead heart, Douglas,
Douglas, Douglas, tender and true.'
There is not a poem in the language which more perfectly expresses its one sentiment than this; the simplicity, beauty, intense passion, and sweetness of this little lyric are inexpressible. It is one of the most perfect gems in our language. Several other pieces in the book show great lyrical power, such as 'Lettuce,' 'Lost in the Mist,' and 'The Voice Calling.' A volume of lyrics from this lady might probably be of great value.
The writings of Mr. Coventry Patmore offer in many respects a pleasing contrast to the other works now under review. They have a culture to which Owen Meredith can lay no claim, a quiet dignity to which Mrs. Browning is a stranger, and an artistic completeness unattempted by the author of ‘John Halifax.' Mr. Patmore is what may be called a good poet, if the term be admissible, in contradistinction from a great one. His work is never hasty, and, even when tedious, cannot be called diffuse. He does not rush into print with a first draft; nor produce a volume of inferior pieces, relieved here and there by something on which art has been really expended. On the contrary, every line published by him has been carefully weighed, and the whole work bears the equalizing touch of a careful workman. He has thus, more especially in his last poem, produced what has more of the character of a perfect whole than any other living poet except Tennyson and perhaps Browning. Of course there are some passages finer than others, but the change is not from bad to good, from diffuse to intense; but from good to better, from a less interesting to a more interesting part. It is impossible, in a word, to assign anything but the highest praise to Mr. Patmore's execution. His command of language is very great; his meaning being always fully and deliberately expressed, without effort or violence: and this is one of the highest merits in a work the nature of which is to enter into the subtlest moods of the deepest of human passions. One of the peculiarities of his style is the power of using long words beautifully. But the great character which separates his work from that of every other genuine poet that we know, is the universal diffusion of the deepest quietude. It is difficult to express the effect of this. It is not the quiet of dulness or coldness; on the contrary, we can only describe it as the quiet of a soul full of the deepest emotions, but without any vivacity or animal spirits; of a man who can be touched to the core by joy or sorrow, but to whom lyrical utterance is wholly denied, and who can but trace his emotions in a measured monotonous chaunt. It is curious to observe how this element pervades his descriptions even of exciting natural phenomena, where the soul of Scott or of Burns would have danced for joy. For example, what can be more admirably faithful, yet more exceedingly quiet, than this description of a thunder-storm?
‘And now a cloud, bright, huge, and calm,
Rose, doubtful if for bale or balm;
O'ertoppling crags, portentous towers
Appeared at beck of viewless powers
Along a rifted mountain range,
Untraceable and swift in change
Those glittering peaks, disrupted, spread
To solemn bulks, seen overhead;
The sunshine quenched, from one dark form
Fumed the appalling light of storm;
Straight to the zenith, black with bale,
The Gypsies' smoke rose deadly pale;
And one wide night of hopeless hue
Hid from the heart the recent blue.
And soon with thunder crackling loud
A flash within the formless cloud
Showed vague recess, projection dim,
Lone sailing rack and shadowy rim.'– Page 226.
This is very beautiful and perfect as description; but has not a touch of that wildly formative imagination of which Scott was a conspicuous master, and of which Wordsworth has many traces. The impulsively imaginative man could not have stayed to limn the storm so quietly; he would have partially distorted it, run into it, so to speak, bathed in it, shrieked in it, battled in it, beholding its bulks as gigantic spectres, its fury as the combat of gods. On the other hand, when this quietness is really appropriate, and may be conceived to be the sudden reining-in of an impetuous imagination, it is sometimes very fine.
A man from the shrouds, that roared to quench
Even the billows' blast and drench.
None else was by but me to mark
His loud cry in the louder dark,
Dark, save when lightning showed the deeps
Standing about in stony heaps.'– Page 61.
Here there is such a hurry of action, that the last quiet line, in itself immensely fine, is in that truth of situation in which the great lines of true poets are always placed. The contrast between the urgent need of promptness to save life, along with the slender means of doing so, and the idle mightiness of the heavens, is one of the most perfect effects in modern poetry.
This quietness is at the root of Mr. Patmore's extraordinary analytical power, through which he is enabled to lay an arresting hand upon the most transient phases of the passion which he delineates. This is a valuable gift, though not a specially poetical one. Indeed, the analytic is in some sort the converse of the dramatic faculty. It enables Mr. Patmore to make his hero a type of ‘delicate love,' but takes away all his individuality. He is simply an exceedingly good man, who has proper feelings on all occasions. Now a great poet would shrink from the unflinching exhibition of the feelings which Mr. Patmore gives us. His verse is so calm, and his manner so self-possessed, that neither he nor his readers are conscious that he is taking a great liberty with them. We confess to a feeling of half-offence at seeing emotions and facts of poor human nature, common to every man, not pathetically hinted at, in the manner of great poets; but pursued in this unfalteringly calm march, and detected in these unfalteringly chosen words. There is no sense of mystery, no distance, no acknowledgment of a reserve between man and man which can never be overpassed, and a silence which can never be lawfully broken. Then we really are constantly annoyed and ashamed at the revelations of domestic life. Love should be the poet's theme, not marriage. The parts on love are by far the best; but there is in every part the same enormous defect. A great poet could never have written so about, love. It is the most unpathetic book we ever read.
Although, then, we give every credit to Mr. Patmore for conscientious execution, artistic attainment, and rectitude of purpose, we regard his popularity as a sign of vitiated taste on the part of the public. We said at the outset, that the English muse was become domestic, and had lost all idea of greatness. Mr. Patmore has domesticated her to the utmost, indeed, made her a housewife; and we regret that the nation seems to admire her so much in this capacity. Is there nothing in the countrymen of Milton, Bacon, and Keats, to demand and respect grandeur of purpose and fulfilment, those mighty workings of imagination throughout heaven and earth, that deep and pathetic insight into human life and suffering, those mighty hues ‘of earthquake and eclipse,' which were once comprehended in the name and work of a poet? or are they content to be addressed in strains like this?—
‘Dear mother, I just write to say
We've passed a most delightful day,
As, no doubt, you have heard from Fred.
(Once, you may recollect, you said,
True friendship neither doubts nor doats,
And does not read each other's notes;
And so we never do.) I'll miss,
For Fred's impatient, all but this;
We spent – the children, he, and I,–
Our wedding anniversary
In the woods, where, while I tried to keep
The flies off, so that he might sleep,
He actually kissed my foot,–
At least, the beautiful French boot,
Your gift,– and, laughing with no cause
But pleasure, said I really was
The very nicest little wife;
And that he prized me more than life.'– Page 233.
Since the above was written, the small volume by Owen Meredith, entitled, ‘Serbski Pesme, or National Songs of Servia,' has been put into our hands, together with the ‘Saturdav Review' of March 23rd. An article in the latter contains severe strictures affecting the ingenuousness of Owen Meredith. The writer, evidently a man well acquainted with the subject, accuses the poet of entire ignorance of the language from which he professes to translate, and convicts him of a series of puerile blunders whenever he attempts to quote Servian. He furthermore proves, by parallel extracts, that Owen Meredith is indebted for most of the information contained in his own lengthy introduction to a French writer, M. Dozon, who has made a prose version of the Servian ballads in his own language. In effect, Owen Meredith has ‘cribbed' wholesale, transferring to his own pages not only the information, but the words, of what may be called his French original. All the pieces, also, of which he offers a metrical version, exist already in M. Dozon's prose translation. The question is, how far Owen Meredith is justifiable, how far excusable. He acknowledges his obligations to M. Dozon, but not so directly as their extent calls for; and, although he seems to imply, he does not distinctly affirm, that he gained his information and took down his ballads from the mouths of Servian bards. Had he distinctly affirmed this, he could not have escaped the charge which the Saturday Reviewer brings. He might have had his 'Dozon' on the Carpathian mountains, as he had his ‘Murray;' and the profession that his materials were gathered on the spot may refer to no more than the inspiring influences of the scenes where the ballads were once enacted. But that, if it be so, he might have said so more plainly, cannot be denied. As to the extent of obligation, the question is less grave. The poetry of Owen Meredith is his own, and his version may be as legitimately derived from the prose of M. Dozon, as the plays of Shakspeare from the tales of Boccaccio. If he is ignorant of Servian, so was Pope of Greek. It is with regard to the Introduction and Notes that the charge of plagiarism presses. Here it seems undeniable that Owen Meredith has borrowed largely both in matter and words. He, however, probably considered that these were the least important part of the work, and that a poet might be allowed to enter into the labours of other men. And as he has made an acknowledgment of his debt to M. Dozon, we think the grave allegations of the ‘Saturday Review' sink into comparatively trivial dimensions.
With regard to the merit of the work, little can be said. It is only a fresh proof of the unrest of mind which is leading this once hopeful man to shower his verses by thousands over the world. Some of the lines are pretty and graceful; but they are much less a translation of a ballad literature than Pope is of Homer. They are in the most luscious, self-conscious, intemperate style, of the degraded modern school.
Last revised: 20 August 2010