W. H. Mallock, "Poetry and Lord Lytton,"
The Fortnightly Review (London), 57 (NS 51) June 1892, p795-810
WHATEVER place may be ascribed to the poetry of the late Lord Lytton, his life as a poet is one of singular interest. It may well be described as the romance of literary devotion; and of all modern poets he is the one whose career and character are most fruitful of suggestion to those interested in poetry. They set us thinking anew of what poetry is; and not only of what poetry is, but what all literature is; how poetry differs from prose; how both are related to life, and what personal circumstances are most calculated to produce excellence in either. Lord Lytton's career and character suggest to us all these questions. They force us to think of literature before they force us to think of his literature, and before we judge him to reconsider our standard.
Let us begin then with the question so often, and as a rule so superficially debated -- what is poetry as contradistinguished from prose? Coleridge answered the question in a way well worth quoting. He said that ideal prose was "the right words in the right place," but that ideal poetry was “the best words in the best place." I call this criticism worth quoting, not because it is true, but because it is typical. It is typical of the manner in which critics have generally approached the subject. They have approached it from the outside. They have treated it as being primarily a question of form; or at all events it has been through an examination of differences in form that they have sought to discover and classify the difference in substance. And form no doubt has a great deal to do with the matter. Verse, and the diction proper to verse, is no mere accident of poetry. There is between the two some natural and organic connection; and in many cases they are practically so inseparable, that the way to the understanding of the latter seems obviously to be an analysis of the former.
The principles, however, which are arrived at by this method have always landed critics in doubts, difficulties, and contradictions. They have led to endless controversies over various writers of verse as to whether they are or whether they are not poets -- the case of Pope is an instance -- and whatever conclusions a critic may drag from them in one case, he is embarrassed by finding that he cannot apply them in the same way to another. Lord Lytton's poems, by their defects as well as by their merits, especially when taken in connection with the life of their author, prompt us to seek for some definition of poetry other than any that can be arrived at by the method above indicated. They prompt us to begin our enquiries not from without, but from within; and before troubling our heads about the poetic form of expression, to enquire what this form, so different from ordinary speech, and seemingly so artificial, has been employed instinctively by men in all ages to express. Ordinary speech, or what, when written, we call prose, is capable of expressing, to a certain extent, man's thoughts or feelings with regard to every subject, from love or prayer to the properties of a rhomboid or a triangle. The first and most obvious difference between the language of prose and that of poetry is, that whilst the former is suitable to every subject, the latter is suitable to some only and not to others. It is not suitable, for instance (unless it be used in jest), to a mathematical demonstration, or a treatise on the Greek particle. Of such subjects it is needless to attempt a list, but it is easy to group them under one common definition. They are all of them subjects that lie beyond the sphere of emotion. If, however, we put these subjects aside, the domain of poetry is, so far as subjects are concerned, coextensive with that of prose; and it will be seen that men have recourse to this exceptional form of language, not in order that they may deal with exceptional subjects, but with ordinary subjects regarded in an exceptional way. The language of prose, then, and the language of poetry, defined in terms of their uses, differ from each other thus:-- Prose is the language men use when expressing themselves without emotion, or with emotion which is slight or intermittent; poetry is the language they use under emotion which is exceptional and sustained. Poetry, in short, is in its essence this: it is the successful representation of life, as regarded with sustained emotion.
The more we consider this definition, the more complete and universal shall we see its application to be, and certain objections which will no doubt at once suggest themselves will really be found to illustrate and prove its soundness. The objections I refer to are these: it may be said with perfect truth, and with considerable force, that in any long poem there are sure to be many parts where no more emotion is discernible than might easily be expressed in prose; and with far more force, and with equal truth it may be said, that there are certain parts of many prose compositions -- great novels, for instance -- in which life is exhibited to us through the medium of an emotion as intense as any that is discoverable in poetry. This does not, however, show that the line between prose and poetry is not to be drawn in the way I have just drawn it. It shows what is a very different thing -- that distinct in themselves as the two are, yet they are in practice constantly mixed together, so that if we estimate various passages separately, great prose works will comprise parts which are essentially poetry, and great poems, parts which are essentially prose. The above objections will show us something else also. In addition to showing that both these forms of expression are to be constantly found used in the same works, none the less distinguishable because closely united, they will show as that in many works, whether calling themselves prose or poetry, there are many parts which, if we take them separately, we can, according to the above definition, call neither the one nor the other. But this does nothing to prove the definition wrong. It only reminds us of what all critics should remember, and the most important thing that most critics forget that with regard to literature, just as with regard to character, the truest definitions are not necessarily the sharpest. Literary expression is various, because literature represents the human character, and human characters differ. But however different then are, however violently contrasted, they are yet compounded of precisely the same elements, the difference being due to the proportions in which these are mixed. The saint's nature has germs of cruelty; the ruffian's, germs of kindness. To the saint and the ruffian it is easy to give their distinctive names; but there are intermediate grades of character to which neither name will apply. Between different types of men, and between their different, moods, faculties, and dispositions, the differences, however great, are never sharp. They melt into each other at their confines as night melts into day or cold into heat; and when we define them, the limits which we draw in words can never rightly be sharper than the limits which exist in fact. Now there is nothing to which these remarks apply more obviously than they do to emotion; and I have said that poetry essentially differs from prose, on account of the emotion with regard to the subjects treated of, which is expressed by the one and not expressed by the other. If, however, we examine the characters of actual men and women, we shall find that emotion is completely wanting in none. The most prosaic of them, in contemplating human life, never do so with continued and complete apathy. The spectacle constantly affects them to some slight degree, and sometimes, even if rarely, it is sure to affect them deeply. And again, on the other hand, those whose natures are most emotional find in it much that does not affect them at all. Their critical faculties may be excited, but their emotions are untouched. In fact, if we use the words without reference to literary expression, poetry, just like prose, enters into the composition of every one. We call some natures poetical, and some natures not poetical; but the difference between them is one of degree only. It is not that the prosaic man has no poetry in him, or the poetic man no prose. It is merely a question of which element predominates; and in many cases it is difficult to tell which.
Now this, which is true of men, is equally true of literature. Though there is much prose and a certain amount of poetry as to the classification of which no doubt exists, yet there is no sharp line that can be drawn either in word or thought between prose and poetry generally. And this is true in two senses. In the first place, if we except the shortest lyrics and epigrams, there is no poem, however sublime its character, which does not contain an admixture of prosaic passages. These are, in fact, essential to it, as an alloy- may be to a metal in order to render its temper fit for artistic uses. And so in the same way most great imaginative prose works are found to contain an admixture of passages that are essentially poetic. In the second place, as I have observed already, there is a great deal of writing which can be classified under neither heading, but which, though too often it has the virtues of neither, yet often unites some of the subtlest qualities of both.
It will thus be seen that the question, “What is and what is not poetry?" has two distinct meanings, according as it is applied to individual passages or to works taken as a whole. When applied to works taken as a whole, the answer will have reference to the tone or view which in each case preponderates; and a poem may be a true poem in spite of many most prosaic passages, if the general effect is emotional. It may, indeed, be all the more poetic because of them; for prose may be used by a poet as painters use shadow, or musicians use pauses, with the deliberate and artistic aim of heightening the poetry of the whole; and thus passages which if taken by themselves are prose, become poetry when taken in connection with the poetic result to which they contribute. And now let us consider the question as applied to individual passages. We need not discuss those that lie on the borderland, but the point which here it concerns us to observe is this -- that. many passages which seem to lie on the borderland do not, but that, on the contrary, their quality is quite distinct, and is only hidden by a disguise of the thinnest and most accidental kind. This disguise is simply the absence or the presence of some recognised metre. Few people will deny that in the greatest of long poems, especially if it happens to be written in blank verse, there are sure to be many passages which, if found in a prose work, would never be recognised as poetry, but would read like awkward prose. But occurring as they do in a poem, their artificial form is justified; and it is easy to see why. The larger part of the poem must necessarily be expressed in verse; and the style of the lesser part must, for the sake of unity, accommodate itself to that of the larger. The reasons for this are deeper than those of taste. The continuity of style does not merely satisfy the ear of the reader, but it tends to keep his mind in a certain state. The employment of metre in passages which are themselves prosaic, is a reminder to him of the emotions which were appealed to lately, and a promise that they will be appealed to again. Similarly, when passages of poetry occur in prose works, the form of prose is retained for the sake of the same continuity. The emotions of the reader are raised to the poetic level; but be is not suffered to forget that this is for a moment only; and his mind, in spite of its elevation, is kept in such a state that it can willingly and naturally descend again to the lower levels of prose.
Let us take the following instances – almost the first that occur to me:
"The great Architect did wisely to conceal and not divulge his secrets, to be scanned by those who ought rather admire. Or, if they list to try conjecture, He his fabric of the heavens hath left to their dispute, perhaps to move his laughter at their quaint opinions wide, hereafter; when they come to model heaven and calculate the stars, how they will wield the mighty frame -- how build, unbuild, contrive to save appearances."
With this let us compare the following:--
"What hast thou to do, my little one, with arrows tired of clustering in the quiver? How much quieter is thy pallet than the tents that whitened the plain of Simois?... There are no fields of amaranth on this side of the grave; there are no voices, O Rohodopè, that are not soon mute, however tuneful; there is no name with whatever emphasis of passionate love repeated, of which the echo is not faint at last."
Now as to the first of these passages, if taken by itself, who could say that it was not absolute prose? Who could say of the second, that it was not the purest, the most perfect poetry? And yet the first comes from Paradise Lost , the second from one of Lander's prose dialogues. There is however this to be observed about them. The passage from Milton I have printed without division of lines; but it will be seen that by the aid of some inversions, and certain awkward and obscure constructions, the writer has arranged his words so as to enable them to be read metrically; he has contorted them, in fact, into blank verse; and by this means he has connected them, not only in their form but in their spirit, until the loftiest passages in this poem. Their forced metrical arrangement produces a certain music which, poor as it is, comes to the reader's ear as an echo and prolongation of the music of those loftier passages; so that the warmth of emotion proper to these last, though cooled, is not lost, and can be at once excited again; and thoughts and facts which in themselves are prosaic, become poetic by being thus associated with poetry. Conversely, in Landor's dialogue, the perfect poetry I have quoted from it has certain of the qualities of the prose in which it is embedded. It does not lose anything of its imaginative force or beauty, but it draws into its veins the sap of fact and of reality. Milton raises his prose into the clouds of poetry. Lander shows us flowers of poetry blossoming out of the fields of prose. Farther, whilst Milton's lines show us that, if taken apart from their contest, the metre of the greatest master will not turn prose into poetry, Lander's lines show us that poetry of the most perfect kind can very well exist without any metre at all. Rhythm indeed it will require always; but metre is rhythm uniformly recurring; and we see from Landor's language that the subtlest and most effective rhythm may be not only independent of metre, but may actually be dependent on its absence.
In form and substance alike, then, prose and poetry are so related, that there is hardly a poem, or an imaginative prose work, which is not composed of both of them, and does not indeed require both of them. If we consider these elements separately, we shall judge each on its own merits; if we consider them combined with their contest, we shall judge of each according to the general effect which it subscribes. Prosaic passages will be poetry when they help to build up a poem; and the finest bursts of poetry, when parts of a prose work, will be prose for this reason, that the emotion expressed in them, to whatever height it rises, is, as it were, tethered to the levels which prose inhabits.
And now let us go back to the definition with which I started, that poetry is the successful expression of life regarded with sustained emotion. If we apply the definition to entire works, we shall mean works in which the emotion is so far sustained as to be dominant, and give its quality to the whole. If we apply it to individual passages, we shall mean passages expressing emotion which is of a certain degree of intensity; but the point at which prose ends and poetry begins cannot be stated definitely, because ordinary emotion rises to the poetic level, not by any sudden leap, but by many gradual stages.
But in spite of the debatable land which thus exists, there is a zone of undoubted prose, and a zone of undoubted poetry, between which our definition of the latter accurately indicates the difference. That this is so will, I think, be clear presently. We have thus far been considering poetry with reference to the thing expressed. Let us now give our attention more particularly to the expression. Putting aside the exceptional and doubtful cases I have indicated, we may say that, as a rule, emotion, when it rises beyond a certain pitch, expresses itself naturally in verse, and only forbears to do so when expressed in connection with matters which are regarded and treated in the spirit proper to prose. Why this should be so we are not concerned to enquire. It is a fact of man's nature, peculiar to no age or race. Verse is a natural expression of emotion, just as a cry is a natural expression of pain. Accordingly were all writers perfectly natural and spontaneous, though there might be some poetry that was not formally verse, yet all formal verse would be poetry. It would be the product of an emotion that could not be expressed otherwise. And thus, from our definition of poetry in terms of its substance, we are brought to a definition of it in terms of its form, which, though inapplicable (as I again must observe) to certain cases, is infallibly applicable to it in the form in which it usually appears. Poetry is all verse the meaning and the effect of which could not be given as well or given better by prose.
Goethe proposed a test which at first sight seems to contradict this. He said that to turn a poem into prose was the surest way of seeing its true value. But what seems a contradiction of what I have said, forms really an explanation of it. Goethe was talking of the greatness of poetry; I am talking of its genuineness. Many of the differences of opinion with regard to the present subject, are due to confusion of thought between these two things. The word ‘poetry' is continually used by critics to denote nothing but great poetry, or poetry, at all events, rising above a certain standard, much in the same way as the word "man" is used by people when they say of an individual that he is not a man, meaning merely that he is weak and vacillating. This confusion is fatal to all clear criticism. It should be distinctly recognised that genuine poetry need not necessarily be great poetry, or even considerable poetry. To be genuine three things alone are necessary -- that the emotion expressed should be genuine, that the expression of it should be adequate, and that it should be incapable of being expressed with equal adequacy in prose. These three requisites being granted, great poems differ from petty poems, not so much in proportion to the degrees of emotion which are expressed in them as to the qualities of the subject matter which the emotion in each case transfigures and illuminates. Many poems, perfect in expression, alive and musical with emotion, present to us merely some fact or experience which is trivial, superficial, or isolated; and such poems, though they may be exquisite and perhaps even imperishable, like some of the Odes of Horace, are none the less petty. Great poems differ from these, not in being more genuine, not in being more perfect (for so far as form goes they are likely to be more faulty), but solely in dealing with wider or profounder subjects, with larger portions of human life, and deeper questions of human destiny. It is for this reason alone that Faust or Hamlet are greater poems than the dialogue between Horace and Lydia . It is for the same reason that satire, however perfect, holds in poetry a comparatively low rank, not because the emotion expressed by it is not sufficiently intense, but because its subject matter is essentially so limited, not being human nature as a whole, but merely the worst side of it. Persons accustomed to the language o£ traditional criticism will perhaps ask what, according to this analysis, becomes of such faculties as imagination and invention, so commonly spoken of as essentials of the greatest poetry. The answer is that what I have said implies these, and also indicates the nature of the parts they play. Invention, for instance, in a drama or an epic, gives the poet his subject matter by supplying him with truths in an artistic and typical shape; and to the things he invents imagination gives reality, without which they would produce in us no illusion, and consequently no emotion. Thus the greater the subjects with which the poet deals, the more invention and the more imagination will be required by him; and the reason is that the greater the subjects are the more invention and imagination are necessary in order to conceive them and to represent them emotionally. Thus all the faculties requisite for the production of poetry can be referred to and explained by the emotion which it is the aim of poetry to produce. To put the matter, therefore, in a small compass, poets are genuine poets in proportion to the genuineness of the emotion with which they regard and represent their subjects; they are great in proportion as their subjects are great, and also in proportion to the completeness with which they themselves grasp them.
And the above tests and definitions enable us not only to discriminate between great poetry and petty poetry, and, in a broad way, between poetry and prose, but also to discriminate between false poetry, or apparent poetry, and true. False poetry may be false for two reasons, one of which is so obvious that it need hardly be more than named. I mean complete inadequacy of expression -- expression which is like a leaky vessel, and cannot hold the emotion with which the writer attempts to fill it. The other reason is not quite so obvious. There is a great deal of verse which shows much command of language, much sense of rhythm, and much grace of form, and which yet, in spite of all, we feel not to be poetry. The reason is that the emotion is not genuine. It is not produced in the writers' mind by life -- by their own experience; it is a reflection, like sheet lightning, of emotion as expressed by others. True poetry is the direct product of life; this false poetry is the product of the poetry of other people.
We will see presently how all this applies to the poetry of Lord Lytton; but we must first discuss another question, which, as I said at the beginning, his life strikingly suggests to us, and to which my last observations have themselves naturally conducted us. I have said that genuine poetry must be the direct product of the poet's life. Our question now is, what sort of life is best calculated to produce the most valuable poetry? Is it the life of the recluse, of the student, or of the man of experience and of the world?
The difference between the two is practically recognised by every one, the man of the world and the man of letters being types whose contrast is proverbial; but still it will be well to consider for a moment wherein the difference lies. The man of letters differs from the man of the world, not because he sits for more hours at his writing-desk, for many a man of the world in despatches or memoirs has used more reams of paper than many a professed author. He differs not in the time which he gives to letters as compared with the time which he gives to life, but in the relative importance which he attaches to them. The man of letters lives in order to write; the man of the world writes not in order to live, but because he lives. The one takes an interest in men and women, because he wishes to put them into a poem. The other, if he puts them into a poem, does so because he takes an interest in them. It must, of course, be remembered that these distinctions are not so sharp in life as they are in words. Still these verbal antitheses are broadly true to facts, as can easily be seen if we take a few examples. The following will serve our purpose -- Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Voltaire, and Goethe. Wordsworth and Shelley were essentially men of letters. Their life was in their poetry, rather than their poetry in their lives. Byron, on the contrary, was essentially a man of the world. His first impulse was to live, to be, to do; and his poetry, with its wit and wisdom, as well as its sublimity, was the irrepressible, the almost unintended outcome of his polished and passionate manhood. In Voltaire and Goethe both types of character are united. They ordered their lives like laborious men of letters -- men whose chief business was writing; but in themselves they were complete men of the world. That is to say, life was their first and most absorbing interest -- to play a part in life was their great ambition -- and literature with them was an expression of this interest; was a means by which they exercised their power; and was also, by the perfection of form to which they brought it, a sort of personal accomplishment which gave lustre and dignity to themselves. Although, therefore, it is through letters that they have become celebrated and have expressed themselves, they should properly be classed amongst men of the world.
Which, then, of these two types of men is likely to produce the best poetry? The popular answer would be in favour of the first -- of the recluse who finds in poetry not only his principal occupation but his primary interest. For what is the popular ideal of a poet's manners and appearance? Set any artist to draw a typical poet, and we all know what we shall see -- some long-haired object, with flashing or languid eyes, who in ordinary society would look like a sentimental scarecrow, whom some women might love, but whom most men would wish to kick. This ideal is, we may hope, exaggerated; but it certainly shows that the poet is popularly conceived of as a person withdrawn from the world, and devoted to poetry in seclusion. Now, this popular view has, no doubt, some fact to justify it; and the fact is, that most poets do actually approximate to the peculiar type referred to. The question, however, is not whether this is true of most poets, but whether it is true of the best poets? I should myself venture to give the following answer. I should say that it is true of most poets, because most poets are very inferior people; and because, though wise poets may be amongst the wisest o£ men, no man needs so much wisdom as a poet to prevent his being a fool. I should say also that it was true of the majority of the most perfect poets, by which I mean those whose mastery of form was most complete. But I should say it was not true of all even of these last; whilst of the greatest poets it most certainly was not true. Let me mention some typical examples --Aeschylus, Sophocles, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, and two I have named before --Goethe and Byron. These, all of them, were men of action, men of the world; and their poetry was the product not of dreaming but of experience. And it can hardly be denied that it was the fulness and virility of their experience that made their poetry, I do not say so poetical, but that, by enlarging and deepening their subject matter, made their poetry so important. This natural, this virile, this direct experience of the world is rare in poets, not for any accidental reason, but because as a psychological or physiological fact, the poetic temperament is usually associated with some practical weakness, which more or less unfits them for the common intercourse of life. On the other hand, when men who are gifted with the poetical faculty are fitted at the same time to act and shine in the world, the ambitions, the sorrows, the triumphs, and the passions of life are apt to interfere with that solitary care and concentration without which poetry can be given no objective existence. But when the two sides of character are fairly balanced -- the impulse to produce poetry, and the impulse to take part in life -- then we may say that the poet who is possessed of both will produce better poetry than the poet who is possessed of the first only. In other words, the most frequent defect of poets is the limitation or the indirectness of their knowledge of human life -- is the fact, in short, that they are not men of the world.
Let as now turn to Lord Lytton, and see how the above observations assist us in estimating his position and excellence as a poet.
To begin then, he, of all English poets, is the one who, since the days of Byron, has had the largest experience of life. There have been many men of affairs, like Mr. Gladstone and the late Lord Derby, who have been devoted to literature and added to it. But literature to them has been a relaxation, a favourite amusement. With Lord Lytton it was a pursuit, a life-long passion -- as fascinating as the most fascinating society, as serious as the most important duty. We can, therefore, before we begin to discuss the merits of his poetry, say that as a poet his position is thus far unique. Now, whilst few of our modern poets have excelled him in devotion to his art, none have come near him in point of mundane experience. Let the reader consider his career, the outlines of which are known to everybody; and the fulness of what I mean will be apparent. Of all careers, to a man with social talents, the career of a diplomat is the one which enables him to see the most of life -- one might almost say which puts most of life to his lips. Everything that is most charming in private intercourse, everything that is most momentous in public events, is close to such a man to enjoy, to consider, and to take part in: and his experiences as lie is moved from one capital to another, and enters into relations with new societies, become as various as they are brilliant and interesting. And if this is true of every agreeable and intelligent man, much more must it be true of a man whose gifts of manner, temperament, and mind are all exceptional, and who as he lives on grows not only more experienced, but also more important and powerful -- who not only sees more and more of the world, but sees the world from positions that constantly become more commanding, and that deepen and widen his understanding of it, both as a spectacle and as an experience. And such a man was Lord Lytton. Few men have ever combined as he did mundane humour, fastidiousness, shrewdness, and savoir faire, with ultra-sensitive sympathy, and grave, meditative philosophy. In most men these latter qualities tend to withdraw them from life. In Lord Lytton their effect was different. They made his experiences richer and more vivid, fixing their colours in his imagination, and deepening their significance in his mind. No one who knew him well would fail to be struck with this. He bad inherited from his father something of a taste in dress a little suggesting that of the traditional poet; but his whole hearing and manner showed, the first moment he spoke, the sanity, the suavity, and the polish of the complete man of the world. No one on suitable occasions could discuss literature and poetry with more enthusiasm, more judgment, more feeling, and more knowledge than he: but life at first hand he discussed with equal mastery, and in ordinary society he discussed little else. He showed nothing of the student but the student's knowledge; nothing of the philosopher but the philosopher's wisdom; nothing of the poet but the poet's feeling. He was absolutely spontaneous and unaffected. And yet anyone fit to judge of him, who was familiar with him under such conditions -- the common conditions of common worldly companionship -- would have said that, in his best moments, one of his best poems was himself.
It is this fact, that whilst instinctively a poet, he was a man of the world also, and in an equal degree, which gives to his poetry its most special characteristics. It is the poetry of a man who has got from actual experience what too many poets get only from imagination. Take, for instance, his well-known poem, "A Love Letter." Vague as are the suggested scenery and circumstances, there is a ring through the whole of life studied at first hand, and the same duality is marked even in that dreamiest of all his compositions describing the miracle wrought by the jasmine-flower at the opera, when
"The glittering horse-shoe curved between."
But the example which will perhaps be most familiar to the reader is Lucile. Whatever rank as poetry we may assign to this work, there runs through it a complete but unconscious familiarity with life, which gives to every tone, sentiment, or epigram, a propriety, a precision, and point often absent in poems of a far more ambitious character.
Before, however, we speak of his poetry farther, let us ask the question which many critics have raised, whether his writings, on the whole, are to be considered poetry at all? If the reader has agreed with me in the views which I set out with stating, he will see that the question can have but one answer, viz., that, taken as a whole, Lord Lytton's works are poetry, and poetry whose quality is as genuine as it is peculiar.
I say as a whole, because there are important exceptions to be made. Lord Lvtton was as sensitive to the poetry of other poets as he was to the poetry of life, and a part of his work obviously owes its inspiration to the former source rather than to the latter. Certain of his poems, for instance, may not be unfairly described less as an expression of himself, than of his admiration of Mr. Browning. I should, therefore, willingly concede to his detractors that much of his work, however skilful, was, for this reason, not poetry. Again, much of it fails of being poetry for a reason the reverse of this -- not because it is too literary, but because it is not literary enough. Lord Lytton has by no means escaped the danger, already mentioned, which is peculiar to poets who are also men of the world. The conditions which prompted him to write poems often interfered with the writing of them, by preventing him from giving sufficient labour to their composition, so that they are quite inadequate to express the meaning which he intended, and which they indicate by the fact of their so very obviously missing it.
But if we put aside the work that is vitiated by these two causes -- one, the completeness with which he took part in life; the other, keenness with which he appreciated literature-there is no doubt that what remains is poetry of the most genuine kind. It is essentially a representation of life regarded with sustained emotion, and the representation is successful -- often exquisitely successful. Let us try to express in prose the meaning which it conveys to us, and we shall see, by the hopelessness of the task, that the verse is not rhymed prose, but poetry. It is poetry because it expresses what can only be expressed poetically. Few poets would gain more than Lord Lytton would by a careful editing of his works -- by a just and sympathetic selection of what is best in them, and by the excision of those poems in which he was not equal to himself. What would remain of them -- and it would be the largest part -- would leave no doubt in the mind that, whether he were a great poet or not a great poet, he was, at all events, a true one.
Here, then, is the question that still remains to be considered. Granting the genuineness of his poetry, what is its greatness or importance? I should be disposed, for reasons above alleged, to rate its importance highly. Of all English poetry since the days of Byron, it is that which is fullest of the most various life, of various life experienced most directly, and of the wisdom that comes of this kind of experience. The late Lord Houghton, who was certainly no contemptible critic, thought the Fables in Song the wisest poem of the century. I will venture to say myself that Chronicles and Characters are similarly remarkable for the breadth of culture, knowledge, and sympathy displayed in them; whilst Lucile, the success of which was so calculated to provoke imitation, has, by its unique qualities, defied it.
For those who were ever intimate with Lord Lytton, it is difficult at the present moment to speak with impartiality of his poetry, which can hardly help being coloured for them by their personal appreciation of the poet. In order, therefore, to avoid saying too much, I have preferred to say too little, and I have forborne from attempting any general survey of his works. But of his last volume I may say something in detail, because it is eminently calculated to explain and to justify my general criticisms.
This volume, which bears the title of Marah, has been attacked by many critics, like all his other works, as an example of mere verse-making. And it must be confessed that the poems in it are characteristically unequal, and some few of them might justify this treatment were they offered to our judgment separately. But, taken in association with those which form the bulk of this volume, the worst that can be fairly said of them is that they exhibit the writer's inequality; and, that having been said, fair criticism would leave them, and turn to the others, which exhibit the writer's excellence, and from a consideration of which alone any true judgment can be arrived at.
Examined thus, Marah is one of the most remarkable and most interesting of modern volumes of poetry, and is, at the same time, the most melancholy. Melancholy, as we all know, is supposed to be a common attribute of poets -- of the young men who sigh, and who make eyes at the moon. But Lord Lytton's melancholy is of quite a different kind. It is not the diseased melancholy of the dreamer who thinks melancholy becoming, and cultivates it like a flower for his buttonhole. It is the involuntary melancholy that has come to one who has sought everywhere not for it but for its opposite. Marah, indeed, is a sort of modern Book of Ecclesiastes. Whether we should approve of its tenor or no it is not my purpose to inquire. What I wish to insist on is, first, the genuineness of its poetry, and then that special quality in it of experience and sincerity.
The poems are intended to be read consecutively, and to be judged as parts of a quasi-philosophic whole. The volume is divided into four sections, to each of which is prefixed a small poem, as an introduction, indicating its general significance. These poems, or mottoes, as they are called in the preface, are amongst the most beautiful things in the volume; and as they are at once an example of its merits and a criticism of its meaning, I cannot do better than quote them -- as they are all short -- in their order.
MOTTO TO PART I.
"Tears are Christian, kisses Pagan. Love is both, and each his prize.
On his lips are Pagan kisses, Christian tears are in his eyes.
"Magdalens with Maenads mingle in his rites, and round his way
Intertwine the rose of Paphos with the thorns of Golgotha .
"Thorn or rose, which best becomes him? Both his loveliness endears;
Roses red with Pagan kisses, thorns bedewed with Christian tears."
MOTTO TO PART II.
"I gave her love; I gave her faith and truth;
I gave her adoration, vassalage,
And tribute of life's best; the dreams of youth,
The deeds of manhood, and the stores of age.
"She took my gifts, and turned them into pain;
Each gift she made a bitter curse to be:
Then, marred, she gave them back to me again --
And this is all she over gave to me."
MOTTO TO PART III.
"If thou art still a griefless girl or boy,
In love with life, and ignorant of love's grave,
Read not herein! For thee no gift have I;
And be thou thankful that no gift I have!
"But if time's way-worn traveller thou art,
Hail, pilgrim'! ‘Tis for thee this book was writ.
The same sad pilgrimage, tho' far apart,
We two have made, and know the pains of it."
MOTTO FOR PART IV.
"I have searched the universe, beneath, above,
And everywhere, with this importunate lyre,
Have wandered, desperately seeking love,
But everywhere have only found desire.
"I have probed the spheres above, the spheres beneath,
Their dim abysms have echoed to my shout
Invoking Truth. But time, space, life, and death,
And joy, and sorrow, only answered 'Doubt.'"
If there is anything in these sombre stanzas that shocks the reader by its pessimism, he will find, if be consults the volume, much by which such a feeling will be moderated. Let him, for instance, turn to a poem called " Her Portrait," which expresses the feelings of a matured and disillusioned man for a young girl whose wisdom came solely from her instinctive innocence. I quote from it the following beautiful stanzas:--
“Her form has the mingled grace
Of a child and a queen in one.
There is pride in her pure young face,
In her voice is a far-off tone,
And her eyes have the gaze of a forest creature
That has lived in the woods alone.
"I have faced the world in my day,
And have fought it and overthrown;
I have struggled and won my way,
And no rival has beaten me down;
Yet my courage fails, and my whole frame falters
If she chanced to chide or frown.
"She has read not the tedious tale
Of the dead world's grief and glee,
Nor been stirred by the shrill birth-wail
Of the ages beginning to be:
But she carries secure, at her simple girdle,
The Infinite's golden key."
But just as this poem must be read as a whole in order to judge of it properly, so to judge of it properly must this volume be read also; and so, too, before we can appreciate Lord Lytton's importance as a poet his works must be studied as a whole, and not one volume only. At present such a study is difficult, and is not likely to be undertaken by the public generally, for the simple reason that his works are difficult to obtain. The best monument that could be raised to his memory would be a new edition of them. His figure as a poet has been during his lifetime unfairly eclipsed by his figure as a politician and a diplomat; but those who lament his loss and cherish his memory may find some compensation in the confident belief that the world will now, as soon as it is given the opportunity, atone for the injustice which it has hitherto done to him, and will accord as high and singular a place to his poetry as all who knew and understood him accorded to this born poet.
W. H. MALLOCK
Last revised: 25 August 2010