Lucile reviewed in National Review
(London) XVII (July-October 1863), pages 174-203.
Note: The Wellesley Index attributes this review to Richard Horton Hutton (1826-1897), one of the editors of National Review. Robert H. Tener argues at length that Hutton is indeed the author of this article in his “The Authorship of Three Literary Articles in The National Review" (Victorian Periodicals Review 13:1/2 (Spring - Summer, 1980), pp. 55-64).
ART. VIII. - THE POETRY OF OWEN MEREDITH.
Clytemnestra, the Earl's Return, the Artist, and other Poems. By Owen Meredith. Chapman and Hall. 1855.
The Wanderer. By Owen Meredith. Second edition. Chapman and Hall. 1859.
Lucile. By Owen Meredith. Chapman and Hall. 1860.
MR. OWEN MEREDITH'S poetry has won a considerable share of general popularity. Two of the books at the head of this article are already out of print, and he himself refers in his last long poem, with modest self-congratulation, to the gratifying fact that several of his early poems have been set to music, and are favourites with the young ladies of the present day. He has established a certain position, therefore, in the world which entitles him to the benefit of serious criticism at the hands of all who are jealous of the fame of English literature.
Mr. Matthew Arnold has recently invented a new name for the quality which characterises permanent as contrasted with ephemeral fame, that fine clear-cut individuality of touch which does not merely stimulate the mind with transient little shocks of interest, but engraves the form of a poet's thought on the memory, as distant hills are chiselled out against a sunset sky;-- he call it “distinction.” “Of this quality,” he says, “the world is impatient; it chafes against it, rails at it, insults it, hates it; it ends by receiving its influence and by undergoing its law. This quality at last invariably corrects the world's blunders and fixes the world's ideals. It procures that the popular poet shall not finally pass for a Pindar, nor the popular preacher for a Bossuet.” And it will, we feel no doubt, convince the readers of English poetry, after careful study, that the clever writer who composes under the name of Owen Meredith has no part or share in the true poetic faculty.
Mr. Owen Meredith is by no means what would generally be called a dull writer. His verses shimmer like shot-silk with antithesis, sentiment, and similes. There are smart hits at times, that show a considerable knowledge of the world. He admires nature, and analyses character, and versifies with a fatal fluency. But the more you read of him, the more clear it becomes that he is a poet of what we may call the decorative school, and that even his decorative art is essentially meretricious. His poems remind us of the judgment passed by Eckermann (or shall we rather say by Goethe's mind speaking through Eckermann), and approved by the great poet, on a certain German poem: “They are the impressions of a dilettante who has more good intention than power, and to whom the highly developed state of our literature has lent a ready-made language which sings and rhymes for him; while he imagines himself speaking.” And this seems to hit exactly the sort of talent displayed by Mr. Owen Meredith. He plays on what Coleridge calls the ready-made barrel-organ of our poetic phraseology with a facility that pleases the ear unaccustomed to true and individually elaborated poems. But the more you read the less you admire him; the colours with which his poetry is so liberally heightened seem all hot and glaring, and put on in patches, like rouge; the artificial tone of the pleasantry jars more and more; the sentiment is thick and. blurred, and over-luscious, like Tokay; and, on the whole, you feel that this poetry is a gaudy artificial costume for life, which catches the eye at first as striking, but the enjoyment of which is soon exhausted. We are sorry to pass so severe a judgment on a poet who has no doubt attained a certain level of popularity; but we are convinced that it is a true one by many concurrent evidences, and fear that we can only too easily convince our readers also.
When we attempt to compare Mr. Owen Meredith's poems, or any poems of the same class, with a high poetical standard, we are vividly reminded of the fine passage in Plato's Gorgias in which he compares with the four genuine Arts that concern themselves with preserving or restoring the well-being of the body and the mind,-- namely, Gymnastics, Medicine, Law, and Justice,-- the four imitative counterfeits which concern themselves not with the well-being but the temporary gratification of the body and the mind;-- the trick of dressing up the body so as to counterfeit the symmetry and beauty produced by gymnastic training, the trick of dressing up food so as to make it gratify the palate instead of imparting nourishment, the trick of recommending false measures to the people which salve over the public disorders instead of ensuring the well-being of the commonwealth, and finally the trick of persuading the judges so as to gain for the criminal not justice but impunity. This last spurious or counterfeit “dexterity,”-- namely Rhetoric,-- which is concerned not with procuring the true well-being of the soul, but its immunity from temporary pain, is defined by Socrates as “a state not belonging to true Art at all, but the quality of a soul ready in taking aim, and bold and clever by nature in its intercourse with men.” It is impossible for a modern critic not to add to this enumeration of genuine Arts, and the corresponding parasitical dexterities which aim at a temporary gratification instead of true artistic standards,-- on the one hand the genuine poetry which aims at taking the veil from life, whether the life of nature or of men, and showing us, on however modest a scale, the impressions made by men and things on the creative imagination,-- and, on the other hand, that merely decorative talent which seems to aim at giving the pleasure and surprises which poetry gives, but without the labour, without the fidelity, without the spontaneous simplicity of true poetry. While true poetry unveils through the imagination the secrets of natural and of human expression, the decorative poetry of which we speak paints for it a new, and at first sight pleasing, external veil, which bears the same relation to the transparent medium of the poet which the patterns drawn on ground glass to prevent vision bear to the images of living forms in a perfect mirror. This decorative trick of false poetry seems to be exactly described in Plato's words as “a state not belonging to true Art at all, but the quality of a soul ready in taking aim, and bold and clever by nature in its intercourse with men.” Socrates adds that he considers the sum and substance of these pleasure-seeking parasites of true art to be a species of flattery, [footnote: Greek word for flattery] -- a dexterity, that is, in selecting the weak place in human nature, where a very little tickling “with plausible falsehoods will win a great deal of temporary power. And this is, though of course without any of the dishonourable character of personal flattery, exactly the characteristic of the kind of poetry we wish to discuss. It is the instrument of minds “ready in aim, and bold and clever by nature in their intercourse with men,” and its method of procedure seems to be just that amount of plausible deception which is certain to follow from taking the superficial tickling of the fancy as the aim of poetry, instead of the effort to grasp truly in the imagination, the life within and the life without.
In the first place you may see this false aim at the plausibly agreeable, instead of at the true, in Mr. Owen Meredith's occasionally clever but always over-emphatic descriptive poetry. True poetic descriptions are of many kinds, following the law of the poet's own mind. There is the careless school of description, which succeeds like Byron's later genius by the mere audacity with which he thrusts into his verse accidental and miscellaneous objects in the arbitrary kind of way in which they would arrest the eye of an absent-minded spectator,-- “a sail peeping out here and there, so full of life that you seem to feel the sea-breeze blowing; [footnote: Goethe's conversation on Byron with Eckermann] and here again London sights and sounds tumbled in pell-mell upon the imagination “the wigs in a hair-cutter's window and the passing lamplighters” jostling one another in the memory. Or there is the tranquil German school of description; which Goethe adorned, a school that aims at realising in due perspective, moral as well as physical, the whole picture before the eye, choosing your point of light at some defiled personal centre,-- as for instance in the mind of the good old hostess of the Golden Lion in Hermann and Dorothea,-- and then, painting the scene traversed by her exactly as it would seem to the eye; looking at the kitchen garden with a gardener's vigilance for the caterpil1ars on the leaves, or scarlet runners that need new stalking, and so forth. Or there is the meditative school of description, like Wordsworth's, which describes not so much the outward reality as the trains of reverie it set moving in his breast. But whatever the school be, so long as it a true poetic description, there is always some one point of view which reconciles all that is noted down into a distinct harmony of intellectual effect. Nothing of the kind is discernible in Mr. Owen Meredith's descriptions, which sometimes remind us of a lady's letter, with dashes under all the non-emphatic words, and notes of admiration after all the least significant sentences. Take for instance the following description bf the Pyrenees by moonlight, in Lucile:
“The moon of September, now half at the full,
Was unfolding from darkness and dreamland the lull
Of the quiet blue air, where the many-faced hills
Watch’d, well pleased, their girl slaves, the light, foam-footed rills,
Dance and sing down the steep marble steps of their courts,
And gracefully fashion a thousand sweet sports.
Like ogres in council those mountains1ook'd down,
Impassive, each king in his purple and crown.”
For the moon to unfold “the lull of the quiet blue air” must, we suppose, mean that it was unfolding the quiet of the quiet blue air, a difficult thing for moonlight to effect, though it may well indeed make stillness more emphatic, the silence being much more striking when the air is luminous than when it is dark. Whether that were Mr. Owen Meredith's meaning we do not know; but what we care to point out is not the mere clumsiness, which may have been the result of random rhyme, but incongruity of emphasis, the absolute want of keeping, in the whole passage. The moon is just gaining power to conquer out of “darkness and dreamland” the blue air of night, when we discover “the many-faced hills” “watching well pleased the light foam-footed rills,” and find that the latter remind us of dancing slaves singing and leaping in the marble courts of a palace, and the former, who were a moment ago “well pleased” at watching their graceful movements, are suddenly changed to “impassive” ogres in council. Why ogres? and why impassive? If they look cruel and hungry, and disposed to eat somebody up, they can t look especially “impassive” and still less at the same time “well pleased.” Here are three expressions all fastened on the mountains in one breath which are inconsistent with each other, and still more inconsistent with the tranquil partially moonlit scene described in the first two lines. A soft summer moonlight, just catching the snow and the gleaming water of the torrents here and there, could suggest nothing less than dancing-girls and either smiling or impassive ogres. The criticism may seem trivial, but not when we consider how much this continuously false stress of metaphor really implies in a poet,-- how little he can have studied the truth of either nature or his own impressions to conceive such likes at all, much more to tolerate them as a true delineation of nature when he has conceived them. It is like the child's effort to find as many and as glaring colours as he can when he is painting the dress of his favourite hero. Mr. Meredith's lines represent nothing either in nature or the mind of man; but they seem to promise a succession of impressions on the retina, at short intervals, that will make the eye swim with colour and feel that it has been excited, which is exactly what we mean by “'the vice of that meretricious school of poetry which aims at tickling the fancy with superficial impressions rather than delineating the truth of either nature or feeling.
Mr. Meredith's descriptive powers seem, indeed, to have rather degenerated since his first volume was published in 1855. Even then we noted the same tendency to a profusion of colour and arbitrary spangles, which dazzle the eye, spoil the picture, and prove that the artist did not realise what he described. But there were passages here and there of somewhat greater promise, in which he had embodied some Tennysonian studies of landscape intended to harmonise exactly with the mood of mind which they framed. Thus, where Tennyson has “Mariana in the moated grange,” and describes a desolate house in a desolate fen country, with a single poplar near it, and a lady waiting in vain for somebody's return, Mr. Meredith had a desolate castle on a desolate sea-shore, and a single blasted thorn near it, with a lady waiting, not eventually in vain, but with feelings the reverse of impatient, her earl's return. The study was much cleverer than most of his recent descriptions; but even there it was easy to discern the faults,-- the want of real eye, and the tendency to accumulate telling touches, often inconsistent with each other, that have developed into a thoroughly spurious style in his later works. One of the most ingenious efforts of his descriptive power, however, this desolate castle certainly is:
“The land about was barren and blue,
And swept by the wing of the wet sea-mew;
Seven fishermen's huts on a shelly shore,
Sand-heaps behind and sand-banks before;
And a black champaign streaked white all through
To a great salt pool which the ocean drew,
Sucked into itself, and disgorged it again
To stagnate and steam on the mineral plain.
Not a tree or a bush in the circle of sight
But a bare black thorn which the sea-winds had withered
With the drifting scum of the surf and blight,
And some patches of gray brass-land to the right,
Where the lean red-hided cattle were tethered.
A reef of rocks wedged the water in twain,
And a stout stone tower stood square to the main.
And the flakes of the spray that were jerked away
From the froth oil the lip of the bleak blue sea
Were sometimes flung by the wind as it swung
Over turret and terrace and balcony
To the garden below, where in desolate corners
Under the mossy-green parapet, there
The lilies crouched, rocking their white heads like mourners;
And burned off the heads of the flowers that were
Pining and pale in their comfortless bowers,
Dry-bushed with the sharp stubborn lavender,
And paven with discs of the torn sun-flowers,--
Which day by day were strangled and stripped
Of their ravelling fringes and brazen bosses,
And the hardy Mary-buds ripped and nipped
Into shreds for the beetles that lurked in the mosses.
Here she lived alone, and from year to year
She saw the black belt of the ocean appear
At her casement each morn as she rose, and each morn
Her eye fell first on the bare black thorn.
This was all, nothing more; or sometimes on the shore
The fishermen sang when the fishing was o'er;
Or the lowing of oxen fell dreamily
Close on the skirt of the glimmering eves,
Through some gusty pause in the moaning sea,
When the pools were splashed pink by the thirsty beeves,
Or sometimes when the pearl-lighted morns drew the tinges
Of the cold sun-rise up their amber fringes,--
A white sail peered over the rim of the main,
Peered all about o'er the empty sea,
Staggered back from the fine line of white light again,
And dropped down to another world silently.
Then she breathed freer.”
No doubt this is pains-taking and to some extent striking, and far more laborious and true than any of Mr. Meredith’s recent studies in the same way. We have quoted it at such length because it is, we think, his most elaborate effort of this kind. Still it is marked by the ingrained taste for external decoration which is the essence of his talent. For example as to truth of feeling: “the froth on the lip of the bleak blue sea” attempts to crowd into a single line touches entirely inconsistent with each other. The sea often looks bleak, but least so when it looks blue; and to draw attention to its blueness at all just when you are speaking of the spray as the froth on its lip renders the image false, disagreeable, and confusing, instead of graphic. Blue lips and froth suggest, if any thing, convulsion fits, and are wholly inconsistent with the image of the ocean. Again, though lilies rock in the wind, they literally can't “crouch” under a wall, and the word is put in only to aid the funereal metaphor of the mourners which Mr. Meredith wants. Nor is it at all possible for the lady to have seen the sea every morning as a “black belt.” There is nothing which first strikes the eye so much on looking out to the sea in the morning as the glare of light upon it, and even on the most clouded days the glancing of the waves entirely prevents any effect like a black belt. The expression is used only to heighten artificially the melancholy of the patient. Then as to the point of sight: as the whole landscape is meant to mirror the lady's melancholy,-- just as Tennyson notes in the neighbourhood of the Moated Grange only that which reflects back Mariana's desolation,-- the true perspective requires him to delineate what the lady would see, and the impression it would make on her sick mood of mind. Mr. Meredith goes far beyond this in his anxiety for more local colour. She might hear the oxen lowing “through the gusty pause in the moaning sea;” but the idea immediately suggests to Mr. Meredith to transport us to where the oxen are drinking, and make a fresh little point of colour of it,-- so he adds, “when the pools were splashed pink by the thirsty beeves,” which is clearly Chinese perspective. Moreover, we suspect he has put in this touch from a wholly different landscape. If the pools were splashed “pink,” the soil must have been a reddish one, and the whole of his description harps continually on a blue-black mineral plain, which implies a quite different ground-colour; nor can they be the salt-water pools in the sand, as the epithet “thirsty” seems expressly to shut this out. It is another great error of perspective to make the lady watching a sail in the offing see it “stagger back from the fine line of white light again.” It is impossible to see a sail stagger in the offing. A similar and worse artistic blunder is made in Lucile, where he speaks of a young lady's full heart beating “loud in her small rosy ears.” She who alone heard her heart beat could not see her own ears, and certainly could, not then be thinking of them; the sentence is in fact a horrid medley between the analysis of a young lady's own feelings, and the gourmand sort of admiration felt by a spectator for her pretty ears. All this may seem hypercriticism, but these faults are sown thick through the poems, and indicate just the sort of disposition to stick on stucco ornament from the outside which has got almost complete possession of the writer. Its worst result is that it destroys the true artist's sense of vision. Wherever you try to realize Mr. Meredith's pictures, even when they look most tempting and picturesque, you find something wrong. Here, for example, is a pretty picture, drawn by a lover of happy travels:
“We will see the shores of Greece,
And the temples of the Nile;
Sail where summer suns increase,
Toward the south, from isle to isle,
Track the first star that swims on
Glowing depths toward night and us,
While the heats of sunset crimson
All the purple Bosphorus,--
Leaning o'er some dark ship-side,
Watch the wane of mighty moons;
Or through star-lit Venice glide,
Singing down the blue lagoons.”
This sounds musical and picturesque enough at the first reading; but when you come to look into its structure, it is like a mosaic of which every item is false, though at a certain distance it gives a pleasing effect. True poetry, though it must often he vague, need never be false even in its rninutest features to the artist's point of view; for you can never really get closer to his subject than the attitude of mind in which he chooses to place you. Now put yourself in the place of the lover who is dilating on the pleasure of seeing beautiful southern scenes with his mistress,-- could he either from experience or natural prejudice expect to see the “'southern suns increase” as he went southwards? If he did, he was very much mistaken in fact, since of course nothing of the kind happens ;-- indeed, ceteris paribus, the more obliquely the sun is seen the larger it appears; nor is there any kind of popular fancy or prejudice in the image. One expects hotter suns but certainly not larger in the south. Then, again, to propose to track a star that is coming towards you is as unnatural a mode of speech as the feat is difficult which it suggests. Moreover, it is swimming “on glowing depths towards night and us,” which is either unmeaning, or would imply that the stars rise in the glow of sunset and revolve eastwards,-- a curious astronomical phenomenon; for wherever the spectator of a sunset may be, he and night must clearly be east of it. Once more: to make sunset “crimson” a “purple” sea is childish profusion of colour. If the sea is purple, it must be the sky which makes it so, it is not its intrinsic colour; and if the sky is making it crimson and not purple, the adjective 'purple' is a false dye put in for the sake of a more gorgeous variety of colour. Finally, if the gentleman was thinking of the lagoons in star-lit Venice, they would certainly not present themselves to him as blue, which requires daylight. These verses are the best specimens one could find of the abuse of a ready-made poetical language by a writer skilled in selecting words that have what we may call a poetical smell or bouquet, but careless of the real meaning they convey. In a passage of some cleverness in Lucile, we have a similar shipwreck of artistic effect from a similar blunder. One of the heroes, Lord Alfred Vargrave, has just seen his rival enter Lucile's room, and has left it angrily through the window, and stands in the garden, where we are told,
“When left to his thoughts in the garden alone,
Alfred Vargrave stood, strange to himself. With dull tone
Of importance, thro' cities of rose and carnation,
Went the bee on his business from station to station.
The minute mirth of summer was shrill all around;
Its incessant small voices like strings seem'd to sound
On his sore angry sense. He stood grieving the hot
Solid sun with his shadow, nor stirr'd from the spot.”
The important business character of the bee's droning hum,-- the effect of it and of the “minute mirth of summer” on Lord Alfred's” sore angry sense” is perhaps truly and at all events cleverly imagined; but just as, we are yielding to the impression that here for a moment the author has imagined accurately a real situation, comes the foolish and senseless bit of bombastic imagery, “he stood grieving the hot solid sun with his ‘shadow,” which is not only shifting the point of view very abruptly indeed from a geocentric to a heliocentric position, passing rather hastily, from Lord Alfred's grief to the sun's grief,-- but is a very quaint piece of emotion indeed for the “solid sun” to feel. Moreover, it appears to be not the light of the sun which is grieved at Lord Alfred's shadow, but the “hot solid” mass; in other words, the emotion of grief broke out in that substantial orb itself,-- evincing itself, we suppose, as soon after Lord Alfred had taken his sultry station as the fact became visible there,-- say in about eight minutes' time: a nonsensical criticism no doubt, but only nonsensical because the rhetorical phrase criticized is so absolutely destitute of meaning, that directly you come to think of it, you fall into an abyss of nonsense. That we may not be thought to be caviling at an accidental blot, here is another instance of the meaningless use of well-sounding words in Lucile:
“And so, as alone now she stood, in the sight
Of the sunset of youth, with her face toward the light,
And watch'd her own shadow grow long at her feet,
As though stretch'd out, the shade of some other to meet,
The woman felt homeless and childless: in scorn
She seem'd mock'd by the voices of children unborn”---
which involves certainly, as it stands in the text, one of the most wonderful pieces of optics we have ever met with. We may, perhaps, in common charity suppose that either “toward” is a misprint for “from,” or “face” for “black;” but the whole image is so mere a draft on the conventional verbiage of poetry,-- in which suns are always obliged to set whenever any thing pleasant is ceasing,-- “that we don’t know how far the mending of the optics will mend the poetry. For any real vision the passage arouses in the reader's mind, the “sunset of youth” might just as well draw the shadows towards itself instead of throwing them off in the opposite direction. To follow out the idea at all is only to be landed in nonsense; for we are told that this shadow seems to he in search of another shadow which ought to be there to meet it, and, if it did, would come, we conclude, from the opposite point of the horizon; and therefore may we infer?-- be cast by the sunrise of youth, and, therefore, perhaps be the shadow of a baby; to which doubtless reference is made in the last line we have quoted about the babies that would not come. What a jumble of conventional images the whole thing is! And these are the sort of images which stud the whole surface of Mr. Meredith's poetry; not always so ludicrous, but almost always as little really expressive. Here, for instance, is another tune on the barrel-organ of conventional poetic phrases. The Duc de Luvois is recounting how he tried to convince himself that he ought to forget Lucile and get on cheerfully without her, which he did by grinding for himself on the said organ the following unsatisfactory but extremely commonplace strain:
“Hast thou loved, O my heart? to thy love yet remains
All the wide loving-kindness of nature. The plains
And the hills with each summer their verdure renew:
Wouldst thou be as they are? do thou then as they do.
Let the dead sleep in peace. Would the living divine
Where they slumber? Let only new flowers be the sign!
Since the bird of the wood flits and sings round the nest
Where lie broken the eggs she once warm'd with her breast;
Since the flower of the field, newly born yesterday,
When to-morrow a new bud hath burst on the spray,
Folds, and falls in the night, unrepining, unseen;
Since aloof in the forests, when forests are green,
You may hear through the silence the dead wood that cracks,
Since man where his course throughout nature he tracks,
In all things one science to soothe him may find,
To walk on, and look forward, and never behind,
--What to me, O my heart, is the joy of thy sorrow?
What the tears of to-day or the sneers of to-morrow?
What is life? what is death? what the false? what the true?
And what is the harm that one woman can do?”
That the broken egg-shells litter the nest, and perhaps render it a prickly seat when the hatching is over, is no doubt a grievance which the wise fowl would do well to remove; but this circumstance does not seem to be capable of yielding much encouragement to a gentleman who has failed to hatch his pet egg. The flower that fades unrepining, and the dead-wood that cracks in the forest, would teach him a melancholy lesson of resignation, but hardly to look forwards and neglect the things which are behind, which is the lesson he tried, and we are not surprised to find vainly, to learn from them. This last passage is as good a specimen as we could have of the average stuff of the poem; and shows the utter rootlessness of the poetic imagery of the writer whose similes and metaphors, instead of growing out of the subject are stuck into it like the stalks of cut flowers plunged into the ground. His ornaments have usually no sort of living connexion with the feelings, which his verse, instead of expressing, only varnishes over, or, we might perhaps say, to use an expressive house-painter's term, distempers.
But though poetical description is, on the whole, a fair test of the veracity and strength of a poet's apprehension, as it is also in some sense the lowest department of his art, and certainly that which it is most easy for the critic carefully to check, it is scarcely fair, on this ground alone, to speak of any poet as a dealer in plausible effects,-- one who tickles the fancy with kaleidoscopic combinations of poetic phrases instead of drawing the veil from life and nature,-- unless there be the same conventional plausibility about his higher artistic aims, so far as we have the power of discriminating them. Does it seem to be the animating effort of Mr. Owen Meredith's poems to delineate, by the aid of the imagination, the truth of human character, or thought, or emotion? or is it rather his function to paint fanciful shadows which amuse the mind of the public more, at much less cost to the author, than any truth of delineation would do? We have of course no means of judging this cardinal question as to the author's effort or aim except from the literary result. But the total effect left upon us certainly is, that, while the best gleams of purpose and feeling in these books are those which Mr. Meredith shares with his time, there is a very large proportion of his poetry spurious in aim as well as in method, for which our own day is not at all accountable. “We live in a time,” said Goethe, “when culture is so diffused that it has become the atmosphere which a young man breathes; poetical and philosophical thoughts live and stir in him; he has sucked them in with the very air about him; but he imagines them his property, and so expresses them as if they belonged to him individually. But after he has given back to the time what he had received from it, he is poor. He is like a fountain which for a few moments spouts forth the water which had been carried to it, and which ceases to give a drop when the borrowed supply is exhausted.” Thus the drift of Lucile, if it is intended to have one, is, we suppose, that gospel of earnest work which Mr. Carlyle has preached into the age, without having taught us any very definite object for it, and having unfortunately untaught us some few rather important ones which he has made it his amusement to ridicule. The two heroes in Lucile, the English and the French, both lead lives wasted by want of purpose: the former being led astray, we are told, by natural indolence, the latter excluded from his fit political work by the political condition of France, which left no room for the cooperation of a legitimist noble. The heroine again, Lucile, is delineated as a woman of genius with no adequate outlet for her powers, and a natural yearning for domestic life which she does not succeed in attaining. All these three fruitless young people are conducted by the path of calamity, and one of them at least by a very short cut, to a nobler state of mind and purpose, and consequently a more earnest mode of life. The idea of the character which Mr. Meredith has sketched at the greatest length, and perhaps with most satisfaction to himself, that of his French hero the Duc de Luvois, will be gathered from the following lines, which are some of the most simple, perhaps the most carefully thought-out, and, on the whole, certainly some of the best in the book:
“His life was of trifles made up, and he lived
In a world of frivolities. Still he contrived
The trifles, to which he was wedded, to dower
With so much of his own individual power
(And mere pastime to him was so keen a pursuit),
That these trifles seem'd such as you scarce could impute
To a trifler.
What in him gave to vice, from its pathos and stress,
A sort of malignity, might have perchance
Had the object been changed by transposed circumstance,
Given vigour to virtue. And therefore, indeed,
Had his life been allied to some fix'd moral creed,
In the practice and forms of rigid, severe,
And ascetic religion, he might have come near
To each saint in that calendar which he now spurn'd.
In its orbit, however, his intellect turn'd
On a circle so narrow'd as quite to exclude
A spacious humanity. Therefore, both crude
And harsh his religion would ever have been,
As shallow, presumptuous, narrow, and keen,
Was the trite irreligion which now he display'd.
It depended alone upon chance to have made
Persecutor of this man, or martyr. For, closed
In the man, lurk'd two natures the world deems opposed,
A Savonarola's, a Calvin's, alike
Unperceived by himself. It was in him to strike
At, whatever the object he sought to attain,
Bold as Brutus, relentless as Philip of Spain,
And undaunted to march, in behalf of his brothers,
To the stake, or to light it, remorseless, for others.
-------------------------Thus, he appear'd
Neither Brutus nor Philip in action and deed,
Neither Calvin nor Savonarola in creed,
But that which, the world chose to have him appear,--
The frivolous tyrant of Fashion, a mere
Reformer in coats, cards, and carriages! Still
'Twas this vigour of nature, and tension of will,
Whence his love for Lucile to such passion had grown.”
So far as the gospel of work is inculcated with any earnestness by the author, it is done in the character of this French nobleman, who was a reality, we imagine, to Mr. Meredith, and is conceived, in his frivolous earnestness and theatrical passion, much less indistinctly than any other character in the book. The Duc de Luvois is the one present which Mr. Owen Meredith has to give to “his time,” in return for the Carlylian ideas which his time has bestowed upon him. We cannot say it is a rich one, for it is so disfigured by the essentially poor and often base material in which the whole work is executed, that even in relation to this character we only here and there come across a line or two which convince us that the author was painting from individual apprehensions of his own, and not from ornamental fancies. However, this, if any, is the character which seized upon Mr. Owen Meredith's own imagination, and we believe that it did real1y in some sense occupy him, and not merely his fancy. One may perceive even through the turbid and muddy rhetoric of Lucile a certain fascination of the author's mind with this Frenchman, a word here and there that seems to say he was touching something real in modelling it, and not merely wreathing the vapours of his own fancy. If there are any lines that deserve the name of poetry in the book, they are those which on two occasions delineate a crisis in the duke's turbulent passions. Once when he is roaming about at night in a forest, rejected by Lucile, in rather a fiendish state of mind, he sees the moon break through a cloud-structure that has been somewhat theatrically painted,--representing it, we suppose, as it might seem to a theatrical mind in genuine excitement,--and the verse runs on:
“While he gazed, that cloud-city invisible hands
Dismantled and rent; and reveal'd, through a loop
In the breach'd dark, the blemish'd and half-broken hoop
Of the moon, which soon silently sank; and anon
The whole supernatural pageant was gone.
The wide night, discomforted, conscious of loss,
Darken'd 'round him. One object alone -- that gray cross --
Glimmer'd faint on the dark. Gazing up, he descried
Through the void air, its desolate arms outstretch'd wide,
As though to embrace him. He turn'd from the sight,
Set his face to the darkness, and fled.”
The line we have italicised seems to us a breaking of the light of genuine poetry through the clouds of Mr. Meredith's stilted fancy. And we imagine we discern the same rather rare event towards the conclusion, when the Duc de Luvois, having meditated something rather more wicked than usual, is brought to his right mind in a long-winded midnight interview with Lucile in the garden of the hotel at Ems;-- it is French, and somewhat theatrical, but also we think something more:
“------------------Then, by solemn degrees,
There crept on the midnight within him a cold
Keen gleam of spiritual light. Fold by fold,
The films of his self-gathered blindness, in part
Were breathed bare, and the dawn shuddered into his heart.”
But even in this, as in a much greater degree in every other attempt to delineate passion that we could pick out, there is the detestable spirit of rhetorical grandiloquence which Mr. Meredith identifies with poetry. In any genuine poem we should point to the priggish words “by solemn degrees” as giving indications of base alloy; but when the substance which the artist models is almost entirely composed of this alloy, we must be thankful for any indications of an admixture of higher material.
The true dramatic test of a poet is in his feminine characters. Every great critic has remarked that a genuine poet's mind differs most remarkably from other men's by the intuitive sort of sympathy with the feminine nature which it holds easily and gracefully, within the hollow, as it were, of a large masculine experience. “Women,” said Goethe, “are silver saucers, into which we put golden apples. My idea of women is not one abstracted from the phenomena of actual life at all, but it is innate in me, or has sprung up in me, God knows how. My feminine portraitures have therefore all come away successfully from the mould; they are all better than you could find in the real world.” And it is a law, we think, almost without exception, that the feminine nature lies within the poetic like the pistil within the calyx of a flower. In Lucile Mr. Owen Meredith has made a very elaborate effort to paint his conception of a woman of genius, and of the conflict between the masculine vigour which genius gives her and the yearnings of a feminine nature for support. With a dash of Oriental blood in her, Lucile is meant to have a dash of Oriental imagination and tenderness combined with the lucid self-possessed intellect of Europe. This, again, is an idea which, were it worked out with any fidelity, would be worthy of a poet's endeavour. There are glimpses throughout the character that the intention was sincerely artistic, but the execution is as much more inadequate than in the case of the French duke as the aim is higher. Lucile's portrait is not defined at all: she begins and ends in the abstract; her genius is mere declamation, and no distinctively feminine impression is produced at all. We are told upon her first introduction, in lines that are of Mr. Meredith's best, of Lucile,
“The woman that now met, unshrinking, his gaze,
Seem'd to bask in the silent but sumptuous blaze
Of that soft second summer, more ripe than the first,
Which returns when the bud to the blossom hath burst
In despite of the stormiest April. Lucile
Had acquired that matchless unconscious appeal
To the homage which none but a churl would withhold,--
That caressing and exquisite grace -- never bold,
Ever present -- which just a few women possess.”
This is prettily described, and we expect to have Lucile acting up to it; but the impression produced by her least restrained language, when you come to hear it, is of a rhetorical and windy cast, ornate and grandiloquent, without any touch of the real woman in it. For, example, after the crisis of the first part, when Lucile has failed to win back her old lover, she pours out her labouring feelings to a friend in the East, whom she proposes to visit, and her letter ends thus:
“My friend, ask me nothing.
Receive me alone
As a Santon receives to his dwelling of stone
In silence some pilgrim the midnight may bring:
It may be an angel that, weary of wing,
Hath paused in his flight from some city of doom,
Or only a wayfarer stray’d in the gloom.
This only I know: that in Europe at least
Lives the craft or the power that must master our East.
Wherefore strive where the gods must themselves yield at last?
Both they and their altars pass by with the Past.
The gods of the household Time thrusts from the shelf;
And I seem as unreal and weird to myself
As those idols of old.
Other times, other men,
Other men, other passions!
So be it! yet again
I turn to my birthplace, the birthplace of morn,
And the light of those lands where the great sun is born!
Spread your arms, O my friend! on your breast let me feel
The repose which hath fled from my own.
We venture to say that no woman overflowing with either genius or feminine tenderness (and Lucile is meant to be rich in both) ever wrote in that inflated style, unless she were half acting the desolation she expresses. Still more unfortunately is she delineated when in the second part she starts on her higher career of raising the fallen and rebuking the impenitent. There is a stony sort of grandiloquence about her then which gives the notion of a rhetorical strong-minded woman. Here, for example, she is lecturing her former lover, Lord Alfred Vargrave, on the danger of making his wife jealous of him, and then throwing her in the way of another's admiration, which she does in the following dreadful style, that reminds one of a reformatory chaplain who has not forgotten his classical education:--
“I know that your wife is as spotless as snow;
But I know not how far your continued neglect
Her nature, as well as her heart, might affect,
Till at last, by degrees, that serene atmosphere
Of her unconscious purity, faint and yet clear,
Like the indistinct golden and vaporous fleece
Which surrounded and hid the celestials in Greece
From the glances of men, would disperse and depart
At the sighs of a sick and delirious heart,--
For jealousy is to a woman, be sure,
A disease heal'd too oft by a criminal cure;
And the heart left too long to its ravage, in time
May find weakness in virtue, reprisal in crime.”
We need give little further evidence, we think, that though Mr. Meredith began Lucile with an aim not unworthy of an artist, he soon plunged again into that blue-and-gold papier-mâché style of art which is the general characteristic of his poetry.
On the whole, Lucile must be called a third-rate novel, rendered disagreeable by very poor and monotonous rhyme. Indeed, the versification is a real mischief, and has no doubt misled Mr. Owen Meredith into many of his monstrous conceits. It bears almost the same relation to the natural language of prose expression as snoring bears to natural breathing, and creates exactly the same kind of nervous annoyance in the reader when the snore (which you cannot avert) is at hand. Only a diseased appetite for the petty surprises of rhyme could endure such rhyme as this, which frequently distracts attention from the false composition without answering one of the purposes that the rhythm and rhyme of a true poem should serve. A long epic poem in couplets is always bad. It suits Pope’s epigrammatic style, which always seems to clinch the thought as with the sharp snap of a steel clasp; but in Mr. Owen Meredith’s hands it has no possible relation to the flow of the thought, and produces, as we said, only the periodic pang of stertorous breathing. Then, again, the metre is very bad. It is written usually in the metre of Byron's
“The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;”
which, though grandiose, is well adapted to the flashing spIendour of a picture of that kind; and this Mr. Meredith occasionally varies with the metre Goldsmith chose for his “Venison Pasty”--
“Thanks, my lord, for your venison, for fíner nor fatter
Ne’er ranged in the forest nor smoked on the platter.”
The first metre Mr. Meredith has in such lines as these,--
“Listen tó me, my friénd. What I wísh to expláin;
Is so hárd to shape fórth, I could almost refrain;”
while Goldsmith's is chosen in the couplet next following:
“From toúching a subject so frágile. However,
Bear with me a while if I fránkly endeávour.”
Slight as the difference between them is, the first is grandiose, and the second mock-grandiose. And when a long epic poem runs from one into the other, the hero passes as it were from a slightly ostentatious march into the mocking trip with which naughty boys imitate him. However, it is the former metre in which by far the greatest part of the poem is written: and this grandiose rhythm naturally often makes Mr. Owen Meredith ashamed of a plain sentence, and induces him to dress up his impressions in a uniform worthy of so stately a marching-step. We scarcely know whether this, though the worst intellectual result of the rhythm chosen, produces so lamentable an artistic effect as presents itself when the poet omits to put this full costume on his thought, and orders it into this grand march in a slovenly flannel dressing-gown like the following:
“I foresaw you would conquer; you have conquered much,
Much indeed that is noble! I hail as such!”
-- a climax so grand as almost to suggest to us Mrs. Gamp coming down “like a wolf on the fold.” In general, however, you see that the metre stimulates the rush of the words into something at least equally grand in their swing, even when, as in the following lines, we hunt in vain for any similar march in the thought:
“------------------------- What then,
If earth in itself were sufficient for men,
Would be man’s claim to that glorious promise which arches
With Hope’s fourfold bow the black path where he march
Triumphant to death, chanting boldly, ‘Beyond!'
Whilst invisible witnesses round him respond
From the Infinite, till the great Paean is caught
By the echoes of heaven, and the chariot of Thought
Rolls forth from the world’s ringing walls to its goal,
Urged by Faith, the bright-eyed charioteer of the soul?”
How infinitely wearisome this pomp of movement, continued through three hundred and sixty one pages, becomes, accompanied as it is by the perpetually recurring clack of the rhyme,-- the metre meantime frequently disarranging the accent, or the rhyme compelling words like “liberty” to be rhymed with “free,”-- the conscientious reader of this poem alone can know. Sydney Smith once said that his idea of heaven was consuming pátés de foie gras to the sound of trumpets. Reading Lucile is like consuming an intellectual delicacy, if not quite so rare, still in several respects analogous, to the sound of hurdy-gurdies, and supplies only too vivid a foretaste of the opposite state.
There are many poets, however, whom it would be exceedingly unfair to judge, either by their longer poems or their directly visionary faculty; many who have neither the sustained narrative vigour for an epic poem nor the visionary eye which realises the details of an invisible scene. In fact, the forms of true poetry are quite as numerous as the forms of full personal life; and the man who fails to expand his apprehensions of the world into an epic may often succeed in precipitating the solid thought into a sonnet, or setting free from his materials the airy sentiment of a song. Moore, for instance, whose longer poems are heavily charged with gaudy and grandiloquent sentimentalism, wrote many a little poem which just caught the momentary sparkle of social feeling, or gave the feathery wings of melodious verse to satire with barbs as cruel as wit could make them. Again, Wordsworth, who had in him far too much weight of meditative thought to rise successfully on the light wings of song, and made his longer poems, fine as they are, rather too solid for ordinary taste, gave a grandeur to the sonnet, and a fervour to the homely grief or gladness of his ballads, which no other poet has reached. A true poet though he may miss his way often into compositions quite unsuitable to his genius, will blossom somewhere into the poetry which is really his natural life. Can Mr. Owen Meredith take a higher rank by virtue of song, or sonnet, or ballad, or lyric of any kind, than we have been able to assign him in his pictorial scenes and versified drama? The sonnet is clearly a form of verse not suitable to him at all. The strong, deep, meditative note which should vibrate through it from first to last and give it reflective unity is not at all in his way. Such of his poems as profess to be meditative are exceedingly diffuse and meandering, without any single focus of thought. They wander from a pictured love-scene to general and vague reflections, and back again to young ladies, in a very vagrant fashion. After much search among Mr. Meredith's meditative productions, we can find nothing else so good as the following verses, which are two among a considerable number devoted to illustration of the same not very real idea,-- that desire is better than possession, and even, as he seems to express it in the second of the two, the unknown than the known, which is a strong thing to say:
“How little know they life's divinest bliss,
That know not to possess and yet refrain!
Let the young Psyche roam, a fleeting kiss:--
Grasp it -- a few poor grains of dust remain.
See how those floating flowers, the butterflies,
Hover the garden thro', and take no root!
Desire forever hath a flying foot.
Free pleasure comes and goes beneath the skies.”
“Chase not too close the fading rapture. Leave
To Love his long auroras, slowly seen.
Be ready to release, as to receive.
Deem those the nearest, soul to soul, between
Whose lips yet lingers reverence on a sigh.
Judge what thy sense can reach not, most thine own,
If once thy soul hath seized it. The unknown
Is life to love, religion, poetry.”
But in Mr. Meredith's meditative, as in his other poems, we cannot find any genuine or personal reality. These, if any, are the kind of poems in which the mind should be true to itself. When you are honestly looking into your own past and present, it may be natural to find the fancy or imagination kindle; but neither fancy nor imagination, kindling in order to express real thoughts about oneself, give rise to what De Quincey calls “a jewelly haemorrhage of words.” Now there is no kind of poem in Mr. Meredith's volumes which seems to be written more for ornamental purposes, and less to satisfy the craving for true insight, than these long meandering meditations. To us they read, not at all like what a man really thinks to himself even in the most excited moods, but plausible meditations-- the sort of thing a young man might (injudiciously) like to think. We have given two of the simplest and best verses of this kind we can discover, expressing rather vividly the sensuous awe of grasping the very thing you seek, and trying to exaggerate that awe into a divine veto. But the following is a more common specimen of the way in which Mr. Owen Meredith philosophises on these occasions, which, we trust, is only a theatrical fiction; for if a man really rants thus to himself alone, the most solitary exercise of his intellect must be taken on stilts. It is from a piece called “Condemned Ones,” in which, after reproaching himself and some lady, who appears to have deserted him, he goes on:
“Yet is there much for grateful tears, if sad ones!
And Hope's young orphans Memory mothers yet;
So let them go, the sunny days we had once,
Our night hath stars that will not ever set.
And in our hearts are harps, albeit not glad ones,
Yet not all unmelodious, thro' whose strings
The night-winds murmur their familiar things,
Unto a kindred sadness: the sea brings
The spirits of its solitude, with wings
Folden about the music of each lyre,
Thrilled with deep duals by sublime desire,
Which never can attain, yet ever must aspire,
And glorify regret.”
By very careful reflection it is possible to make out that Memory playing the mother to “Hope's young orphans” is a paraphrase for saying that the writer still cherishes the memory of the wishes which he once hoped for. But neither a poet nor any other man ever really conceived that very simple idea in the form of a Foundling Hospital or Orphan Asylum for Hope's babies, in which Memory has the post of matron. A man must go a very long way for such a metaphor as that to express one of the simplest of all thoughts. Then the last simile no ordinary mind is equal to. The duals thrilled by sublime desire must have of course some reference to the lady, and perhaps to some form of moral duet with her; but the sea and the spirits and the lyre, and the wings that are folded about its music, are a problem far beyond a simple person's mind, and can never have been the imaginative form of any man's genuine thoughts. These are the bright glass beads and bugles which Mr. Meredith hangs about his ideas to make them look poetical, but which really destroy Truth, and substitute showy glitter in its place.
As a song-writer Mr. Meredith would have more chance of attaining a moderate excellence, if he would attend a little more carefully to the duty of having something distinct to say. His one qualification as a verse-writer is a keen sense of what we may call the physical atmosphere which belongs to words, and which often overpowers for him their intellectual significance. Still this is one of the most important qualifications of a song-writer. Moore had this sensuous feeling for words, and an infinitely greater poet, Tennyson, has it in a very high degree, but neither of them sacrifice a clear drift and image to the mere vapour or scent which words give off, as Mr. Owen Meredith often does. Take for example the following verses in the poem called “Once:”
“O happy hush of heart to heart,
O moment molten through with bliss,
O Love delaying long to part,
That first, fast, individual kiss!
Whereon two lives on glowing lips
Hung claspt, each feeling fold in fold,|
Like daisies closed with crimson tips,
That sleep about a heart of gold.”
We defy any one to get a clear notion out of the latter verse, though it sounds the kind of thing which Moore would have put into a song. Are we to conceive two crimson daisies, closed and placed cup to cup, as there are clearly two hearts, and the “deep duals” are, we suppose, the essence of the conception? And more, what is the force which the simile adds to the previous verse? Surely in fact it very much weakens the strength of it. If “the moment molten through with bliss” can be expressed by crimson daisies closed for the night, and, as we infer, somehow looped into each other, it cannot have been a very exalted moment after all. The capacity for an effective sensuous use of language is a very dangerous one; and requires a much stronger intellectual control over it than Mr. Owen Meredith thinks of wielding. Still it is a qualification for a song-writer; for a song should generally effervesce with airy sentiment that rises up lightly to the very surface of the mind without absorbing much attention, and should therefore carry its whole effect with it on its very first contact with the ear of the hearer. And in order that this may be the case, the mere physique of the words should be in some sense almost as important as the ideas they contain. We think, for instance, that in three other verses of the same piece Mr. Meredith has fairly succeeded in combining this effective sensuous organisation of words with thought clear enough and telling enough for a very effective song; though that would not, we suppose, be his name for the piece in which we find it:
“As some idea, half divined,
With tumult works within the brain
Of desolate genius, and the mind
Is vassal to imperious pain,
For toil by day, for tears by night,
Till, in the sphere of vision brought,
Rises the beautiful and bright,
Predestined but relentless Thought;
So, gathering up the dreams of years,
Thy love doth .to its destined seat
Rise sovran, thro' the light of tears--
Achieved, accomplisht, and complete!”
And there is a song in Lucile with the peculiar muscatel flavour of Moore's songs, though the idea that it tries to embody is not worked out with any distinctness,-- the song about the ship and the bird-of-paradise. Its metre has the peculiar swing of a skipping-rope, in which Moore’s sentimental tenderness so often expresses itself and its language has Moore's luscious effects, but its meaning is not brought out with any of Moore's point, and leaves but a faint glimmer of suspicion on the mind as to its true drift. Again, there is a song called a “Canticle of Love,” that reminds us somewhat of the same poet, who would not, however, have allowed the last verse to descend into so deep a bathos. On the whole, Mr. Owen Meredith shows more qualification for writing a certain kind of sentimental song than for any other species of poem,-- chiefly, we fear, because the need of an intellectual drift is then at its minimum, and the importance of the physical effect of words at its maximum. He tells us as a fact in Lucile that there are “Miss Tilburinas” who “sing, and not badly,” his earlier verse. This is one of the few poetic distinctions which Mr. Meredith is likely to attain.
But if Mr. Owen Meredith's sentimental songs are decidedly above his average poetic level, we are sorry to add, that his would-be comic effusions are very decidedly below them, and about as vulgar and weak as it is possible for a cultivated man to write. The light social chat in Lucile, so far as it does not strive after humour, certainly shows a knowledge of society that might be turned to good account in a novel; but he is absolutely without humour, and unfortunately deeply convinced that he possesses it in large measure; and the result is the disagreeable trash of such pieces as “Matrimonial Councils,” “See-Saw,” “The Midges,” “Small People,” and others,-- pieces that it is marvellous his friends should have allowed him to reprint in a second edition. The raillery which Mr. Meredith speaks of in one quiet and smooth copy of verses as a result of
“The pride which prompts the bitter jest,
Sharp styptic of a bleeding heart,”
has often a certain literary value as an indirect measure of the force of a repressed intensity of feeling. . But Mr. Meredith's Jokes, while they have none of the brightness of natural gaiety, have also none of the genuine caustic which gives irony its flavour; they are simply forced jokes, and nothing more; and we know of no species of, literary product more intolerable than this.
It would, however, he unfair to Mr. Meredith to omit from our criticism a class of poems to which he has evidently devoted more time than to most others, and which are perhaps distantly related to these manqués levities of his. There are a considerable class of -- lyrical ballads we cannot call them, for there is little or nothing of lyrical feeling in them,-- but ballads with an Edgar Poe-ish flavour, the essence of the poem being a sudden horror, generally reaching a climax at the close. Of these we find a large number in the Wanderer, containing, with many others, the “Castle of King Macbeth,” which, like the tale of the Hunchback in the Arabian Nights, throws down a solitary corpse upon us, and leaves us with it,-- “King Limos,” which begins with physical and ends with suggesting moral cannibalism,-- “The Pedlar,” a tale of permanent nightmare,-- “Mystery, the dream of a delirious man whom the surgeons have bled,-- “Misanthropos,” intended, we fancy, as a kind of pendant to Tennyson's “Vision of Sin,”-- the lines in a French café, which are an attempt to intrude the shadow of supernatural remorse into the life of pleasant sin,-- “Going back again,” which delineates a soft moonlight picture of a beauty sitting with her throat cut,-- “The Ghost,” and finally” The Portrait,” which is, we take it, meant to contain the climax of the morally monstrous. This enumeration -- and we might add some others of the same class -- will be sufficient to show that Mr. Owen Meredith has made a special study of horrible situations. He has tried too, in most of these cases, to give piquancy to the horror by a certain dash of levity such as Edgar Poe throws into his “Raven;” and this was what we meant by saying that there is a certain connexion between these poems and the atrocious comic poems of which we spoke last. They are not, however, open to the same kind of criticism; for the touch of levity is seldom obtruded, and is always secondary to the touch of horror. The writer's notion evidently is that the poetical effect consists in the thrill with which the scene pictured inspires you; that if his picture can startle you in any thing like the same degree as the actual discovery of a beauty sitting at her window in the moonlight with her throat cut, or of a man carousing at night with the ghost of his dead mistress, he has attained the highest triumph of poetical art. Accordingly touches are sedulously introduced which in any way tend to enhance the thrill of horror;-- but we do not think that this is a path by which anyone could each a true poetical effect. Poetry has something better to do than to imitate humbly the influence of ghost-stories and murders on the nervous system. It should, if it touches such matters at all,-- attempt to draw away the veil of shuddering sense with which horrible catastrophes preoccupy and blind us, and present in its place the realities of human feeling or passion which have led to tragedy as their result. Edgar Poe certainly does not do this. He rests on the merely morbid, as if the morbid were a final and universal root of human nature instead of a result of some deeper mental or moral distortion, the secret of which the poet ought to be able partially to fathom. Hence the exceedinglylow level of Edgar Poe's power,-- certainly marvellous of its kind. But Mr. Owen Meredith, without any of Edgar Poe’s wonderful capacity for inspiring a hypochondriac mood in his readers, insists very unfortunately on pursuing the same course. And he succeeds in producing one or two disagreeable qualms of the same kind, though less acute than an actual ghost or an actual murder would produce. Now this seems to us to show that Mr. Owen Meredith has entirely mistaken the true field of poetry in relation to this species of tragic effect. The part of poetry in tragedy can never be the mere statement of a horrid moral riddle, to which the reader is left to find the answer. This is to put poetry below even the sensation drama. That aims no doubt at producing coups de théâtre, but at least it leads up to them and puts in the hands of the audience all the moral clues by which they are apparently explained. It relies on thrilling situations, but at least on thrilling situations which are intelligibly evolved out of known causes, and which intelligibly contribute to visible effects. And none but the very lowest art relies even on the great scenes for its “surprises” at all, but only for the greater scale of action and passion for which these great scenes make room. It is not the thrill which the audience feels in the suffocation of Desdemona, but the gradual maturing of Othello's jealousy and its consummation in its natural fruit, which lends the interest to that last scene,-- not the surprise, but the fulfilment of the growing dread, in some sense the very absence of all room for surprise. True poetry may sometimes, though rarely, begin with an enigma, as in the case of Hamlet, for instance, where the suspicion of murder does not dawn even on Hamlet's own mind till the ghost has appeared. But it can never end with one without ceasing to conform to all the laws of art. It is of the very essence of all art -- poetical no less than that of the sculptor or the painter -- to satisfy the mind, not to perplex it, to offer a coherent vision; to help us to understand something we did not understand before, if the subject is old; to give us a new object of imaginative perception which exemplifies known principles of human life, even if the subject is original The situation in which the mind cannot rest, but which simply sets it speculating, is ipso facto inartistic. When, indeed a poet or an imaginative writer has fashioned for us a whole narrative, then the painter may single out any momentary crisis in it and try to work out his conception; and this may be true art. But then the mind rests upon the known story, and looks to the painter for some fresh commentary on it, some fresh insight into it by which we may be able to appreciate more fully the conception in the creative mind of the dramatist. All true art extends our vision; and so far as it does not, but simply excites our curiosity or dread, it is not art. If the artist deals with a horrible subject, he must treat horror as a result of crime, sin, ignorance, or some other evil, and satisfy us that it is in its right place, however wrong the cause. Thus Shelley's Cenci, which is a study of the most fearful of human horrors, is a work of high art so far at least as the character of Beatrice is, concerned, because Shelley helps us to understand the secret of her childlike vindictiveness, the impersonality of her unscrupulous passion to rid the earth of her destroyer. But it is not a work of high art as regards Count Cenci, because it leaves him the same riddle that it found him. Nor can poetry be absolved from this universal condition of all art. Even Mr. Owen Meredith's own poems sufficiently show this; for wherever we find one rising above the level of his ordinary verse, there also we find one which, instead of merely piquing curiosity, gives us a somewhat fuller insight into some corner of creation or some recess in the heart of man. If his sketch of the Duc de Luvois in Lucile is worth any thing, it is for this reason; if his picture of the desolate sea-side country in which the scene of “the earl's return” is laid is worth any thing, it is for this reason; and just so far as he puts, forward an insoluble terror, simply for the thrill it excites in the nerves, so far he abjures his function of an artist, and does what the sensation paragraphs of an American newspaper effect better, instead.
We have said that Mr. Owen Meredith's” Misanthropos” is a kind of pendant to Tennyson's “Vision of Sin,” -- not, we need scarcely say, comparable to it in any way, though the “Vision of Sin” is one of Tennyson's least successful pieces, but apparently allied with it in the form of conception. “Misanthropos,” if, as we think, it does exemplify, does not exemplify strikingly, the fault we have just spoken of. It is comparatively a connected and rational piece, striving to delineate the state of mind of a dying misanthrope disgusted with life and all that it contains. But for this very reason it illustrates in the germ the poetical vice which such poems as “The Portrait” present in full bloom. The misanthropic state is not a subject for art without some delineation of how a man has grown into misanthropy. It is essentially the fruit of a peculiar history and career. If delineated alone, it is like a shadow without any visible substance to cast it, or an image of revenge without the wrong which gave birth to it. Now Tennyson is clearly aware of this. He does not introduce his jaded sensualist, jeering at every semblance of good, till he has given us a glimpse into his history. The youth “who rode a horse with wings that would have flown, but that his heavy rider kept him down,” and who had been led by a child of sin into the company “with heated eyes” and “sleepy light upon their brows and lips,” is already printed on the imagination before the “gray and gap-toothed man, as lean as death,” crosses the horizon again, and launches out into that bitter satire against even the name of virtue:
“Virtue! -- to be good and just --
Every heart, when sifted well,
Is a clot of warmer dust
Mixed with cunning sparks of hell!”
And without the prologue the long philippic would have little or no artistic meaning. But Mr. Owen Meredith characteristically gives us the misanthropical declamation without a hint as to its birth. He opens with the waters of bitterness. The speaker introduces himself first in the caricaturing verse:
“Not a light in yonder sky,
Save that single wicked star,
Leering with its wanton eye
Thro' the shatter’d window-bar;
Come to see me die!”
Now, not to speak of the absurd straining or the misanthropic mood implied in attributing wickedness to a star, the whole picture is utterly unmotivated,-- an eclipse without a vestige of the body which casts the eclipse, a collapse without a paralysing stroke, a passion of hatred without either a crime or a wrong. This cannot be good art; and when we are reminded from verse to verse, now, of the poem of Mr. Tennyson's we have mentioned, now, again, of Faust's curse, and now of Timon's just resentment, and yet find no root for any of these phases of misanthropy, we see how completely Mr. Owen Meredith's notion of poetic effect is not artistic, but sensational. The Misanthrope too occasionally lapses into rather inconsistent apologies for sinners:
“O, the vice within the blood!
And the sin within the sense;
And the fallen angelhood
With its yearnings too immense
To be understood!”
--a form of apology the last lines of which Mr. Owen Meredith might fairly adopt in his character of poet; but whether the immensity of his yearnings is sufficient excuse for the curiously torso character of his art, we are not quite sure.
But “Misanthropos” is, as we said, not only not the worst, but one of the least tricky of these sensational minor poems; for it does attempt to expound the intellectual attitude of the Misanthrope, though not to explain it. The real climax of poetical vice is reached in such pieces as “The Vampyre” or “The Portrait.” In the latter poem a gentleman is introduced listening on a gusty night to the “wind at his prayers,” whatever that meteorological phenomenon may be, and thinking by the dying fire of “the dear dead woman up-stairs.” He explains to us that only two persons know any thing about his trouble, -- one “the friend of his bosom, the man I love,” whom grief has “sent fast asleep” in the chamber up above; the other is the Raphael-faced young priest who confessed her when she died, a man “of gentle nerve,” who in this grief of another had moved beyond measure, for his lip had grown white as he speeded “her parting soul.” In this desolate situation he recalls to mind that he has left a portrait of himself on the bosom of the corpse:
“On her cold dead bosom my portrait lies,
Which next to her heart she used to wear;
Haunting it o'er with her tender eyes
When my own face was not there.
It is set all round with rubies red,
And pearls which a Peri might have kept.
For each ruby there my heart hath bled;
For each pearl my eyes have wept!”
What this last statement may amount to as a measure of tenderness is not apparent; but he decides to reclaim his portrait before it is buried with her: and on going up-stairs to feel for it in the, moonlight, he encounters another hand on the breast of the corpse, which turns out to be that of the “friend of my bosom, the man I loved,” on the same errand; and a dispute very like that about the colour of the chameleon occurs:
“Said the friend of my bosom, 'Yours, no doubt,
The portrait was, till a month ago,
When this suffering angel took that out,
And placed mine there, I know.’
‘This woman, she loved me well;’ said I.
‘A month ago,’ said my friend to me:
‘And in your throat,’ I groan'd, ‘you lie!’
He answer'd. . . ‘let us see.’
‘Enough!' I return'd, ‘let the dead decide:
And whose soever the portrait prove,
His shall it be, when the cause is tried,
Where Death is arraign'd by Love.'
We found the portrait there, in its place:
We open'd it by the tapers' shine:
The gems were all unchanged: the face
Was -- neither his nor mine.
‘One nail drives out another, at least!
The face of the portrait there,' I cried,
‘Is our friend's, the Raphael-faced young Priest,
Who confess'd her when she died.’
The setting is all of rubies red,
And pearls which a Peri might have kept.
For each ruby there my heart hath bled;
For each pearl my eyes have wept!”---
with which the poem concludes, without any speech from the dead woman, like that addressed by the chameleon to the positive travellers, concerning the folly of judging by so limited an experience. The cold comment that “one nail drives out another, at least,” with which the discovery of this harlot's elaborate double prostitution in the very face of death is received, is scarcely any addition to the very obscure testimony to the hero's tenderness, which appears to be typically set forth by the setting of the portrait in rubies and pearls. You are left with the raw horror on your mind of this frightful network of sensuality, duplicity, and death, and without any touch, however slight, which can serve to mitigate this horror by throwing the fine light of art over the scene. It is like an exceedingly detestable police-case thrown into rhyme. Owen Meredith may say, with great justice, that the plot of Shelley's Cenci is infinitely more frightful, and so it is; but, as we have said, Shelley has cast so bright an artistic beauty over the conception, has taken it up so completely into his imagination, that we can see nothing beyond the terrible intellectual and moral problem under which Beatrice Cenci's mind laboured, and by which it was so fearfully warped. But Mr. Owen Meredith does not throw this horror into any intellectual form at all. He does not even delineate it, if he is fully aware of it, he only tells us what he expects will make us shudder, and imagines that that shudder is, due to his poetry. Why, if you were to translate the thing into prose, you would lend it a much stronger effect. The only influence of the verse is to give a certain dilettante sort of ornament to the story, without once rousing the imagination. You wonder what the rubies and pearls mean, and what sort of troubles he alludes to in the many bleedings of the heart to which he has been subject, and the tears he has shed,-- whether they were all for this woman or not, and so forth. But the only intellectual kernel of the piece, if the incident be possible at all,-- the state of mind of this dying prostitute is not even touched. The story is pitched down before us in naked loathsomeness, a kind of monstrous nut to crack; and not a particle of artistic assistance is rendered towards solving the mystery of evil which the poet has indicated. No artistic crime could be more heinous.
We have now attempted to show that in almost all the departments of his art which he has attempted at all, Mr. Owen Meredith, or the gentleman who writes under that name, has substituted, for the genuine poetic art, which tries to reveal through the imaginative world, as fully as possible, the true spirit of human life and nature,-- the spurious poetic art, which invents decorative artifices to hide the emptiness of its form. The latter is to the former what dress and ornament are to the culture of perfect beauty. Indeed, Mr. Owen Meredith's skill is mainly, as it seems to us, a branch of literary cosmetics, through which signs of healthy, earnest, and rounded purpose only shine in glimpses here and there. If we have been too severe, it is not at least from any personal motive; for we have never heard any thing of the writer except that his poems are popular, and that he stands socially far above the need of any thing like literary compassion. At a time when poetry has to do, for the cultivated world, much, not only of its own proper work, but of that of faith also,-- when the true poets know intimately how infinitely difficult it is to find for their delineations but “one feeling based on truth”-- on the absolute solid rock of truth, it is in our mind a serious duty to sound the artifices of the mere decorators of human life, who put a chain round its neck, and earrings in its ears, and fine raiment on its hack, and beautify its complexion, and teach it the graceful attitudes of movement and repose, and call the result -- poetry. We shall be grieved if we have done this gentleman any injustice. We have anxiously noted almost any sign of imaginative sincerity and vigour that a very careful study of him has discovered; but with every fresh reading we have gained fresh certainty that his models are bad, his method spurious, and his own feeling for nature either dull or blunted. His art is typified by the fair ghost whom he describes in one of his pointlessly thrilling poems. A woman “pale and fair” who seems a monarch's daughter, “by the red gold round her hair,” comes to him towards dawn, lifts up her head” from her white shoulders,” and says,
“Look in! you'll find I'm hollow;
Pray do not be afraid.”
That must have been Mr. Owen Meredith's Muse. She is a well and even ornately-dressed ghost, who habitually proclaims the gospel of her hollowness to any critic who will allow himself to be haunted by her for a season. We have looked in, we have found her very hollow, and we are not at all afraid; but we are very much fatigued, and, as the beaten soldiers say, “demoralised” by the process. “Earth is sick and heaven is weary” of this tawdry finery affecting the grandeur of an art which of all arts is the most real to the very few to whom has been given the vision and the power to discern, and live by, the truth of life. Mr. Owen Meredith has cleverness, and is not incapable of higher aims. He will one day cast off with a sigh of relief the meretricious and dilettante costume which has so long disguised him from his true self, as well as from the world which has applauded and misled him.
Last revised: 20 August 2010