Lucile Reviewed in The New Monthly Magazine, 1860
London: Chapman & Hall,
Series II, volume 119, p.469-471,
Edited by William Harrison Ainsworth
*By Owen Meredith, Author of "The Wanderer," "Clytemnestra," &c. Chapman and Hall, 1860
WERE it not impertinent to speculate on this author's motive in assuming a pseudonym -- for such an assumption on his part, we assume on ours -- we should conjecture it to be, an honourable desire of doing no discredit to a family name so distinguished in the world of letters. Let me be recognised as a not unworthy representative of that name, we can suppose him to have said to himself, before I write it in full on any title-page of mine. Let me approve myself strong enough and skilled enough to bend my father's bow, before I go abroad under his patronymic. Some such motive we may conjecture to have been the meaning of "Owen Meredith" on the title-page of "Clytemnestra." But then we are at fault. For that volume contained poems, "The Earl's Return" for instance, that rendered any further masquing superfluous. The next volume, "The Wanderer," more than redeemed the pledge given by the first. And now comes a third, richer in a variety of ways, than either of its forerunners -- though not without the faults incidental to, if not characteristic of, so affluent a poetic nature -- and still the author writes himself Owen Meredith, and thereby, at this stage of an advanced progress, when widely and unequivocally recognised as a true minstrel, seems to prove our conjecture futile and beside the mark. But what business have we with any man's exquisite reasons? We are committing, in effect, the very sin we hinted at on hypothesis -- that of impertinence, though (let us hope) in the grammatical only, not the conventional sense of that term.
At the first glimpse of "Lucile" we fancied a second copy of "Aurora Leigh" had arrived by mistake -- the outward semblance, the "getting up,'' was so very like. Nor did the first glance into the interior efface the resemblance. Like Mrs. Browning's latter-day epic, "Lucile" is a modern metrical romance, or rather a versified novel, and deals freely and forcibly with the current issues of social and individual life. It is even more easy-going and jaunty in its colloquial slap-dash than the other. This effect is rendered the more palpable by the metre which is selected, not too happily, we think, for so long a work. Twelve cantos of canter, without once subsiding into a trot, much less into a walking pace, are and must be trying to the reader, whatever they may have been to the writer. Canter is surely a fair description of the movement of such lines as---
Now in May Fair, of course -- in the- fair month of May *--
When all things in abundance make London so gay;
When street-strawberries are sold, piled in pottles like sheaves,
And young ladies are sold for the strawberry-leaves; **
When cards, invitations, and three-corner'd notes
Fly about like white butterflies -- gay little motes
In the sunbeam of Fashion; and even Blue Books
Take a heavy-wing'd flight, and grow busy as rooks, &c.
In his Dedication "To My Father," the writer speaks of himself as abandoning in this poem those forms of verse with which he had most familiarised his thoughts, and as endeavouring to follow a path on which he could discover no footprints before him, either to guide or to warn. The enterprising novelty of the essay may have been one of its main attractions to the adventurer; but we are bound to confess that, admirably as this type of versification a embodies certain of his moods, and harmoniously as it expresses some of his conceptions and reflections, it is felt at times to be exceptionable and not i’ the vein -- out of time, as a musician would say;-- out of place; occasionally, too, out of breath. At the same time we cannot but own the surprising mastery the poet displays over the plastic potentialities of this metre -- the fluent, flexible uses to which he turns it, from grave to gay, from lively to severe – whether in gorgeous description of sunset among the mountains, or trivial record of boudoir badinage -- whether in some impassioned outburst of irrepressible anguish, or some sarcastic photograph of matter-of-fact manhood. Such essential variety under the constraints of a form so apparently monotonous, it is a rare triumph to have achieved.
Into the story of Lucile we do not propose to enter. Suffice it here to intimate the conclusion, which bears witness to the nature of her mission, the mission of genius on earth -- viz.,
-------------------------------- To uplift,
Purify, and confirm by its own gracious gift,
The world, in despite of the world's dull endeavours
To degrade, and drag down, and oppose it for ever.
The mission of genius: to watch, and to wait,
To renew, to redeem, and to regenerate.
The mission of woman on earth! to give birth
To the mercy of Heaven descending on earth.
The mission of woman: permitted to bruise
The head of the serpent, and sweetly infuse,
Through the sorrow and sin of earth's register'd curse,
The blessing which mitigates all: born to nurse,
And to soothe, and to solace, to help and to heal
The sick world that leans on her. This was Lucile. (p. 359).
Her portrait is painted, under several aspects, in colours of the richest,-- see pp. 13, 45, 69, 81, &c. That of the English beauty, Miss Darcy, is equally artistic and graceful in its way. Lord Alfred and the Duc de Luvois are, each of them, elaborate studies of character, and portrayed with not less delicacy of detail than breadth of outline. Sir Ridley Mac Nab is a bit of ugly real life, a hardly caricatured contemporary of Sir John Dean Paul and the "religious world" that banks with him. We have incidental sketches, too, such as these of
--------------- a lady aggressively fat,
Who, fierce as a female Leviathan, sat
By another that looked like a needle, all steel.
And tenuity -- "Luvois will marry Lucile?"
The needle seem'd jerk'd by a virulent twitch,
As though it were bent upon driving a stitch
Thro' somebody's character,--
and so on. That the author can be trenchant in satire, bitter in invective, vehement in denunciation, his readers know of old; nor will he let them forget it in his present volume. Irony, as ever, is one of his pleasant playthings, which he hardly knows how to let go, when once (as so frequently) the humour is on him. But he can be solemnly in earnest as well, and sometimes verges on the mystical, and even loses his way in the dim religious obscure. In exuberant opulence of the descriptive faculty -- with its word-painting prowess so vigorously developed -- his verses are as markworthy as ever; from their scattered side-scene glimpses might be composed a panorama of the picturesque. Still, we are persuaded his best poem remains to be written; and it will be none the worse for not being written too soon. His facility is manifestly something prodigious; nor is it of the sort of facility called fatal; but it will serve its master all the more effectively if, as Prospero did to Ariel, he hold it in sovran sway, and bind it to do his higher behests.
* By the way, our author has a fondness for this sort of play upon words; which constitutes, we may say, one of his minor mannerisms. Thus Matilda is described (p. 22):
"As airy and blithe as a blithe bird in air."
So again this couplet, at p. 32, of one who:
"Resigning the power he lack'd power to support,
Turns his back upon courts, with a sneer at the court."
Or again, p. 166, of the bliss:
"Which his science divine seem'd divinely to miss."
Or, p. 211, of one blest:
"With a pretty young wife, and a pretty full purse."
** Another instance of the jeu-de-mots just indicated.
Last revised: 18 August 2010