THE YALE LITERARY MAGAZINE.
Vol. XXVIII. OCTOBER, 1862. No. I., PAGES 1-4
EDITORS FOR THE CLASS OF '63.
E. B. BINGHAM, S. W. DUFFIELD,
J. H. BUTLER, C. W. FRANCIS,
J. F. KERNOCHAN.
It has become almost an established rule in the literary world, that the productions of a new author should be regarded as worthless until their worth is proven. Now although this, in contrast with civil law, may seem the very essence of injustice, yet experience has fully proved the necessity of such severity. So many would-be authors were springing up on every side, that the world was becoming literally flooded with works, concerning which it is not too much to say, that the greater part had not the least pretensions to merit. The disease was of the most malignant nature, and in addition to this, it was commencing to spread with alarming rapidity, and consequently called for a prompt and efficient remedy. Such it found in the rule just laid down. The rule, however, is of human framing, and therefore it cannot be faultless—it has disadvantages as well as advantages; but the good resulting from a strict enforcement of its dictates, far more than counterbalances the evil, for the good which it brings about is immeasurable, whereas I can think of but two abuses arising from it. In the first place it grants too much to fame; for in the anxiety to keep out interlopers, many works are allowed to pass current, whose only recommendation is, that they are the productions of some one of the elect. This, however, is higher ground than we can touch upon, and fortunately it has no direct bearing on the subject. The second abuse is, that many of the finest works are crowded away from public sight, simply because the name of the author is unknown to fame; this, I think, has a peculiar reference to the subject in hand.
"Owen Meredith" was not only a young writer, and one entirely unknown in the literary world, but the burden of a former failure proved itself most powerful to crush down " Lucile," his final success. Thus, for a long time, "Lucile" was to the world at large unknown, and of course it was not admired. In this unnoticed manner this beautiful work was gradually dying away, and in a few years its very existence would have been forgotten, had not the means which were taken for its speedy destruction, proved the most powerful agent for its success. Several of the most severe criticisms appeared in the Magazines, intended to complete its ruin; but by this very attack, attention was directed to the work, and men commenced to read it, in order to pass judgment for themselves. The mere introduction of the work to notice, was sufficient to insure its success.
It is impossible, in this essay, to enter upon any particular examination, but rather we will give the subjects of criticism a brief survey, and close with a few remarks on the general character of the book.
The general tenor of the objections have been of such a nature, that, although they present a most annihilating appearance, yet they evidently have a very slender foundation.
"It does not merit the name of Poem; it is a mere story in verse — the metre is chosen with bad taste — the entire work is too long."
These, then, are the principal charges, and unless some great flaw can be found in their justice, sweeping ones too. There is, however, a great flaw in their justice, and one in their very foundation, which entirely ruins their crushing effect. The poem is one of modern times, and considered as such, the so-called faults form the most prominent beauties. It is true, that if it were designed for a grand old Epic, the nature of the story and the choice of the metre would both be strangely out of taste; but this is by no means the true state of the case. The poetry of real life is a subject which is rarely even touched upon, but poets almost invariably choose some grander theme, which, although well fitted for a splendid composition, can never call forth any sympathetic response from the heart of the reader. A very few of the more modern poets have turned away from the old beaten track, but have always met the opposition which originality is sure to call forth. Such is the true nature of the work under consideration, and as such alone, it can be fairly criticised. Giving the subject this impartial judgment, the whole matter assumes a very different form. The nature of the subject demands this same easy, story-telling style, and consistency has chosen the metre as the one best suited for the words. In regard to the length, the objection is at least a weak one, for although "too much of a good thing is good for nothing," yet it is very seldom that this "too much" is attained. With these few words in regard to the more prominent points of critical attack, let us pass over to a general survey of the work itself.
In the story there is nothing of peculiar interest, but it borrows all its charm from the simple beauty of the narration. It is a mere love story of modern times, prettily chosen in incident, indeed, but in no way uncommon or even improbable. The delineation of character is exceedingly fine, and what is still more unusual, true to life.
It is not possible here to enter upon any criticism on this point, for any brief remarks on such a subject are most unprofitable. The distinction in nationality is plainly shown in the contrasted characters of Lord Alfred and Eugene. The treatment of the most unimportant characters, their perfect likeness to life itself, shows the touch of a master-hand, and by its truth alone keeps up the interest. The crowning point of the work, however, is "Lucile;" for the author has not fallen into the common, the almost universal fault, of overdrawing his favorite. She is represented, not as an angel, but a woman — superior, but not beyond the bounds of possibility, in body or in mind — not a mere automaton of the writer's fancy, but a creature of flesh and blood and fault as all of us. In this masterly treatment of a difficult point, lies the great secret of the unbroken interest, for the whole scene of the book is not thrown outside of our own sphere. In the grand old poems, it is true, we find much to admire, much to reverence, but because the subjects are above us, we cannot feel sympathy, love. Towards Lucile the reader cannot but feel the sympathy of a friend; mourning with her through all her sorrows, rejoicing in her final triumph.
The descriptions, and especially those of scenery, are worthy of the highest praise. Here the subject changes, and with it the style. No more the easy, story-telling verse, but the thoughts and the words are as grand as the mighty scene of which they are the mere exponent— with the human he is human, with the divine he is divine.
There is another marked peculiarity, which, more than anything else, has led men to consider this work as unworthy of the name, Poem. There is at every point the keen philosophy of true life, never allowing the story to fall into an over-degree of sadness, but, true to life, ever mingling the sweet and bitter in the same cup, ever linking together joy and sorrow. Finally, the greatest argument for its success springs from the fact, that it seems to conjure up a friendship between the writer and the one who reads; and this can be easily accounted for. The heart of the author is evidently in the work which he has undertaken; for, throughout the entire work, shining out at times through the merry, easy running song, there is a vein of melancholy, which proves it the production of a man of feeling, not of a machine. It does not seem so much like a written composition, but rather like the conversation of a friend.
Owen Meredith has opened a new and untried field for poetic literature; but, on account of its originality alone, his effort could not, with justice, be defended. If a new movement is at the same a good one, then alone it is worthy of praise; but originality, by itself, is neither a vice nor a virtue. The only consideration then is, whether this kind of literature can lay claim to any place peculiarly its own; and this, I think, does not require any proof. It is true that we need, usually, books for instruction, books that we can admire and reverence; but the mind, like the body, needs relaxation; and in poetry, as in prose, lighter reading is at times absolutely necessary. If this deficiency is granted, the success of the work will be certain — and the world will give the praise of true merit to Owen Meredith and "Lucile."
J. F. K.
Last revised: 5 July 2011