Lucile Reviewed in
The Contemporary Review (London)
VII (June-April 1868), p462-463.

V. – Poetry, Fiction, and Essay.

Lucile. By Owen Meredith. With illustrations by George Du Maurier. London: Chapman and Hall. 1867.
Chronicles and Characters. By Robert Lytton (Owen Meredith). In Two Volumes. London: Chapman and Hall, 1867.

Professor Masson, in attempting to popularly distinguish between the chief attributes of prose and poetic fiction, say that the one flies where the other walks. It is assuredly somewhat of a bold experiment to try and “break” poetry to walk mincingly along the earth, and yet as slowly and prudently as her less ethereal sister. Mr. Robert Lytton has, however, boldly essayed the task. His “Lucile” – a poem which saw the light some years ago, and now reappears buoyed up on the natural and graceful figures of Mr. Du Maurier – is in all essentials a novel. The externals of art have been cleverly used to relieve and lighten materials so alien from poetic treatment that even Mr. Du Maurier’s remarkably fine women are converted into caryatides, under the weight of glittering beam and architrave in Mr. Lytton’s elaborate structure. Mr. Lytton has a power of verse which would even amount to a “fatal facility,” were it not that he is thoroughly cultured, and has always good models ant the fear of the critics before his eyes.  But he wants that latent warmth, that reserve of imaginative fire, which transmutes, as in an alembic, the commonest forms of life into types of beauty by hurried and suggestive reflex glimpses. There can be no true poetic art without this kind of spiritualized suggestion; for it is only thus that things, in themselves sensuous or prosaic, become mediums of the deepest and tenderest emotional currents. The abrupt way in which Dante breaks off the episode of Francesca da Rimini with the words, “Quel giorno più non vi leggemino avante,” is one of the grandest triumphs of imaginative realism; but a whole poem made up of lines like this would give us exactly such a love-poem, or versified novel, as “Lucile.” The muse in a young man’s arm, condemned to loiter along in miry ways and indulge in the details of young ladies’ small talk, makes but a poor figure. Yet it is something that Mr. Lytton has produced a pleasant, airy, delicately-finished book, though conceived on a principle so hollow, false, and confusing.

“The Chronicles and Characters” errs against this very same principle, though in a slightly different direction. It is a versified, thinly dramatic philosophy of history – no more, no less. We are not inclined to bear so hard on Mr. Lytton as some critics have done on account of there being some similarity between the leading idea of this poem and that of Victor Hugo’s “Légende des Siècles.” Perhaps Mr. Lytton has done a service in bringing more directly home to us the fallacy involved in all such work, even when by a genius like Victor Hugo. It necessarily goes by extension, and not growth; and to be complete would need to canvass, and represent under some semi-ideal form, every stage and masked concomitant of human progress. If Mr. Lytton should have commissioned a little further back than even legendary Greece, i.e., -- with what some critics would call Legendary Paradise – should not Victor Hugo have given fuller verge to many phases of Oriental life and thought?  But neither Victor Hugo nor Mr. Lytton will ever succeed in making true poems out of such materials, with such overruling systematic conceptions lying behind them. They cannot be poetical in the unity of creative conception, nor in tense keenness of lyrical impulse. They can be poetical only in separate portions, and in off-siding where the ground-well of lyrical feeling may carry the wide, equally-spread waters of poetic thought into deeper side-eddies, on which the full reflex of the poet’s spiritual features may be mirrored with baffling, but suggestive outlines. But then these are nothing else than confusing refluent semicircles interacting and blurring the lines of half-poetic and half-philosophic presentment or demonstration. Even Tennyson was alive to this effect in his “In Memoriam,” from the thread of philosophic purpose which ran through his personal and lyric moods. Therefore he writes of his own work:--

“Forgive these wild and wandering cries—
    Confusions of a wasteful youth.”

And in the intensity of this cry he regains the simple unity of the lyrical note, which in the body of the poem, owing to its very depth, had broken up and run into a chaos of sharps and flats by being brought into contact wit merely cold and bald intellectual conceptions. On characteristic of the age, however, is love of external multiplicity and more superficial extension. In this respect both the “Légende des Siècles” and “Chronicles and Characters” may have some essential and abiding value; and the latter may be read as well as the former. For it, as the positivist critics say, history is but a great and gorgeous external procession, and the business of art to represent it, will not imitation be reinstated as the end-all and be-all of art? Some of Mr. Lytton’s poems have much sweetness, and evidence careful and loving touches. This is especially true of “Licinius,” for instance, though we must warn him against following Browning in the deep but colourless impressions which some of the characters, in their hard self-isolation, seem to make on whatever they into contact with. Some men, like the ghost in Hamlet, may be followed, but not grasped, and their influence, when it excites to imitation, can only divide and weaken. And, by the way, is not “Chronicles and Characters” a poem of the very sort against which Goethe so wisely warned Eckermann?

Last revised: 23 August 2010