Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone




"Glenaveril, or The Metamorphoses": by the Earl of Lytton, "Owen Meredith," [1885] New York:D. Appleton and Company.


It is a little unfortunate for Lord Lytton that the measure, and at times the method, of his new poem inevitably recall "Don Juan." The defiant jauntiness of Byron does not offend, even when it appears most incongruous with its matter, because it has always a meaning—is always representative either of a mood or of an attempt to disguise a mood. But the like attitude in Lytton strikes one as a pose. Byron’s jauntiness was an idiosyncrasy, which Lytton, for effect, has borrowed of him. Passages in "Glenaveril," which to one ignorant of Don Juan would seem racy and taking, lose most of their relish when the flavour is perceived to be not fresh. A diminished Byronic note is plainly detected in

Tyranny’s motto (learn it, young aspirant
To freedom!) is Memento. Death’s a tyrant;

and in the clever saying that

                              Man is not man’s brother
As woman woman’s sister: her vocation
Begins where ends his aid,—with consolation.

It is Dr. Holland, I think, who has said "Fish is good, but fishy is always bad." Sometimes, again, this Byronic off-handedness loses all trace of its origin, and degenerates into a spasmodic attempt at the colloquial and the familiar. Lord Lytton can dramatically present the thought and speech of his own class, but in speaking for the lower classes he is at his worst:—

                                           ‘Then, dear Miss—
Müller, Sir, Martha Müller, as you see,
    Hearty and hale; and, God be thanked for this,
A spinster, Grundbesitzerin, thank Heaven!"
Residence, Stuttgard,—age, Sir, forty-seven.’

In the six books of "Glenaveril" the passages to which the above censures will apply are not few; it must be said, however, that they grow more infrequent as the tale progresses, and the poet becomes more faithfully himself as the interest of his story deepens upon him. Nevertheless, he has not been able to refrain from introducing a shipwreck midway the narrative, and thus again suggesting fatal comparisons. This shipwreck is a spirited piece of work, more than overreaching a fine height, both in expression and imagination. The following stanza, with its impressive concluding line, is a fair instance:—

The next wild moment he, in turn, was gazing
    From the swift upswell down upon the ship;
And for awhile, now sinking and now raising
    Its victims, with alternate heave and dip,
The awful see-saw played. At times the dazing
    Levin in livid gashes seemed to rip
The storm’s heart open, and then all again
    Was one wide roaring darkness lashed with rain.

But bring in contact with this line from Byron’s shipwreck, and how the passage pales and becomes common:—

And first one universal shriek there rushed,
     Louder than the loud ocean, like a crash
Of echoing thunder; and then all was hushed,
    Save the wild wind, and the remorseless dash
Of billows; but at intervals there gushed,
    Accompanied with a convulsive splash,
A solitary shriek, the bubbling cry
Of some strong swimmer in his agony.

This drawing of comparisons may be objected to as cheap and ungracious sort of criticism, but Lord Lytton’s plain invitation must excuse it. When all is said, however, it must be confessed that marked originality is the last excellence to have been anticipated in the verse of "Owen Meredith," whose early work, the brilliant but superficial and slovenly "Lucille," furnished the world with a fit measure of his genius. No more in "Glenaveril" than in his previous poems need we look for great strength and simplicity of passion, or for those little fragments of speech which serve men for a revelation. Once or twice, in the old days, he struck such a note as this:—

A tone, a touch,
A little look, may be so much!
The little glance across the crowd,
None else can read, wherein there lies
A life of love at once avowed,—
The embrace of pining eyes.
So little more had made earth heaven,
That hope to help us was not given.

But the directness and sincerity of this is scarcely even repeated in Lytton’s work. Other qualities there are in abundance. "Glenaveril" is full of quotable things, like

           So great is the capacity
For adaptation that discreetly dwells
In all imperishable principles.

It is not lacking in forcible protest, such as this to England:—

Degenerate land, beware! The storm may break
On thee thyself, when skies seem most serene,
And find thee friendless, as thy friends have been!

And it contains such lively portraitures as this of Bright:—

Who rising yonder, from firm lips unlocks
   Words like chained buildings chafing for release?
What front pugnacious! Doth he rise to box?
   The saints be thanked, your natural fears may cease!
Tho’ fierce of heart as Sefton’s fighting cocks,
   His creed is Penn’s, and his vocation Peace.
Those sturdy fists may not assault your nose,
And words must vent the instinctive wish for blows.

There are passages of eloquent and elevated description, particularly in Book III., which also contains the finely told legend of "Marietta’s Needle," and the swift and appalling scene of "The Catastrophe." There are bits also of very tender colour and delicate sentiment, culminating in that exquisite allegory of the quest of Love, told by Cordelia in Book V., with its creed that

Love’s thirst which loving cannot slake.

In view of the varied poetic riches to be found between the covers of "Glenaveril," it is disappointing to have to confess it not a great poem. It is undeniably, however, a good story well told, interesting to a high degree, fresh in conception, if not in execution, and bathed in a poetic atmosphere. Versatility of talent the whole work displays. The highest poetic power, the interpretive, is not found therein.


"Lytton's Glenaveril," The Week 3:4, 24 December 1885, 51-52 [back]