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into the substance of the composition. Some of them do, as it appears to us, detract absolutely from the poetical merit of the work; others, while they do not make it less pleasing to those more sensitive and thoughtful spirits in which a poet's verse finds its most harmonious echo, may yet, we are inclined to fear, diminish its chance of being extensively popular.
The first of the points thus hinted at is, the manner in which the Comic elements of the poem are treated. Our doubt is not as to the propriety of the attempt to relieve the heroic and pathetic passages by the interspersion of gaiety, wit, or humour. We might even allow this to be one of the merits of the plan. We can perceive, in some degree at least, the theoretical principles which, first leading the author to engraft the rich and varied interest of the individual adventures on the grand but bare outline of the historical fable, have next induced him to attempt at at once contrasting different parts of his work with each other, and obtaining for such of his readers as may be in want of a little relaxation, a change of tone, through the introduction of those sportive touches, used so freely by some of the older poets when treading, like him, on chivalrous ground.
That to which we take exception then, is not the intention, but the manner of its execution. The comic portions of the composition are, we venture to think, very imperfectly harmonised with the serious; and the evil, as it seems to us, lies in this, that the comic passages are pitched on much too low a key. In some of them, indeed, the chords that are struck do not, to our ear, make music at all.
For the mere levity into which the cheerful scenes have a tendency to pass, we can sometimes discover what may be a plausible or even a sufficient reason, in the relation which these scenes are intended to have towards others. Thus, in the opening of the poem, the light and careless gaiety of the summer festival is designed, not obscurely, to found a contrast, both in event and in character, between Arthur's voluptuous repose when motives to exertion are absent, and his prompt starting into action on receiving the unearthly call. But in other places, where short passages of this kind occur, the effect on our own feelings was grating; and reflection has not removed the harsh impression. An instance is furnished by the discussions-political, theological, ethnological, and philological - which the King very needlessly holds with the Augur on his entrance into the Happy Valley.
The tone, however, which breaks in thus jarringly on the higher parts of the work, is by no means confined to short or
episodical passages. It prevails through whole scenes, and occupies no inconsiderable proportion of the whole. Its great field is the series of misadventures in which Sir Gawaine is entangled. In the description of these there is not a little which is in itself well conceived and executed with spirit, and not a little which is exceedingly amusing; although there is not any thing to justify the belief that, for writing of this kind, the author is very eminently qualified. There are ebullitions of mirth, sometimes temperate, though often loud; strokes of broad and pointed humour, which scarcely rise into wit; frequent pieces of satire, always sarcastic rather than playful; with but little done to idealise them, either by serious feeling or by felicitous imagery. While we cannot but think that Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton might, under any circumstances, have been more worthily employed than in penning scenes like these, our regret principally rests on the positive injury which they cause to the pathos, and beauty, and grandeur of a very noble poem. Indeed, nothing surprises us more than to observe how much, in these comic scenes, he has sunk below the tone in which these or similar incidents are treated in his romantic authorities. The difference is strikingly exemplified on comparing the marriage of Sir Gawaine with its original,the Fabliau of the Chévalier à l'Epée.'
The sarcastic temper so frequent in these interludes reaches its climax in certain scenes, for which we easily detect parallels in the history of the present day. There are such also in Sir Gawaine's travels; the outline of which, however, is ingeniously connected with the main thread of the story. But the unlucky episode of the Vandal Court is entirely of this description; and has not even the excuse of being naturally introduced.
While these portraits of the actual present, clothed in the costume of the imagined past, are distasteful to us for the same reason as the more lightly comic passages, they have this additional fault, that the objects of the satire are not worthily selected. A poem which aims at immortality, and which is not generally unworthy of its proud pretensions, ought not to require, in any its parts, elucidation from newspaper paragraphs. In a philosophical diagnosis of the great agony with which Europe is at present convulsed, the events and persons here delineated would never be put forward as the true symptoms or causes either of the political or of the religious disorganisation. As well might a theatrical critique, meant to describe the opening scenes of a new tragedy, confine itself to drawing a likeness of the candle-snuffer, or chronicling the catcalls of the impatient pit.
These remarks are made reluctantly; and we should be
sorry to be as ungrateful as we must appear if they should be thought hypercritical. The poet's justification will be complete, if it shall be found that the passages on which we are now animadverting, serve to enhance, or even that they do not impair, the profound impression which the poem, as a whole, is calculated to make on minds susceptible of the finest influences of poetry. Nor will we endeavour to render this result less probable, by making any answer to such defence as may be set up on the plea of poetical precedents. We willingly leave both the farce and the satire of King Arthur' to take such benefit as they may, from the example of Pulci-to whose tone of humour they come, perhaps, nearer than to any other; from the contemporary satire occasionally introduced by Ariosto and Berni; or from the sombre bitterness with which, even in the midst of majestic terrors, the satirist's scourge is so frequently wielded by the mighty hand of Dante.
To say the truth, it would not very much surprise us, if readers, to whom the genuine poetry of King Arthur' is caviare, should be attracted by the keen portraiture of Puseyism and political ethics; of Irish repeal and rates-in-aid; of French royalties revolutionised, and republics retrogressive. Many to whom The New Timon' appealed in vain, through its pathetic imagination and its despondingly thoughtful philosophy, looked with infinite zest on the daguerreotype miniatures of the illustrious passengers in the Park. But Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton is not to be suspected of a desire to purchase the approbation of vulgar minds, by any unworthy condescension.
Indeed, he has deliberately, and not altogether through necessity, incurred a risk of placing King Arthur' beyond the range of ordinary sympathies-by the second of the peculiarities, respecting which we intimated our inclination to except. We allude to his copious use of the Supernatural and Allegorical -and the aspect and relations under which the supernatural agency is represented.
It is right, however, to say, at once, that over our own minds these marvellous personages and incidents exert a delightful witchery, which we do not seek to resist. They have created for us a world of new and beautiful images; and the pleasure which they bestow is not impaired by any interference with cherished associations; it is increased, on the contrary, and ennobled by the suggestion of touching and momentous truths, of which the unreal pictures become the representatives and exponents. The old dreams come back, but with new interpretations. It is still the beings of romance that rise before us; but
they are seen through a bright and tinted atmosphere, cast around them by modern thought and knowledge.
The Supernatural elements were introduced, it may be assumed, with the view of raising the story into the heroic sphere: And the incorporating of them in the forms consecrated by romantic fable gives them that hold upon our sympathies, the loss of which, inventions entirely original could not often be fortunate enough, to replace, by a stronger spell. Such supernatural figures, too, the objects of a faith which has perished, and therefore wanting much of their ancient charm,-recover their poetic life, when there is thrown over them the transparent veil of Allegory: And it appears to us, that, in the poem now before us, the poetical character of allegorical invention is for the most part very justly apprehended and effectively embodied. The image alone is represented: the associated truth is hinted only through the image. There is a value even in the uncertain dimness in which the significance of the picture is not infrequently wrapped -notwithstanding the tendency to mysticism which is thus occasioned, and which, indeed, is the besetting sin of all poetry that is intensely thoughtful. Distinctness is possessed by the Symbol only it is the hard and dark shadow which the mountain casts upon the plain. In mere Allegory, the shadow falls on the glassy surface of the lake, where, though in fainter and more airy tints, are reflected all the glories of colour and of light and shade: But the image trembles in the tremulous haze and under the gentle breeze; and it is not the same image for spectators who stand at different points upon the bank.
Those to whom poetry is at once an object of meditative study, and a source of refined enjoyment, will feel that the lofty design of the poem has been admirably advanced by the enchanted Forest of the Lake, with its beautiful and majestic figures, so magnificently grouped and so profoundly suggestive, -by the gigantic terrors of the Polar Cavern, faintly seen through their shifting shroud of clouds and darkness,―by the half-revealed spells and prophecies of the august wizard of Carduel, and by that bewitching shadow, which wanders like an angel by Arthur's side on his path of unearthly perils,—to take the loveliest of human shapes at last, and soothe his heart with the holiness of human love.
The evil which we are most afraid of, is, that readers of this class will prove less numerous than we, as well as the author of King Arthur,' would like to see them. If those other merits of the work which are more generally appreciable shall command for it, as we sincerely wish they may, such attention as to make it an instrument of raising the standard of
taste among those to whom the poetry of our day is addressed, it will have conferred on literature a benefit even greater than that which it must confer through its intrinsic excellence as a literary work. Yet the poet himself cannot but be aware that, if Arthur' is to be widely popular, it must become so, by partly creating the taste to which it appeals, by teaching, through attractive example, the precious lesson, that poetry is then most worthy of its high rank among human energies, when it seeks to please through the excitement of manly emotions and widely-reaching sympathies, and of emotions and sympathies of whose evolution energetic activity of intellect is a necessary condition;-by teaching also this other lesson, not less needed by the literary audiences of our times, that these highest ends of poetic art cannot be attained, unless there be allowed to the poet a range of imaginative invention extending very far indeed beyond the limits of the actual.
Now, the doctrine of respectful tolerance for the license of poetic imagination never commands assent so slowly, as when its application is sought to be extended to the introduction of Supernatural Agency. In this region, indeed, is raised the barrier by which, more than by any other, the free movement of modern poetry is confined. All superhuman beings whose real existence is an object of religious faith, are now guarded, by a salutary awe, from the rash touch of fancy. A modern poet, in a narrative whose interest depends chiefly on the concerns of time and earth, must, if he would not entirely renounce the serious and elevating charm which the Supernatural alone can bestow, seek it by clothing the idea in some of those forms which have received a sanction from the striking but decayed superstitions of older times. But wizards, and fairies, and guardian genii, beings whose existence is no longer believed, in losing their reality have lost their power. They are now nothing more than decorations or instruments of poetry; the introduction of them is only one of those expedients which, although contradicting our sense of reality, the poet is allowed to adopt, as a means of attaining the paramount purpose of his art.
Whether society be, or be not, founded on an original compact, it is certain that poetry is founded on something which is not unlike one. It is the prerogative of the poet to substitute, in certain respects, the unreal for the real; but he holds his kingly right, on this tenure, that he shall, in consideration or it, perform certain duties to his voluntary subjects. He is bound to excite, in the minds of his audience, one variety or another of those pleasing emotions, the excitement of which is the purpose of poetry as of the other fine arts. But the awaken