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ing of poetic pleasure depends very much on the permission given to the poet to combine with the real, something unreal which stands in relation to it: And therefore those who would experience the pleasure must give the permission.
It is thus that the poet is universally allowed to place his personages, even when strictly historical, in circumstances which, we know, could not have been those that actually surrounded them; but only so long as he makes us feel that he is thus enabled to represent, with greater pathos or sublimity, human character, and human act and suffering. There is an obvious limit, therefore, to our willingness to receive that which might have been, instead of that which is. The limit is differently fixed by different minds; nor is any one mind inclined to allow it to the same extent in regard to all the classes of objects which poetry may represent. We willingly give way to illusions which are pleasing; but we instinctively recall the consent when the pleasure ceases to be experienced. Now the pleasure which poetry can give is, for most minds, evolved far most easily out of those emotions which are the proper elements of the tragic-such emotions as pity or terror. It is only minds of a higher order and of finer cultivation, which are strongly susceptible of the pleasure arising from the contemplation of serene and elevated Beauty: and this kind of pleasure is confined to a narrower and narrower circle, as the images which are calculated to awaken it require for their adequate conception a higher and more comprehensive exertion of intellectual energy.
Considerations such as these tell powerfully against the introduction of supernatural agents, evidently unreal, into the poetry of modern times. They make it, indeed, impossible for Epic Poetry, now or hereafter, to recover the ancient ground from which modern enlightenment has driven her, and for the loss of which she is but partially repaid, even by the development of the new resources available to her in the territory still subject to her sway. The author of King Arthur' not only comprehends philosophically the nature and value of these resources, but has shown an admirable skill, as well as a vivid imagination, in the use which he has made of some of the richest of them. Yet it may reasonably be doubted, whether, through the very boldness with which he has dug into the chambers of the mine, some of the most brilliant of the gems placed in his cabinet, will not dazzle and weary, rather than gratify, the eyes of many of the beholders.
But it is not only that the actions and' sentiments of such beings as fairies and genii are deficient in the power of arousing lively sympathy for themselves: this want of power operates also
reflexly, in chilling the feelings which might otherwise be awakened by the human persons with whom the imaginary beings are brought into relation. Hence accordingly, readers to whom the Magic of this poem is a stumbling-block, will not only look with indifference on those by whom the spells are worked, but will also take less interest in the vicissitudes of the hero, whose most striking adventures are almost all achieved in unearthly company, and under supernatural prompting. Perhaps, too, this risk is increased, in regard to minds of an unreflective cast, by some points in the management, which may have been really dictated by a delicate sense of the poetic relations of such inventions. Thus the scenes in the forest beneath the lake, are just a series of pageants, or pictures, passing before Arthur's eyes: he is scarcely called upon to act; only to reflect, and feel, and resolve. The poet has probably done wisely in thus keeping his mythological personages in a kind of motionless distance from us; but he may thus have diminished in some degree the interest excited by the position of his inert hero.
The Allegory of the piece, again, fine as it is, will, beyond doubt, be completely thrown away upon many persons, who would be affronted by a hint that the gods had not made them poetical: and with them, too, the unfavourable impression thus made will be apt to communicate itself to the other parts of the poem. But upon this it is needless to dilate.
We do not know that there is in our language any work which is very like King Arthur.' Probably, indeed, it could not have been written but by one who had been a reverential student of the Faery Queen;' and, both in conception and in execution, it is not an unworthy fruit of lessons learned at the feet of the great romantic master. It may be remarked, also, that the same reasons which may limit the number of visitors to this modern chateau, built upon antique ruins in haunted ground, have probably deterred many from entering the limned and storied chambers which fill the vast though unfinished palace of Spenser himself. But the chateau and the palace are as unlike in plan and elevation as they are in extent.
Among the English poems of our own century, we look in vain for any thing to which King Arthur' could be compared, except in one quarter only, where the resemblance is merely external. Nothing can in substance be more unlike to this thoughtful, regular, and comprehensive epic, than the spirited, picturesque, and fragmentary metrical romances of Scott. Yet, in two slight sketches of his, the Harold' and the Triermain,' we have both the Norse and the Fairy mythology; but to the treatment of them the present author is not at all indebted.
VOL. XC. NO. CLXXXI.
If it were necessary to find parallels therefore, they must be sought abroad; and even in foreign literature there occur none that are very close. The three celebrated Italian poets who related the stories of Charlemagne and his paladins, have indeed shown (little, perhaps, to our poet's advantage), the possibility of combining successfully playful or sarcastic wit with the perils and wonders of chivalry; and two of them at least seem to have furnished him with the germ of some of the more fanciful scenes and figures. But, without venturing on any critical parallels, it must be said, that neither from Berni nor from Ariosto has he derived any prompting for the bold significance of his design; and that he has the advantage of both, and especially of the latter, in the skill with which he weaves together the complicated threads of his story, even if we consider them merely as intended to be easily comprehended and remembered. With Tegner's Frithiof' in some respects, and Wieland's 'Oberon' in others, two works of great, though dissimilar poetic beauty, King Arthur' might be compared, more fairly than with any other poems that are known to us. In some parts it has a colouring not unlike that of the Norwegian landscapes of Tegner: it has much of his luxuriance of imagery, and not a little of his romantic sweetness of sentiment. The "Oberon,' while it wants alike the thoughtful meanings of our poem, and its high moral purity, and never aims at such a pitch either of grandeur or of pathos, is, doubtless, much superior to it, not only in the animation of its narrative, but in the harmony established between its gaiety and its heroism.
Treating this striking poem rigidly as a work of art, and desiring chiefly to ascertain the point from which it should be viewed, and the manner in which the parts contribute to the effect of the whole, we have not left ourselves room, and are indeed little inclined, to indulge in minute criticism of particulars.
There are not a few passages which seem to us exquisitely beautiful, both in conception and in language. Some such have been quoted; and it is with reluctance that we abstain from giving others, which are at least equally delightful, but which were not, like our specimens, conveniently available in an analysis of the story. The character of the diction is quite the poet's own-though its distinctive peculiarities are more easily felt than described. Its chief fault, perhaps, is a want of ease, a tendency to the artificial. Occasionally the meaning is not a little obscure. This seems to arise partly from a laudable desire of energetic brevity, too often obtained through severe inversions, partly from the metaphysical turn which pervades the author's mode of
thought, partly from its crowded personifications and its mytho logical or other learning, and, in a still greater degree, from the formidable difficulties thrown in the way of a long and connected narrative, by the rarely used but very musical stanza which is adopted. The versification, though unequal, is, in its best places, masterly; at once finely toned, and skilfully and broadly varied. The couplet at the close of the stanza, in particular, often sinks on the ear with ravishing melody. The imagerywhich is abundant almost to excess is exceedingly diversified, and, in many passages, not only poetically beautiful, but really new. Some of the most delicate images are drawn from classic fable and art; and, since the preface announces that these have been objected to, we must say it would distress us much to lose them.
Here, however, as in his other works, both in prose and in verse, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton has neither sought nor found the great means of his success, either through felicities of style, or through beauties of description. His field is neither lyrical fancy, nor the delineation of nature, nor even poetic exhibition of abstract thought. It lies in the representation of human life and action, through striking and interesting incidents; and in this, yet more than in his earlier works, the power of the representation is less owing to the excellence of particular parts, than to the vigorous and skilful organisation of the whole. His practice in the composition of prose narratives has been no inapt preparation for the more ambitious task which he has here undertaken; and it has but seldom affected unfavourably the character of his poem. Here and there, doubtless, we can trace a complication of events, or a kind of melodramatic grandiosity, or an anxiety about details, alien from the greatness and simplicity of the heroic. An instance occurs, we fear, even in the closing scene of the Happy Valley:' others are, the sacrificial spectacle in the Twelfth Book; and the pains thrown away in repairing, by the perplexing supposition of an identity of names, the damaged reputation of Queen Guenever.
The Moral conception, both of the characters and of the events, is interesting, not only on its own account, but as a fact in the mental history of the author. Here, as in more than one of his recent works, there is an evident recoil from the sombre aspect in which he was once so much disposed to view human nature and social relations. Picturing scenes of modern and artificial life, keenly observant of the flaws of modern society, and possessed with a profound sense both of the strength and the sufferings of humanity, he has been apt to evolve the interest of his stories out of a direct and irreconcileable antagonism between
character and situation. From this tendency most of his works have derived a deep tinge of satire, or of despondency, or of both. But now it seems as if, weary at heart in contemplating a present world, filled with desires which wrestle together, and aspirations which die unfulfilled, he had been attracted towards the free and shadowy world of the distant past, by feelings akin to those under the pressure of which, thoughtful and religious men formerly fled away from warring cities, to build hermitages in the peaceful desert.
King Arthur' is conceived in the temper which might be induced by wanderings, after long imprisonment, through a beautiful and sequestered country. The miseries which the traveller lately saw, and the disgusts which he lately felt, could not well have been forgotten; although, as we have presumed to hint, the memory of them need not have been so emphatically expressed. But the dominant tone of feeling is cheerful, hopeful, buoyant; and, above all, the imagination, animated by new and enchanting excitements, invests every object perceived with hues of unclouded radiance. In such circumstances it was natural, not only that, the ethical thought and sentiment of the poem should be pure and lofty, but that the ideal personages with whom this ideal world is peopled, should be endowed with moral attributes, which exalt them something too far above the region of common sympathies. Something of this, perhaps, has happened. We can suppose, at least, that a more intense interest might have been awakened in the fate of Arthur and Lancelot, of Egle and Genevieve and Genevra, if they had been presented to us as a little less ideally pure, and generous, and devoted; if some of the chances in which they are involved had made them touch the earth rather more firmly, even though their step had not always been quite steady.
Yet, in saying this, we are conjecturing what may be felt by others, rather than describing the feelings with which we ourselves have come to regard this nobly-conceived image of purified humanity. If the impression did ever strike us, it has faded while we made ourselves, by repeated perusal, more familiar with the design of the work, and more alive in fancy to the beautiful and majestic world which it has sought to create. The Lord of young Romance' has won upon our affections as we become, at due distance, more intimately acquainted with him: And not only do we view with increasing pleasure the scenery and groups by which he is encompassed; but we watch him, on his path of grief, and heroic achievement, and danger, with lively sympathy as well as warm admiration.