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George Eliot, unsigned review, Westminster Review

George Eliot, unsigned review, Westminster Review

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come to us like original melodies, which are beautiful facts that one never thinks

of altering any more than a pine-tree or a river; we are haunted by the feeling

that he might have said the same thing much better. But when, simply for the sake

of converse with a nature so gifted and cultivated as Mr. Arnold’s, we linger

over a poem which contains some deep and fresh thought, we begin to perceive

poetic beauties—felicities of expression and description, which are too quiet and

subdued to be seized at the first glance. You must become familiar with his poems

before you can appreciate them as poetry, just as in the early spring you must

come very near to the woods before you can discern the delicate glossy or downy

buds which distinguish their April from their winter clothing. He never attains

the wonderful word-music of Tennyson, which lives with you like an Adelaide

of Beethoven, or a Preghiera of Rossini; but his combinations and phrases are

never common, they are fresh from the fountain, and call the reader’s mind into

new activity. Mr. Arnold’s grand defect is want of rhythm—we mean of that

rhythm which is music to an English ear. His imitations of the classical metres

can no more win a place in our lasting national poetry than orange and olivetrees can flourish in our common English gardens; and his persistence in these

imitations is, we think, a proof that he lacks that fine sense of word-music, that

direct inspiration of song, as distinguished from speech, which is the crowning

gift of the poet.

This Second Series is not equal, though it is a worthy companion, to the first;

there is no poem in it so fine as ‘Zohrab and Rustum,’ or ‘Tristan and Iseult;’ but

in putting the volume into the hands of a reader to whom Mr. Arnold’s poems

were new, we should point to ‘Resignation,’ and to ‘The Last Glen,’ and ‘Typho’

in ‘The Harpplayer on Ætna,’ as favourable specimens of the author’s power in

two directions—the expression of exquisite sensibility united with deep thought,

in which he reminds us of Wordsworth, and the revivifying of antique

conceptions by freshly-felt descriptions of external nature and masterly

indications of permanent human feeling, after the manner of Tennyson. We steal

space for the sake of quoting two passages from ‘Resignation:’—

The Poet, to whose mighty heart

Heaven doth a quicker pulse impart,

Subdues that energy to scan

Not his own course, but that of Man.

[Quotes additionally ll. 164–98; 261–78]



Other comments on the early volumes


Unsigned notice in the English Review, March 1850

A still more helpless, cheerless doubter [than Clough] is ‘A.,’ author of The

Strayed Reveller, and other Poems, whom, for the sake of his father’s memory,

we forbear to name more particularly. Yet, not surprised are we, such teaching

should have led to such results: by the fruit we know the seed. Any thing more

darkly melancholy, more painfully sombre, than the last poem in the volume

entitled ‘Resignation,’ and addressed to ‘Fausta,’ we never remember to have

seen. The poet, in the very heyday of his youthful spring, arrives at the

conclusion, that all life, whether for ourselves or others’ sakes, is vanity. He says:

[Quotes ‘Resignation’, ll. 231–8, ‘Blame thou not’, etc. and 261–78, ‘Enough,

we live!’ etc.]

This melancholy is deep indeed. The very first longer poem in the volume,

‘Mycerinus,’ is a kind of apotheosis of despair; it looks as if suggested by a father’s

fate. At the same time, it seems almost a profession of atheism! ‘Emerson,’ we

learn from the sonnet on p. 52, is one of ‘A.’s’ great teachers: a ‘god of his

idolatry.’ Poor worshipper, with such a god!—The reminiscences of Tennyson

and Browning are manifold also in this volume. Thus ‘A Modern Sappho’ is a

rather confused imitation, or reminiscence, of one of Browning’s ‘Dramatic

Romances,’ entitled ‘The Laboratory;’ and a very mystical affair, called ‘The

New Sirens, a Palisode,’ is more Tennysonian than Tennyson himself. Even the

most beautiful poem in the volume, ‘The Forsaken Merman,’ reminds us of

Tennyson, but not unpleasantly: it is far superior to that poet’s ‘Merman’ or

‘Mermaid;’ and, perhaps, equal to any of his lyrical creations. There is a musical

cadence in the rhythm almost unrivalled. The same merit will be discovered in

the somewhat aimless, yet lyrically beautiful poem, which gives its name to the


Altogether, of these two new poets, ‘A.’ is, we think, the superior, being at

once the more earnest and the more poetical; but each has real claims. ‘A’s’

singing is like the musical wind wailing through the forest tops on the high

mountains far away. ‘Clough’ resembles rather the monotonous heaving of the

sea against a rock-bound shore. Both are very sad; and neither Oxford nor

Cambridge need rejoice in their children.



J.C.Shairp in a letter to Clough, 16 April 1853

I fear Mat’s last book has made no impression on the public mind. I’m not much

in the way of hearing but I’ve seen no one, except a few Oxford Rugbeans who

have even read it. It does not much astonish me, for though I think there’s great

power in it, one regrets to see so much power thrown away upon so false and

uninteresting (too) a view of life. Since you have gone from England, it’s well

you’ve gone to a hearty fresh young people, rather than into the ‘blank dejection

of European Capitols’. Anything that so takes the life from out things must be

false. It’s this I like about your things that though in theory you maintain the

contrary, yet in fact the ‘great human heart’ will out and you can’t hinder it:

Stick to this. Mat, as I told him, disowns man’s natural feelings, and they will

disown his poetry. If there’s nothing else in the world but blank dejection, it’s

not worth while setting them to music.


Arnold to Clough in November 1853

[November 25]

My dear Clough

Just read through Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur and Sohrab and Rustum one

after the other, and you will see the difference in the tissue of the style of the two

poems, and in its movement. I think the likeness, where there is likeness, (except

in the two last lines which I own are a regular slip) proceeds from our both

having imitated Homer. But never mind—you are a dear soul. I am in great

hopes you will one day like the poemreally like it. There is no one to whose

aperỗus I attach the value I do to yours—but I think you are sometimes—with

regard to me especially—a little cross and wilful.

I send you two letters—not that you may see the praise of me in them (and I

can sincerely say that praise of myself—talking about imagination—genius and

so on—does not give me, at heart, the slightest flutter of pleasure—seeing people

interested in what I have made, does—) but that you may see how heartily two

very different people seem to have taken to Sohrab and Rustum. This is

something, at any rate.

[November 30]

I think the poem [‘Sohrab and Rustum’] has, if not the rapidity, at least the

fluidity of Homer: and that it is in this respect that it is un-Tennysonian: and that

it is a sense of this which makes Froude and Blackett say it is a step in advance

of Tennyson in this strain.

A thousand things make one compose or not compose: composition seems to

keep alive in me a cheerfulness—a sort of Tuchtigkeit, or natural soundness and

valiancy, which I think the present age is fast losing—this is why I like it.


I am glad you like the Gipsy Scholar—but what does it do for you? Homer

animates—Shakespeare animates—in its poor way I think Sohrab and Rustum

animates—the Gipsy Scholar at best awakens a pleasing melancholy. But this is

not what we want.

The complaining millions of men

Darken in labour and pain—

what they want is something to animate and ennoble them—not merely to add

zest to their melancholy or grace to their dreams.—I believe a feeling of this kind

is the basis of my nature—and of my poetics.

You certainly do not seem to me sufficiently to desire and earnestly strive

towards—assured knowledge—activity—happiness. You are too content to

fluctuate—to be ever learning, never coming to the knowledge of the truth. This

is why, with you, I feel it necessary to stiffen myself— and hold fast my rudder.

My poems, however, viewed absolutely, are certainly little or nothing.


Harriet Martineau in the Daily News, 26 December 1853

That the keen and just observation, and power of reflecting upon the ‘inner eye’

things absent, which are privileges of the true poet, are wanting in Mr. Arnold, we

infer, notwithstanding his frequent assembling of picturesque words and images,

from such lines as the following:

Pois’d on the top of a huge wave of Fate,

Which hangs uncertain to which side to fall.

(There never was such a wave seen at Brighton, or elsewhere.)

To gaze on the green sea of leaf and bough.

(There never was such a forest view beheld off any mound in Windsor or West


and even from the employment of single words such as ‘beckon’d,’ in page

21. ‘Ere the parting kiss be dry’ is the refrain of a love poem, but had better been

altogether refrained from. We draw a similar conclusion from innumerable trite

phrases and illustrations, such as ‘quick as a flash;’ ‘thundering to earth’ [a

club]; ‘her fingers slight, as the driven snow were white;’ ‘raven hair;’

‘whispering honied nothings;’ ‘Fate’s iron heel;’ as also from the attempts at rich

description of scenery, as in the ‘Dream,’ page 178, and of a church, page 151, in

both of which are good enough words, but no poetry. We may note, in passing,

that the three lines on this page 151, ‘And thou, O princess,’ &c., are as glaring

examples of want of truthful conception as could perhaps be anywhere found.


Among the other pieces is one called ‘Mycerinus.’ He, according to

Herodotus, being a King of Egypt better than any of his predecessors, was told

by an oracle that he had but six years longer to live. Mr. Arnold represents him

as thereupon giving up all care of his kingdom with these words:

Ye men of Egypt, ye have heard your king.

I go, and I return not. But the will

Of the great Gods is plain; and ye must bring

Ill deeds, ill passions, zealous to fulfil

Their pleasure, to their feet; and reap their praise,

The praise of Gods, rich boon! and length of days.

and spending the remaining six years in continual revelries in his pleasuregardens on the Nile, only intruded on by awful reminders of his approaching

doom. The moral significance, here again, is either null, or very difficult to

understand, or not salutary. ‘Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die;’ and the

same remark applies to ‘The Strayed Reveller,’ which would seem to express, if

anything, the pleasures of getting drunk. It has no story. The issues of those that

have—of ‘Tristram and Iseult,’ ‘Sohrab and Rustum,’ and ‘Mycerinus,’ are each

and all, unrelieved, undignified misfortune, the infliction (this is very noticeable)

of a blind Fate: acting through a love-potion in one case; announced by a cruel

oracle in another; and driving the Father and Son against each other—according

to Sohrab’s own words,

Fage—Fate engag’d

The strife, and hurl’d me on my father’s spear.

in the third.

Have we really at this day amongst us one for whom the universe turns round

that awful centre, of a blind necessity, grinding men and all things continually to

dust?—that thought from which the Greek took refuge in poetic mythology and

exquisite realism. But to recur; we find in Mr. Arnold’s preface this paragraph:

—‘What then are the situations, from the representation of which, though

accurate, no poetical enjoyment can be derived? They are those in which

the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental

distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there

is everything to be endured, nothing to be done. In such situations there is

inevitably something morbid, in the description of them something monotonous.’

Now, in the three principal pieces just named, what is the situation in which we,

at least, leave Iseult, and Rustum, and Mycerinus, to which the whole in each

case tends, and from which we carry away our general impression?—surely in ‘a

continuous state of mental distress, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in

which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done.’ Theory and


practice, in this respect more utterly at variance, could not, it seems to us, be

found anywhere.

The shorter pieces are not remarkable, except, first, for the absurd servility to

antique fashions which gives one lyric, about a young lady, the title of ‘The

Modern Sappho,’ and another, about a nightingale, the very fresh one of

‘Philomela,’ whom Mr. Arnold hears on the banks of the Thames complaining of

the ill-usage recorded by M.Lemprière; and, second, for the promise of metre

which so many of them keep to the eye but wholly break to the ear. At this

season, when charades and conundrums enliven the drawing-room, we offer the

following, here printed without alteration or transposition of a word or comma,

for the wits of the ingenious to exercise upon, in discovering how they could

possibly have been arranged in the form or semblance of metre. Imprimis, the

whole of the poem called ‘Richmond Hill’ (but we are not so cruel as to set out

friends to look for the meaning of it—only the metre), as follows: ‘Murmur of

living! stir of existence! soul of the world! make, oh make yourselves felt to the

dying Spirit of Youth! Come, like the breath of the Spring! leave not a human

soul to grow old in darkness and pain. Only the living can feel you, but leave us

not while we live!’ Then these extracts: ‘Mist clogs the sunshine. Smoky dwarf

houses hem me round everywhere. A vague dejection weighs down my soul.’

‘Time, so complain’d of, who to no one man shows partiality, brings round to all

men some undimm’d hours.’ ‘What Bard, at the height of his vision, can deem of

God, of the world, of the soul, with a plainness as near, as flashing as Moses felt,

when he lay in the night by his flock on the starlit Arabian waste? can rise and

obey the beck of the Spirit like him?’

Finally, we take leave of Mr. Arnold, with his cleverness and his scholarship,

his somewhat superciliously announced theories of poetry, his attachment to

ancient models, and his echoes (for all that) of the Tennysonian cadences, in the

conviction that, although he has written no common verses—nay, better than

some men to-day of celebrity as ‘poets’—he was not born a poet, and therefore

never can be one. Many claim the rank; few show claims so plausible as his,

because of the superiority of his general talents and culture; but his claims also

want the genuine stamp. We say so, not without pain, yet distinctly.


W.R.Roscoe in the Prospective Review, February 1854

This book must bring genuine pleasure to every one whose judgment it is worth a

man’s while to interest. Mr. Arnold measures himself too justly to claim a place

among the kings of song, but below the topmost heights of Parnassus lie many

pleasant ranges and happy pastures, among whose denizens he may enjoy a not

ignoble rank. He starts from a vantage ground rare in these days. He possesses

the uncommon and valuable conviction that poetic art has its nature and its rules

which admit of being studied with advantage. Nor does he want the more

intrinsic attributes of a poet. A keen and refined sense of beauty, sometimes


finding its expression in phrases of exquisite felicity, a mind and artistic faculty,

trained, and disciplined to reticence, and an imagination of considerable scope

and power, are no mean qualifications.

There is artistic finish too in his verse (though as we wish hereafter to remark,

not in his conceptions); not the finish of high polish, but the refined ease and

grace of a taste pure by nature and yet conscientiously cultivated. Hence instead

of congratulating ourselves that we have read him, we find a pleasure in actually

reading him, and take him up again and again with undiminished freshness and

enjoyment. Partly it is that he does not make too great a demand upon us; his

light free air refreshes us. Instead of being hemmed in by that majesty and terror

which make the vicinity of the Alps oppressive, we stroll with lighter hearts on

breezy heaths and uplands. Like Wordsworth, Mr. Arnold owes part of his charm

to the very absence of deep and engrossing feelings in his nature.


Charles Kingsley in Fraser’s Magazine, February 1854

One point seems questionable about [‘Sohrab and Rustum’] and that is the end of

it. Why, after all the human interest of the poem, are we to turn suddenly off to

mere nature and nature-description, beautiful as that may be?

But the majestic river floated on

Out of the mist and hum of that low land

Into the frosty starlight, and there moved

Rejoicing, through the lone Chorasmian waste

Under the solitary moon.

And so on, for some twelve or fourteen lines more, every one and all of them lifelike, perfect, both as parts and as a whole: but why here?— why end with this?

True, the poem began with the Oxus, and ends with it also; but is that right, even

in an episode? If the poet cannot always shew how his subject arises out of

eternity, he should surely shew how it returns to it again; there must be some

solace; the mind must have something on which to rest, after the chances and

changes of this mortal life; something to calm his excitement, without deadening

his interest, and to make him feel that after all The Powers are just, that it is

better with the righteous in his misery, than with the evil in his prosperity.

Sophocles surely always does this; Shakspeare always. And if Mr. Arnold was

not minded to do it here, he had far better have ended with

And Rustum and his son were left alone,

so compelling the reader to work out the problem in his own mind, than have

tried to turn our human interest and affection from them, by telling us about the

Oxus. Who cares whither the Oxus goes, or what becomes of it, while Rustum is


lying in the sand by his dead son, like one of ‘Giamschid’s fallen pillars in

Persepolis?’ The Oxus, and all the rivers on earth, yea all nature, and the sun and

moon, if they intrude themselves at such a moment, are simply impertinences.

Rustum and his son are greater than they: nearer to us than they. Our spirits are

hovering lovingly round their spirits; and as for the Oxus and its going into the Aral

Sea, or the Red Sea—Let it go! Surely Mr. Arnold has not fallen into this

mistake of malice prepense? Surely this is not a remnant of that old fault of his,

the affecting—(for no young man really does more than affect)—to believe that

man is less than phenomenal nature, and a part of it, and that while the Oxus, and

the stars, and the Aral Sea, go on right and fulfil their destinies, it is somewhat

beneath a wise man to make himself unhappy about the puny little human beings

who fight, and love, and do right and do wrong upon its banks? He would not

surely wish us to believe that all the noble human pathos, and spiritual

experience which he has been displaying throughout the poem, is at heart cold

and unreal, a thing which has been put on for forty pages, and then pulled off

again at the sight of any river in the world?


D.G.Rossetti in a letter to William Allingham, 1855

I suppose there is no chance of your having written an unrhymed elegy on Currer

Bell, called ‘Haworth Churchyard’, in this Fraser, and signed ‘A.’ There is some

thorough appreciation of poor Wuthering Heights in it, but then the same stanza

raves of Byron, so you can’t have done it; not to add that it wouldn’t be up to any

known mark of yours, I think.


1857, dated 1858


‘J.C.’ (John Conington?), review, Fraser’s Magazine

June 1858, lvii, 691–701

Conington (1825–69) was a classical scholar, an editor of Greek and Latin

literature, and an Oxford professor, who was temperamentally and by

training inclined to respect Arnold’s tragedy. Of the preface and the play

he writes: ‘The one is a brilliant specimen of a class of which we have

many, though still too few, examples; the other is almost, if not altogether

unique.’ Conington begins his discussion with a pertinent and shrewd

analysis of the preface, which has obvious application to the play. I have

included this but omitted a leisurely discussion of the mythological basis

of the play and what amounts to a plot summary.

This is an instalment, promptly and gracefully offered, of Mr. Arnold’s debt to

the University which, not twelve months ago, elected him to its Professorship of

Poetry. It is indeed precisely what was to have been expected from his poetical

antecedents. He had published enough to show that it was in his power to give

new life to a chair which was especially instituted to promote the study of the

poetry of classical antiquity. It was not merely that, in his Preface to the first

volume which appeared with his name, he had given a delicate and

discriminating exposition of the excellences of the classical school, but that some

of his own happiest efforts were framed after classical models, and framed with a

minute attention which was itself, to all intents and purposes, a lecture in

criticism. The reader of the ‘Fragment of an Antigone’ could hardly help feeling

that he understood Sophocles better; the reader of ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ could

scarcely fail to gain a new insight into the conduct of the Homeric narrative and

the structure of the Homeric simile. Such was the promise, and we are now in

possession of what may fairly be called a substantial part of the performance. We

have a Preface, which is itself a long lecture on classical poetry; and we have an

entire tragedy, which is virtually equivalent to many more. Both are, in their way,


remarkable; but the pretensions of the play are necessarily much beyond those of

the preface. The one is a brilliant specimen of a class of which we have many,

though still too few, examples; the other is almost, if not altogether, unique.

We are conscious that our description of Mr. Arnold’s experiment does not

altogether agree with that which he would himself put forward. We have treated

it as an experiement in art made for the sake of criticism; he evidently intends it

to be an experiment in art made for the sake of art. ‘I desired,’ such are the words

of his Preface, ‘to try how much of the effectiveness of the Greek poetical forms

I could retain in an English poem, constructed under the conditions of those forms;

of those forms, too, in their severest and most definite expression, in their

application to dramatic poetry.’ Elsewhere in the Preface he dwells on this

severity of form as the secret of that peculiar excellence which has always

impressed itself on the minds of the students of the Greek drama. ‘Sophocles,’ he

remarks in a very discriminating passage, apropos of Mr. Lewes’ critique of

Goethe’s Iphigenia, ‘does not produce the sentiments of repose, of acquiescence,

by inculcating it, by avoiding agitating circumstances: he produces it by

exhibiting to us the most agitating matter under the conditions of the severest

form.’ He insists on the effect, not only of unity of plan in the action, and symmetry

in the treatment of it, but of the minuter conformity of speech to speech in the

dialogue, and strophe to antistrophe in the choral songs. He enlarges on the

functions performed by the Chorus itself as a constituent element of the drama—

first, as the ‘ideal spectator,’ expressing what the actual spectator would wish to

feel; secondly, as affording to excited feeling the relief which Shakespeare seeks

to supply by intermingling comedy with tragedy. All this he puts forth, not as an

antiquary, or even as a philosophical critic, anxious to show that ancient art had

its true and human side, but as an artist desirous to remedy the defects, and

renovate the spirit of modern art by a recurrence to earlier and, in some respects,

better times. He nowhere, indeed, commits himself to a formal comparison

between the classical and the romantic, the old and the new; but he scarcely

conceals that he is not exactly neutral in the controversy. The very sentence in

which he appears to demand least for the ancients contains a claim which, if

conceded, would involve the concession of all. ‘The laws of Greek art…are not

exclusive; they are for Greek dramatic art itself, but they do not pronounce other

modes of dramatic art unlawful: they are, at most, prophecies of the

improbability of dramatic success under other conditions.’ The italics are Mr.

Arnold’s own, and they certainly add significance to what was already

significant enough.

Now, we are not going to take the part of modern sciolism against ancient

experience, and protest against a classical revival merely because it is classical.

Our love of classical poetry is as warm as Mr. Arnold’s: our opinion of the good

which he is doing and may do, by fixing the attention of our younger poets on

classical models, is strong and decided. But we wish to point out one or two

considerations which seem to us, apart from popular ignorance and prejudice,

effectually to preclude any attempt at restoring the classical drama as against the


Shakespearian, or even side by side with it. The first is furnished to our hands by

Mr. Arnold himself. In a passage not far from those which are extracted in the

last paragraph, he admits clearly that the structure of the Greek drama was

necessitated by certain circumstances which he proceeds to explain:—

The Greek theatres [he says] were vast, and open to the sky: the actors,

masked, and in a somewhat stiff tragic costume, were to be regarded from

a considerable distance: a solemn, clearly marked style of gesture, a

sustained tone of declamation, were thus rendered necessary. Under these

conditions, intricate byplay, rapid variations in the action, requiring great

mobility, everchanging shades of tone and gesture in the actor, were

impossible. Broad and simple effects were, under these conditions, above all

to be aimed at: a profound and clear impression was to be effected.

What is this but really to concede the whole point at issue? Certain things, which

Mr. Arnold apparently admits to be good, and which a modern will be apt to say

constitute almost the whole resemblance between the drama and human life, had

to be sacrificed by the Greeks in consequence of the peculiar construction of

their theatres. But is that any reason why they should be sacrificed by a nation

which can enjoy them even in the theatre, and can unquestionably enjoy them in

the closet? What becomes of the ‘prophecy of the improbability of dramatic

success under other conditions’ than those of the Greek forms, when the

circumstances of dramatic representation are changed? It is possible, no doubt,

that the Greeks were in some sort gainers by their privations; that having, before

all things, to aim at ‘effecting a profound and clear impression,’ they did produce

it more unmistakeably than others who have fewer difficulties to contend with,

just as a blind man will often acquire extraordinary powers of touch. It is

possible; and yet when we think of Shakespeare, we can hardly say that modern

art must necessarily fail in producing an impression of real and profound unity,

while at the same time it confessedly creates that sense of variety which Greek

art, as confessedly, does not attempt to compass. But in any case it seems strange

to expect that modern dramatists should consult clearness of impression by

writing in the manner best adapted to strike the eye and ear of spectators—ideal

in another sense than Schlegel’s —sitting at distances which are happily now


Again, it is forgotten that the Greek drama was not, even in Greece, a

permanent institution. Mr. Arnold quotes a passage from Aristotle, where it is

said that ‘tragedy, after going through many changes, got the nature which suited

it, and there it stopped.’ Tragedy, with Aristotle’s favour, did not stop as he

would lead us to suppose. In one sense, indeed, it stopped—as a watch stops. It

ceased to be cultivated with success, and it ceased to be cultivated at all. But its

whole life was a course of change, and the change may be said to have gone on

after its death. About the earlier changes there is indeed no dispute. The dialogue,

it is admitted, gradually gained ground on the chorus: but it appears to be

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George Eliot, unsigned review, Westminster Review

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