Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by John Drinkwater
Richard Henry Hengist Horne (18021884)
[Born in London. In middle life he changed his name of Henry for that of Hengist. Literature shared his devotion with a life of adventure; he served in the Mexican navy and he dug for gold in Australia. He published four poetic plays, the most widely known of which is probably The Death of Marlowe (1837), and his other poetical works were Orion (1843) and Ballad Romances (1846). His prose writings included A New Spirit of the Age (1844). He lived until 1884, dying on March 13 of that year.]
FOR his verse dramas Horne was extravagantly praised in his own day as an Elizabethan born out of due time. Of the tumultuous and passionate poetry that was at the call of nearly all the Elizabethan playwrights Horne had nothing, and what his plays had of poetical merit was derived, in spite of the critics who so strongly asserted that here was nothing of imitation, partly from his own polished sense of verse but chiefly from sympathetic recollection. They had, however, one striking quality which he owed to no man; they moved with a real interest of action, and the action was related with honourable art to the development of character or idea and was not used for any merely vulgar sensationalism. It is this quality that gives its value to Hornes Orion, the epic that by reason of its original price of one farthing obtained notoriety before it secured a very just measure of fame. The poet in a preface claimed serious consideration for the philosophical theme, looking to this for his justification. The philosophical passages, however, make unprofitable reading, and the abstractions of the poem, such as Akinetos, the Great Unmoved, are almost comic in their solemnity. The epic would, moreover, be a fruitful ground for the anthologist of the flattest lines in poetry,
Giddy with happiness Orions spirit
Now danced in air.
His friends Orion left
His further preparations to complete.
Some spake aloud; against Orion, all,
Save the bald sage, who said twas natural.
Natural! they cried: O wretch! The sage was stoned.
Hence, never moved by hands unskilled
But moved as best may be. Be warned; sit still.
and others which readers will discover for themselves embedded in the fine passage here given. But when all this is said, Orion remains an extremely interesting and in some respects an excellent poem. The loves of Orion for Artemis, Merope, and Eos, and his activities in the kingdom of Oinopion, are told with great force and conviction, and with many charming turns of description. Troublesome as the philosophy may be, it does not overload the poem unduly, and the readers attention is carried through by the sheer human interest of the story in a manner which is as refreshing as it is rare. There are very few poems of its rank and length that are so little open to the charge of dullness, and Horne on this account if on no other deserves a much wider public than he has retained. His ambition, no doubt, was to justify anew the ways of God to man, and he had not the intellectual power to translate so cosmic a plan into poetry. But he passionately realized the human nature of his hero, and in consequence he made a poem of some three thousand lines emotionally exciting, which is no mean achievement for any poet. Orion has tedious patches, but it is anything but a tedious poem, and once a poor opening has been passed it gives, for all its flaws, a great deal of pleasure of a high order.
The Ballad Romances have the same forthright qualities, telling very readable tales in good homespun verse, and keeping always in touch with emotional sanity. There is much delicacy of invention in The Three Knights of Camelott, and the story of Bedd Gelert is admirably and poignantly told, whilst in The Noble Heart and Delora1 there are many passages of close imaginative perception. The book emphasizes Hornes claim to no mean poetic honour.