Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe-Milnes, Marquess of Crewe
Richard Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton (18091885)
[Richard Monckton Milnes was born June 19, 1809, the only son of Robert Milnes, M. P., of Fryston and Bawtry in Yorkshire, and of Henrietta Monckton, daughter of the fourth Viscount Galway. Delicacy in boyhood kept him from a public school, but in 1827 he entered at Trinity College, Cambridge. Later he studied at Bonn, and spent several years in Italy, where his parents were then living. In 1837 he was elected for Pontefract as a Conservative, but after 1846 attached himself loosely to the Liberal Party, maintaining throughout a special interest in social reform. In 1851 he married Annabel Crewe, daughter of the second Lord Crewe, and in 1863 was raised to the Peerage as Lord Houghton. He lost his wife in 1874, and died of angina pectoris, at Vichy in France, on August 11, 1885. Of poetry he published in 1834 Memorials of a Tour in Greece, and in 1838 Memorials of a Residence on the Continent, and Historical Poems. In 1840 appeared Poetry for the People, and in 1844 Poems, Legendary and Historical, and Palm Leaves. A collected edition was issued in 1876. His principal prose works, besides a number of pamphlets, &c., were the Life of Keats, published in 1848, and Monographs, Personal and Social, in 1873.]
IN 1838 Henry Crabb Robinson noted in his Diary how Landor had maintained that Milnes is the greatest poet now living in England. Landor could be an exuberant critic; and even though he purposely ignored the last flickerings of Southeys existence and Wordsworths barren old age, five years earlier Tennyson had published The Lotos-Eaters and The Palace of Art; while Paracelsus had lately shown careful critics that another new-comer had to be reckoned with. Still it is interesting to recall the verdict to a generation which has nearly forgotten Lord Houghtons poetry, and remembers him principally as a witty and genial man of the world, and promoter of some useful public reforms during the first forty years of Queen Victorias reign.
Whatever germs of poetry were inborn in Richard Milnes were sure of sympathetic cultivation in the famous coterie of the late twenties at Trinity, Cambridge, where the three Tennysons, the two Lushingtons, Arthur Hallam, and Richard Trench talked and wrote. The devotion of the whole circle to Keats and Shelley, which produced the first English issue of Adonais, and dispatched Hallam, Milnes, and Sunderland to the Oxford Union as champions of its authors art, was linked with an enthusiasm for Wordsworth scarcely less ardent, and doubtless in some respects corrective. Milnes was no copyist; but until the time came when Eastern travel gave him something of a new vision, and therewith something of a fresh manner, the influence of the older masters is not less patent in his work than in the earlier poems of Alfred Tennyson. In the last year of his life, at each of two gatherings held in honour of Gray and of Wordsworth, he dwelt on the disadvantages under which the poets of sentiment labour in comparison with the supreme poets of passion and of imagery. As he himself admitted, any such classification of schools and of individuals must be arbitrary and imperfect; and no doubt qualitative analysis on these lines of such utterly different masterpieces as Lycidas, the Ode on Cromwells Return from Ireland, the two poems To Mary Unwin, and Ulysses, would not be easy. We may be certain, however, that Milnes would have numbered himself among the poets of sentiment, treading more nearly in the path of Wordsworth than any other. Indeed, with some of Wordsworths human sight, and touches of his sober emotion, and without ever plunging into the incredible bathos of Wordsworth at his worst, he now and then spoiled a stanza by a pedestrian phrase, or a cadence more befitting prose. One material limitation parted the disciple from the prophet. Country-bred though he was, it was Milness misfortune to possess little taste for country life or for rural pleasures; and while his Southern and Eastern poems exhibit some notable pictures of sky and landscape, it was into the hidden heart of man, not of Nature, that he strove to look, and the revelation of humanity that he desired to widen. He laboured in a special sense to make his work, in Matthew Arnolds much-discussed phrase, A criticism of life, though he never professed to formulate a whole philosophy of mans existence. The poems of which he himself thought mostThe Flight of Youth (which he placed first), Never Return, The Men of Old, The Long Ago, and Half Truthare all poems of sentiment in his meaning of the word, and the notes of passion are rare throughout. Indeed in most of his thoughtful poetry the lights burn somewhat low; while all his life through he himself bubbled over with humour, and extracted continual enjoyment from the most varied scenes and from the most diverse social conditions. For what sounds like a paradox is indeed almost a commonplacethat utterance in verse often expresses a reaction of the soul against the moral and intellectual elements by which a man is known in his daily life. Never Return, a poem in blank verse of nearly 150 lines, and therefore too long for this Selection, describes a gathering of friends under an Italian sky, and the eternal conflict between the outlook of sanguine youth and the cooler philosophy of mature years. It is marked by singular grace of expression, and some fine landscape painting.
The memorials of Milness travel in Greece and of residence in Italy have lost some of their freshness with the passage of time. The Greece of Byron is more remote from us than the Greece of Pericles, and the Brownings sang of Italy with fuller knowledge and deeper devotion; but the Eastern volume of Palm Leaves, as Lord Houghton himself came to see when he reissued his poetry, deserves a more lasting recollection. His travels in 1842 were not those of a Burton, or even of a Mr. Wilfrid Blunt; but it may be questioned whether any English poet has obtained a closer perception of the Near East, or of the spirit by which the followers of the Prophet live and move. Such poems as Mohammedanism, The Hareem, The Tent, some of the Eastern Thoughts, and the tales told in The Kiosk, remain vivid and authentic after all the turmoils and changes that have harassed the land which inspired them.
As might be anticipated amid a life of variety and movement, much of Milness verse, and not a little of the most original, is of what is called the occasional type. The term is sometimes used with a note of depreciation, and the very highest poetry in the language rarely conforms to it; but no apology can be needed for appearance in the train of some of Miltons and Wordsworths noblest sonnets, to say nothing of Burns or Cowper or Byron. Milness Monument for Scutari, A Spanish Anecdote, the two sonnets on Princess Borghese, and his in memoriam verses on Dryden and Thackeray, Mary and Agnes Berry, and Mrs. Denison, are all excellent in their kind. The blended feeling and urbanity in such lines as these on the Misses Berry awaken regret that he did not dig deeper in the vein of Praed or of Thackeray himself.
Once only, in The Brownie, did Milnes reveal a sombre power which makes that poem admirable in its genre and will keep it alive. The other and longer Legends and Narrative Poems are not specially noticeable.
Some may be tempted to ask whether the writer of poetry stamped by so competent a critic as Mr. Aubrey de Vere as rich in fancy, grave-hearted, in an unusual degree thoughtful and full of pathos, might not have climbed to great heights if, like Wordsworth and Tennyson, he had laid aside other ambitions and enjoyments, and devoted himself to imaginative labours.
Experience does not favour such a possibility. Mute inglorious Miltons may rest in the country churchyard, but not on the benches of the House of Commons. Quisque suos patimur manes, and it would be hard to name an instance where absorption in politics or business or society has affected either the quality or the volume of poetry belonging to the first classusing that phrase in an extended sense so as to include Hugo or Browning, as well as Dante or Milton. The fact is that the creative impulse is so powerful and so pleasurable to those who enjoy it even in small measure, that though it may sometimes dissipate itself in the sands of indolence, its flow can scarcely be diverted into another deep channel of active life. So while much unwanted verse goes to the printers, little poetry, if any, is left unwritten by those who can write indeed. And if Milnes issued no new volume after he was five-and-thirty, it was not through the expulsion of poetry from its throne by the pressure of other interests so much as through their admission by the partial abdication of poetry. To some of his relatives public life seemed to be the sole rational pursuit for a clever man of his upbringing; but such pressure would not have operated but for the decay in himself of that lyrical faculty of youth which, in its constant occurrence and its ephemeral richness, always excited his wonder as a phenomenon and his sympathy as a personal incident. In his own stronger work the gift greatly transcended the mere outflow of musical verse; indeed, as Frederick Locker wrote after his death: His poetry depended less on the way the thought was expressed than on the thought itself. But, as he himself observed in 1876, It is in truth the continuance and sustenance of the poetic faculty which is the test of its magnitude: when it grows with a mans growth in active life, when it is not checked or smothered by the cares of ordinary existence, or by the successes or failures of a career, when it derives force and variety from the experiences of society and the internal history of the individual mind, then, and then only, can it be surely estimated as part of that marvellous manifestation of Art and Nature, the Poetry of the World. These laurels cannot be claimed for Lord Houghton, and he would never have claimed them for himself. But at a time when many new lamps of verse are lit which are by no means beacon-fires, it is not amiss to rekindle the steady flame of his poetry by this selection.