Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Thomas Humphry Ward
E. Robert Bulwer, Lord Lytton (Owen Meredith) (18311891)
[Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton, first Earl of Lytton, son of the well-known Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, first Baron. Educated at Harrow and Bonn; married 1864 Edith, eldest daughter of the Hon. Edward Villiers; died suddenly in Paris, 1891. From 1862 onwards he held many diplomatic appointments; was Viceroy of India 1876, and Ambassador in Paris from 1887 till his death. Published in 1855 Clytemnestra and other Poems (this and some other volumes under the name Owen Meredith); 1857, The Wanderer; at intervals, Lucile, Fables in Song, King Poppy, and in 1885 Glenaveril, in two volumes.]
THE FIRST Earl of Lytton is an example of a combination rare in modern timesthat of the politician, diplomatist, and administrator with the poet and man of letters. Such combinations were common three centuries ago, but in our day union of such different functions is apt to make people sceptical as to a mans fitness for either. So, as Lord Lyttons daughter, Lady Betty Balfour, points out in her introduction to a selection from his poems, when he was made Viceroy of India some critics doubted whether a poet could govern, and others doubted whether a ruler could be a good poet. We are not here called upon to declare for or against his success as administrator and ambassador; our concern is with his poetry alone. It is true, however, as his daughter remarks, that the circumstances of his career were in some respects against him as a poet. It is not easy for an exile to keep in touch with his home audience; if he is a man of books, books come more and more to be his substitute for the realities of life, as they, and meditation upon them, certainly did in Lord Lyttons case. Hence his later poems, and especially the too long Glenaveril, had far less success than those volumes which Owen Meredith had published twenty or thirty years before. But faulty as they were, these later works contained many memorable lines, and they were, what the early works had not always been, original.
Here we touch upon the objection which used to be commonly laid against the volumes previous to Fables in Song. Mrs. Browning, in a letter to the author, wrote, You sympathise too much; meaning thereby that he thought and wrote as others had done before him. Indeed, he depended too largely in these days upon George Sand, Victor Hugo, Browning, and many others; and what shall we say of a modern poet who could borrow the best-known line of Marlowe and make Aegisthus cry out to Clytemnestra,
Make me immortal with one costly kiss?
But this fault he soon outgrew, and all the poems of middle and later life are free from it.
Had our space permitted, we should have included in our selection a poem which throws a rather sad light upon the poet-statesmans view of the two careers between which his life had been divided. This poem, The Prisoner of Provence, is an adaptation of the story of The Man in the Iron Mask to Lord Lyttons own case; and, written as it was a few weeks before his death, it seems to show that he valued the outward glory of State positions as but little in comparison with what had been denied himacceptance as a distinguished poet at the hands of the experts first, and afterwards of the reading public throughout the empire.