Neither Said Nor Sung
James Hurnard : A Victorian Character. Selections by G. Rostrevor Hamilton. (Cambridge University Press. 7s. 6d.) ANY exhumed and renewable Victorian is now described habitually as " a character." It is the fashion of the age. The eighteenth century has little to yield from its richer levels, and we are anxious to discover novelties on shelves or in cupboards that have not been so extensively ransacked. Mr. Rostrevor Hamilton, poking about in the London Library, came across a long autobiographical poem by a Mr. James Hurnard, published in 187o under the title of The Setting Sun. Mr. Hamilton " scented an unusual character." We cannot suppose the scent to have been very strong—it is rarely perceptible in the fragments of Hurnard which are presented in this volume—but a scent there was, and Mr. Hamilton set about the task of editing and arranging a series of tabulated extracts. The original " poem " is in seven books and is nearly ten thousand lines in length. Whether Mr. Hamilton has wasted his time, and whether it was worth while to treat his matter quite so seriously, with a careful citation of book and lines and the provision of an index, are debatable points. Properly speaking, The Setting Sun is not a poem at all. No degree of generous latitude can allow us to describe the lines of Mr. Hurnard as metrical, harmonious or exact, nor could the most overpowering scent of an unusual character persuade us ever to think of Mr. Hurnard as a poet. But the enthusiasm of the editor leads him to take delight in " the very flatness " of Mr. Hurnard, and he admits honestly that his style " tends not so much to be incorrect and faulty . . . as limp and undistinguished." That is the trouble. If Mr. Hurnard were just a little worse or just a little better, he might very well be a most entertaining fellow ; as it is, he lies in the trough or hollow of laborious mediocrity.
Born in 1808, the son of a Quake: (first a miller, then a brewer),
he died in 1881. The earliest of his pictures and recollections are thus pre-Victorian—and is it possible to assert, by the way, that a typically Victorian society was in existence before 185o ? For nearly thirty years he lived alone with a tough and venerated father, and when his father died in 1866, Mr. Hurnard, then close upon sixty, celebrated his liberation by starting work on the "poem," and, shortly afterwards, by marrying. It would be ungenerous to deny that his woefully jolting lines occasionally reach a level which is very near that of genuine poetry, but it certainly is impossible to resist the conclusion that such effects are accidental. Here are three lines, chosen at random, which are typical of Mr. Hurnard's work: " Wrote letters in the local newspaper. . . . I could not find a pub- lisher to print it. . . . Cabmen, costermongers, omnibus conduc- tors." Or take, for example, the following passage: " I loved to read to her books of foreign travel, which her acute apprehensive mind enjoyed above all other kinds of reading." This passage is inoffensive as prose, but it actually consists of three con- secutive lines from the "poem" run together. We are therefore surprised, and hopeful when we come across " the twin arches of an unstrung bow," and (as a stroke of portraiture) " a solemn jack- daw on a lofty spire." Occasionally, too, there is a striking felicity of phrase: "blue-busted ladies," "a living buttress of enor- mous brain," "the sombre perforated tube." The portraits of Eldon and O'Connell are vivid and authentic, and so is the admirable account of the vanishing coachman. Again, Mr. Hurnard on bishops, the Royal Academy, literature, politics, poetry and the carriage of human heads can be gently entertaining. But it requires more than an ordinary nose to " scent the unusual character."
C. E. VULLIAMY.