24 MAY 1940, Page 22

Victorian Personalities

ALL except two of Mr. Lucas's studies were given as wireless talks and published ten years ago. He then prefaced them with a brief Defence of Poetry that has lost none of its point. It assumes, perhaps not with total accuracy, that the public of today shuns poetry as never before in our history; and it advises that public, for the moment at least, to seek regeneration by approaching the old and once familiar names whose works stand in honourable neglect on the family bookshelf. The advice, coming from a fresh and virile mind, is interesting. Mr. Lucas's Victorians are observed through no haze of memorial sentiment ; some of them indeed get a smart whipping, but those who pass the test as poets do so under a white light. Mr. Lucas is emphatic enough in his conclusion : " Though our generation can criticise the Victorian poets, let us frankly admit that it cannot equal them."

Why do they win? The answer is easy enough. They had con- victions and enthusiasms such as our present-day poets, in a world of baffling complexities, can hardly retain. Recently one of the latter, publishing his poems on the Spanish War, apologised for the lack of such fervour as might be expected from the champion of a Cause. Honesty compelled him to write in a lower key. The Victorians, or most of them, were no less honest, but the times allowed them to cling closely to their theories, whether philosophy, rebellion or a moral sense was at the base of these. Thus they can still arrest us by their emphasis ; as also

music that often makes a more striking impact that Tenn v,

" petals from blown roses on the grass."

Tennyson is, in fact, something of an obstacle in the path lesser-known riches. Determined efforts have been made to re. enthrone him, but he topples again through lack of masculimt% and bony structure. Mr. Lucas has propped him in a shrine of landscape and melody, generously pinning on the label " great' Yet presently along comes William Morris and tips the shrine awry. How shadowy are the figures of the Idylls beside Guine_ vere! Mr. Lucas, admiring his Morris wholeheartedly, ha, sketched a forceful, exuberant personality for whom genius " tie a. health, not a kind of disease," who " waged a lifelong war on can: and unreality," being both a dreamer and a lover of truth. In most of these essays it is personality that is stressed. Too short for detailed poetic criticism, they abound in sudden probings and glisten with sharp felicities that seem, while we read them, worth a ton of professorial analysis. " Arnold," he writes, " recognised two main elements in poetry—natural magic and moral pro- fundity; but with his fetish about poetry being criticism of life he too often in practice sacrificed the magic to the morals.' Swinburne, rebellious but ever immature, declines in passion and immediacy until " the nightingale in him died of too much mid- night oil." Browning has a mental vulgarity and a preference for masquerade "which makes his works like some vast fancy dress ball." D. G. Rossetti turns in later life from a white to a black magic, being obsessed with a " shattering sense of transcience and decay." Here Mr. Lucas's sympathies are engaged. Him- self no lover of what we still term " smug Victorianism," 11.• honours his poets almost in proportion to their window-breaking and rates Rossetti highly. "For rebels like Arnold an.' Mill and George Eliot were rebels only of the intellect, fighting for free- dom of thought ; but behind this young Italian lay a rebellion the senses, a war of liberation of the passions."

Rossetti's sister Christina—" a mediaeval wraith shrinking shy dismay before the harsh babel of modernity "—is the subje, of one of Mr. Lucas's additional studies. The other newcomer in cackling contrast to her moan, is Coventry Patmore, on whose equanimity the essayist willingly unloads his satire. Little re- bellion and less poetry about " The Angel in the House! " That smug pedestrian epic on married love was a best seller ; Patmore enjoyed the writing and the reward. To expect a posthumou, reputation might be overmuch ; yet Mr. Lucas heartily allow., him something. Patmore, with his violent and fantastic pre- judices, is " a combination of Catholic mystic and Colonel Blimp." He is a freakish personality. As such he makes one of the most exhilarating chapters in a lively book.