The publishing season of 1892 is memorable for the
commercial success of a biographical and philosophical
book, The History of David Grieve: for the reluctantly
allowed literary and library success of a great work
of fiction, Tess of the D’ Urbervilles: and for the disastrous
failure of the latest production of a great poet, The
Sisters. Of these, Mrs. Humphry Ward’s novel is
indeed, as has been claimed, monumental. In this
country monuments are erected to the memory of the
departed only. The powerful and beautiful and emi-
nently significant romance by Mr. Thomas Hardy has one
drawback—for the mentally and spiritually anaemic:
it is sane, vigorous, full-blooded, robust, with the pulse
of indomitable youth. It is a book to read, to re-read,
to ponder, to be proud of. Its author has at last won
the bâton of a Field-Marshal in the army of contem-
porary novelists. Mr. Swinburne, on the other hand,
has given a further and now serious impetus to the
retrograde movement of his great reputation. He is
a poet of, at his best, so rare and high a genius that
many readers, during perusal of The Sisters, will be
tempted to believe in the Doppelganger legend. Who
is Mr. Swinburne’s double? It is an undesirable co-
partnery. The lesser man, who had already satisfied
us of his inability to sustain the honour done him,
should now retire. Mr. Swinburne has played double-
dummy with him long enough.
The Sisters is the production of a
It has fine things that might almost be written by
Webster, or at least by Cyril Tourneur, if one or other
of these dramatists be thought of as a contemporary,
and maugre that special quality of spiritual audacity
and intellectual bravura so characteristic of each, and
that Mr. Swinburne himself at one time possessed. On
the other hand, it has pages of drawing-room realism,
of “Friendship’s-Offering” sentiment, of a dulness un-
equalled by anything in “the new humour.” It has
passages that would make love impossible of continu-
60 THE PAGAN REVIEW
ance: lovers can understand “speaking silence” but
not diction where cherished commonplaces are choked
in struggling rhetoric. There are other passages that
I recommend to the tender mercies of the University
Extension-Lecturer. He can then lay horrid pitfalls
for the unwary, for who among them will be able to
say if the given excerpts be execrable verse or villainous
prose? There are lines, alas, which excruciate the ear:
lines worthy of Byron at his worst, of a fibrelessness so
perverse, of so maladroit a turn, that the ear of the
metricist revolts. And yet Mr. Swinburne is a prince
of his craft in knowledge and skill! No: it is the
mysterious double who hath done this thing. It is a
bitter thing to tell a poet that we prefer his prose, but
even a recantatory essay on Byron or Whitman—the two
magnificent derelict comets of modern poetry whose tails
have been so carefully pulled by Mr. Swinburne while
under the impression. that he was grappling with the
luminaries in front—would be preferable to The Sisters.
For no one need read Mr. Swinburne the critic of modern
men, but everyone must read Mr. Swinburne the poet.
If The Sisters be a poor play it
many beautiful passages, lyrical interludes of surpassing
grace. To read the lyric “Love and Sorrow met in
May” is to rejoice that we have a great poet still
among us. When this drama itself is known only of
rust and the moth, the flawless lyric it enshrines shall
have put on immortality as a garment.
The half-year that is over has been further note-
worthy for two new books by Mr. George Meredith: if,
indeed, the reprint of his superb Modern Love, with
later additions, can be called a new book. His novel,
One of Our Conquerors, has sown discord among the
faithful. Enthusiasts call it manna: the cavillers will
have it that it is a St. John’s feast with a multiplicity
of hard locusts to a small benefice of wild honey. One
can certainly discern in it George Meredith at his best:
it is easier, however, to find him in his least winsome
aspect. He is the electric light among contemporary
illuminators of our darkness.
CONTEMPORARY RECORD 61
The Poet Laureate is what no other like dignitary
has been: the most consummate poetic artist of his
time. He is Sovereign of the Victorians. But he is not
a dramatist, though he can sometimes write dramatically.
His Foresters is a lovely pastoral, with some happy
songs; but the England of Robin Hood is just what we
do not find reflected in its exqusitely polished mirror.
This drama is even more a Court-of-Victoria-fin-de-
siecle rendering of the wild life it nominally represents
than the “Idyls of the King” are of the Arthurian past.
As a stage play The Foresters is eminently suited to
please British and American audiences, having neither
intensity of vision, overmastery of passion, vigour of dia-
logue, nor convincing verisimilitude.
Lord Lytton, who lisped in his father’s fiction, died a
writer of verse. He was a worthy private citizen; as a
public man, an ornamental Imperialist; as a diplomatist,
a sign-post to warn new-comers to take the other way.
He was saved from being a bad Oriental by being an
As a poet, he was . . . . . . a worthy son of his father.
A greater than many Lyttons passed away in
the person of Walt Whitman. This great pioneer of a
new literature has so many faults in the view of
most of his contemporaries that they cannot discern the volcano
beneath the scoriæ. Let us defy mixt metaphors, and
add that we believe those who come after us will
look upon him as the Janitor of the New House Beautiful.
Meanwhile all Whitmaniacs (the courteous appellation
is not ours) must rejoice in the convincing, if unconscious,
tribute paid with so much delicacy and graciousness
by the writer of a certain famous Athenœum critique.
Mr. Hall Caine has written The
Scapegoat. He has also
re-written it. The experiment reflects credit on him as a
conscientious workman, but is in other respects an awful
example to set to the young. Horrible possibilities are
suggested. Burke and Hare will be outdone in the resur-
recting business. Mudie will have to start duplicate shelves,
62 THE PAGAN REVIEW
the upper marked As they Were, the lower As they Are.
The dead will arise and walk in a new ghastliness.
The Naulahka proves that two clever men can
procure an abortion.
Mr. Mallock’s Human Document
should be filed at
once. It can then be put away.
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s new books, Across the
Plains and The Wrecker, there are wells of pure delight.
The sunshine of genius is in both, though the former is
but a series of collected papers and the latter a romance
of adventure. The delight of these books cancels the
deep disappointment of the “South-Sea Letters.” There
are pages of “The Lantern-Bearers” and “Fontaine-
bleau” which ought to be committed to memory by
every aspirant in the literary life.
The novel of the year, in France—a year given over
to strange aberrations from the well-defined “stream of
tendency” of the French mind, from a lurid colour-study
by the Flemish-Parisian Huysmans to the serene cold-
bloodedness of Maurice Barrès, or the scientific romancing
of J. H. Rosny—is Zola’s recently published La Débâcle.
It should be read not only as perhaps the most mature
and splendid effort of a great writer—a great writer who
has reached the Temple of Fame through seas of mud,
and, unfortunately, has brought a good deal with him,
even to the white steps of the portico; but also as a work
likely to have a remarkable effect on the political temper
and ideals of the French people. La Débâcle may prove
to be a factor of supreme international significance, in
the relations of France and Germany. In this country,
even, it will attract almost as much attention as the
marriage of a duke or the misdemeanour of an actress.
Maurice Maeterlinck—who stabbed himself with a bod-
kin in Les Sept Princesses—has, in Pelle-as et Melisande,
opened a vein. There is just a chance it is not an artery.
Next month a word to les jeunes here.
Brooks, W.H. [William Sharp]. “Contemporary Record.” The Pagan Review, vol. 1, August 1892, pp. 59-62. The Pagan Review Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2021. https://1890s.ca/tpr-brooks-contemporary/