The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

IX. The Landors, Leigh Hunt, De Quincey

§ 3. Gebir

The smallness of the audience which Gebir obtained at its first appearance was celebrated in a fashion humorous, but, as was his wont, rather over-laboured, by a contemporary and companion in the present chapter. De Quincey pretended to pride himself upon being “a mono-Gebirist,” meaning, thereby, not (as stricter analogy would require) “a reader of Gebir only” but “the only reader of Gebir. This, of course, was an exaggeration; but it is certain that the poem was the very reverse of popular, though one very beautiful conceit—the fancy about the sea-shell remembering and repeating the music of the waves—found fairly early recognition and has long been familiar to thousands who never read another line of the poem. It contains, however, other passages as fine, or even, except sentimentally, finer, such as the magnificent distich:

  • And the long moonbeam on the hard wet sand
  • Lay, like a jasper column half up-reared.
  • But this most classical of our poets has incurred the very curse which a successor in classicism pronounced a modernity. Gebir has numerous beautiful passages, still more numerous beautiful lines and phrases. But it is strangely destitute of interest either of story or of character, and such action as it has is evolved neither with epic nor with dramatic skill. The versification and the diction both aim at a Miltonic stateliness and sometimes achieve it; but there are false notes in the phrase, if not in the verse, of which Milton never could have been guilty; and the verse itself has a monotony which it is one of Milton’s greatest triumphs to have avoided. The most complimentary comparison that can be borrowed from the other arts for it is that of a bas-relief, worked with no small sculpturesque art, dignified in conception and execution, even heightened, here and there, with gold and colours, but producing, on the whole, an effect lifeless, bloodless and wanting in charm as well as, in parts, indistinct and confused.