The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 32. George Eliots poems
Between the inception of Middlemarch and the completion, some seven years later, of Daniel Deronda, George Eliot wrote some pieces of verse which must not be passed by without mention. How Lisa loved the King (1869) is a very charming treatment of a subject taken from Boccaccio, and previously—so susceptible is a truly pathetic theme of repeated successful adaptation—dealt with very happily in at least two plays of note. George Eliot’s poem is specially interesting by virtue of its graceful form—rimed couplets which suit themselves to the delicately fanciful argument as if they had come from the pen of Leigh Hunt. If this delightful little effort has in it just a trace of artificiality, it is not on that account the less suited to the conscious refinement of the renascence age.
Of about the same date, and conceived in no very different mood, is Agatha (1869), a pretty picture of still-life and genial old age, further softened by religious influence. Slightly later (1870) is Armgart, which consists of three dramatic scenes, telling a story of artistic triumph, followed by bitter disappointment and renunciation. Here, may possibly be found the germ of some of the Klesmer speeches in Daniel Deronda. To the same year, also, belongs The Legend of Jubal, a more considerable poetical effort, which treats with great breadth what are really two distinct motifs. One of these is a tribute to the power of music in the form of an account of its origin and first spread; the other is the old story of the return of the inventor of the art after a long absence to the scenes of its beginnings, where he has been forgotten and is treated with ignominy, but consoled by the honour in which his art is held. The theme, no doubt, in more respects than one, suited George Eliot, and inspired her to one of her finest poems.
She afterwards wrote certain other pieces in verse—some of them lyrics not devoid of charm, and one of them more especially, The Minor Prophet, in a vein which might be thought not wholly unlike that of some of the characters in verse by Robert Browning, but that his power of dramatic condensation is wanting. They are full of brilliant turns of thought, and the poet had acquired a mastery of metre which made her delight in putting her ideas into a form well suited to gnomic utterances. In prose, she produced nothing further of importance.The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, of which the publication was postponed to 1879, on account of George Henry Lewes’s death, was much read when it came out, and the success of the book, which, in a more than ordinary sense, was one of esteem, sent a ray of consolation into her retirement. The satire of the modern Theophrastus directs itself chiefly to the foibles and vanities of the literary class—a class to which no authors ever more thoroughly belonged, and took pride in belonging, than George Eliot and the lost guide and companion of her labours, but as to whose weaknesses her own single-mindedness of purpose and freedom from all pretence or affectation supplied her with a safe standard of judgment. But this series of essays falls short of the collections offered by the Greek moralist, and by the most successful of his modern imitators, whether French or English, not only in variety, but, also, by the absence of what might have been expected from George Eliot herself, had she still been at the height of her power—namely, evidence of the plastic or formative gift which tradition asserted Theophrastus to have carried even to the extent of mimicry. The work is, explicably enough, devoid of gaiety—an element which, though not indispensable, can ill be spared altogether in a book of this sort.