The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VI. Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century

§ 37. George Macdonald

George Macdonald, better known as a novelist than as a poet, but author of a good deal of verse, some of it exquisite, some of it worthless and a great deal of it unimportant, is, also, rather an exceptional figure. Like Patmore, he was a critic, though not to the same extent a formal critic, of poetry; and, like Palgrave, who is to follow, he was an accomplished anthologist. Of his two main achievements of any size, Phantastes and The Portent, the latter, though of extraordinary goodness, is entirely prose and not very long; the former is a mixture of prose and verse, including Macdonald’s masterpiece, and one of the miniature masterpieces of the century, in the stanza beginning

  • Alas! how easily things go wrong,
  • while scores of scraps hardly less good may be picked up out of his various writings. Unfortunately, the ideal which he set before himself, in his more poetical books, where verse and prose are mixed, was a dangerously eclectic (some critics would call it a rococo) model. It combined or tried to combine the supernatural and the natural, the romantic and the grotesque, allegory and passion, sentiment and philosophic religiosity. The two chief divisions of literature from which it might be thought to draw illustration or, at least, suggestion were English Caroline poetry and the work in prose and verse of the German romantic school from Tieck and Novalis to Chamisso and Fouqué. Now, mixed work of all kinds, of this particular kind especially, requires either absolutely heaven-born, though not necessarily universal, genius, which goes right and avoids wrong instinctively in its own way, or an almost equally supernatural spirit of self-criticism to avoid or to correct the dangers. With neither could Macdonald be credited, though he certainly had genius and was not destitute of critical power. The consequence is that his verse, like his prose, but more annoyingly so, is marred by constant incompleteness and inequality; by triviality, now and then; at times, by a suspicion of pose; at others, by other bad things. Few writers of his time, except the very greatest, have more diffused poetry about them; but few, also, are more uncertain in catching and concentrating it.