The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 41. R. W. Dixon
A much greater poet at his best than Brown, like him most imperfectly known or knowable during his lifetime and nearly contemporary, still only accessible in selection and probably never to be studied in completeness (it is believed that he destroyed much of his work) was Richard Watson Dixon, canon of Carlisle for many years, a strenuous worker in the two northern dioceses, an ecclesiastical historian of the first rank, and an early member of the original literary offshoot at Oxford of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Brown was not exactly “a man of this world,” but he was very much more so than Dixon; and, while Brown largely took the Wordsworthian side of poetry, Dixon was wholly on the Coleridgean. He published several volumes most of which are extremely difficult to obtain; and the reader who cannot easily frequent large public libraries must judge him from Mano, his longest poem, from the so-called Last Poems and, best of all, from the Poems selected and prefaced by or under the supervision of the present poet laureate—to which volume one would gladly see added all or most of what has not been selected there but is still available. In this case, the editor has been a more austere man than Henley was in regard to his friend—pronouncing his poetry not to be defended against charges of inequality, poor and faulty passages and, above all, want of finish. Each of those charges may, undoubtedly, be advanced, and, to some extent, supported. And even Mary Coleridge, a great champion of Dixon and probably, as has been said above, not a little influenced by him, admitted, in nine probable readers out of ten, a first feeling of “disappointment”—though she promised them a change first to “surprise” and then to “ecstasy.” But, if not in every tenth, in some proportion or other, the unpleasant first step will be happily escaped, unless the reading begins with Mano, in which case there is some danger that the surprise will be rarely, and the ecstasy never, reached. That longest and most ambitious of his attempts contains beautiful passages; and, even as a whole, it leaves an impression of somewhat reluctant and extorted esteem. But there is too much history in it; the history, moreover, is of a period (the tenth and eleventh centuries) which is difficult to make interesting unless it is treated with a purely romantic neglect of history itself; the characters hardly grasp the reader; and the audacious attempt to use terza rima for a really long poem in English fails, as it has always failed and as it probably always will fail. Love’s Consolation—much shorter, but still extending to some 400 or 500 lines—is a beautiful but incoherent pre-Raphaelite dream, the expression of which too often follows those early Keatsian lapses which the greater pre-Raphaelites avoided.
It is only as a lyric poet that Dixon shows his full power; but, sometimes, in this capacity, his command over strangeness and his ability to transport are all but supreme. It was said above that Brown has a Blake-like quality; but Dixon’s Fallen Rain is Blake himself, not a pasliche or an imitation but a poem, Blake’s authorship of which, if it had been found anonymous with a possibility of its having been somehow saved from Tatham’s crime, no one would have doubted for a moment. As it is, the resemblance is almost bewildering. The Feathers of the Willow has been recognised by almost all competent critics who have come across it as unique in its peculiar exemplification of the combined pictorial and musical appeal of poetry. Less perfect, because longer, but, as being longer, somewhat more imposing and varied, is To Shadow, a poem, in parts, more like Beddoes than it is like any other poet, but, again, absolutely free from plagiarism or even suggestion. Perhaps the greatest of all—to use the superlative and the adjective itself carefully—is the Ode on Advancing Age. In form, this is of the most apparently irregular Pindaric, though every apparent irregularity may be justified on the strictest prosodic principles. But this form is not in the least intruded, so as to obscure; it is, on the contrary, suited in the highest degree—as, also, are the diction, the imagery and the whole body and garment—to the strange spirit of the piece. Everyone knows Lamb’s description of the two great dirges in Shakespeare and Webster as, the one of the water watery, the other of the earth earthy. No other poet in any passage occurring to the memory of the present writer, has, in the same way, saturated a piece of verse—itself almost a dirge—as Dixon has done here with the melancholy essence of sea and shore and sea-birds’ cry, or with any similar conjuring of scene and sound and atmosphere. These, perhaps, are Dixon’s very best things; but there are many others not far short of them, while for passages of sheer word-painting none of his friends surpassed him. There has been some discussion on the point whether he can be called a Wordsworthian or not; and a settlement of this, perhaps, is not much to be hoped for, because the genuine impressions of what is and is not Wordsworthian differ in competent critics more widely than is the case in regard to the essential quality of any other poet. But it is, at least, a testimony to absence of monotony in a writer that, with an entire freedom from mere imitation, he should suggest Wordsworth at one time and Keats at another, while the lyrics specially cited above are quite different from both and belong, in an equally independent manner, to the traditions of Blake or of Coleridge. On the whole, Dixon may be allowed to be not an easy poet to understand, and one in respect of whom it is necessary, in critical slang, to “get the atmosphere” before appreciation is possible. No doubt, this is what Mary Coleridge meant. But, when it has been achieved, or, in the fortunate cases where the reader drops into the proper place and attitude at once, there is not likely to be much quarrel as to the quality of the poetry.