The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 49. Lord de Tabley
But, perhaps, the most interesting subject of analysis, for one who would master the riddle—if it be a riddle—of later nineteenth-century verse which did not “attain unto the first three,” or the first half-dozen, is the already mentioned lord de Tabley, who, succeeding to the title rather late in life, had been known, when he began to write after leaving Oxford, under the pseudonyms “Preston” and “Lancaster,” and, later, while still a commoner, by his own name John Byrne Leicester Warren. His literary history (he was also a scientific botanist, an authority in numismatics and, altogether, a man of very wide culture) was curious. He did not publish any verse till he was nearly thirty; then, during about twelve years, he issued no less than seven volumes, with a novel or two; then, for nearly twenty more, he contributed nothing at all to literature, and, at last, after his accession to the title and just before his death, published two volumes of selected poems which, if they did not secure an adequate recognition of his powers, did awake, in younger critics, something like what a few of their elders had vainly striven to bring about earlier, a sense of undue neglect.
It was, undoubtedly, unfortunate for him that his period of earlier poetic appearances exactly coincided with the appearances of Morris, Swinburne and Rossetti, who were not only, in different ways, undoubtedly, greater poets than himself, but poets great in a more popular fashion, though not a more vulgar one. Philoctetes, in particular, his first really important work, came, in the most unlucky fashion, just after Atalanta in Calydon; and, though its author was at no time in the very slightest degree an imitator, still less a plagiarist, the similarity of classical subject (there was no other), and the quieter and more purely scholarly character of Warren’s piece, made a certain “occultation” inevitable. The last of the series, The Soldier’s Fortune, published ten years later (the ill-success of which has been thought to be the reason of its author’s long abstinence from poetry), is an extreme instance of an error frequent in the subjects of this chapter. Among the few people who have read it through—it is now believed to be a very difficult book to obtain—there can have been little difference of opinion as to the merit, not merely of individual passages, but as to the remarkable presence in it of what the Greeks used to call by the difficultly translatable word dianoia, “thought,” “mental temper,” etc. But it is too long—enormously too long—and not sustained in its length by varied incident or story. The two late selected volumes, however, make it inexcusable for anyone who cares for poetry to remain ignorant of the merits of what they contain. It is almost safe to say that in these contents there is hardly a poem which is not really a poem.
When a historical critic gives such a judgment in such a case, he is bound to explain, if he can, the reasons which have made the general estimate of the poet different. Two of these reasons, applying to the original reception of lord de Tabley’s poetry, have been given: two others may be added. As he was distinctly unfortunate in the time of his beginning, so he was, at least partly, in that of his reappearance. The younger generation (to its credit) did him more justice than the elder, with rare exceptions, had done. But, still, they were a younger generation, and he represented an elder: his ways were not their ways; so that respect, rather than enthusiasm, was excited. Lastly, it must be admitted that, except for sworn lovers of poetry, Warren’s poetry may be said, in the common phrase, to want “a little more powder.” It is apt to be too scholarly and quiet for the general taste, which wants strong flavour, luscious sweetness, lively pastime, exuberant force and the like. But, after this admission, the judgement given will still stand.