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

§ 54. Andrew Lang

Originality, not confined to form or to a single cast of thought, appeared in Andrew Lang, in connection with whose work must be surveyed a curious episode, affecting a large number of verse-producers for no small period of years in the history of English poetry. Lang’s own work in verse, in point of bulk, was an infinitesimal part of an enormous productiveness in literature—journalism of many kinds, especially reviewing and miniature essay-writing, historical discussion on the larger, and also the smaller, scale, studies in folklore and in other branches of scholarship, translation, editing, what not, all permeated by an individuality not so much of mere form as of general style and attitude, which was not exceeded by that of any writer, greater or lesser, in his time. This immense production began before he left Oxford, and continued for more than forty years till his death. As usual, his poetical work, for the most part, belonged to the earlier time, though he never lost grip of the lyre. It comprised one long poem, Helen of Troy, some early imitations and translations, chiefly of French poetry, and a considerable body of lyric, partly, but by no means wholly, in special forms to be presently noticed. In humour, which never turned to horseplay, and always showed the vein of feeling referred to in Anne Evans’s definition; in a certain touch of melancholy, which never became affected or morbid; and in a command of “numbers”—music in language and rhythm—which, though it could manage the most complicated measures, never enslaved itself to them or relied on them, Lang’s verse could stand the severest tests. He chose to liken his poetry to grass of Parnassus—wild flowers at the foot of the mount only—but such things as the Ballade of his Choice of a Sepulchre, and as the great sonnets entitled The Odyssey and Colonel Burnaby know nothing of the lower slopes. Only, in Lang’s case, as in many others, but, perhaps, more than in any, there is to be lamented the dissipation—in the strict, not the transferred, sense of the word—of his powers. It may safely be said that hardly any great poet has ever achieved his greatness in the course of varied avocation by daily work, literary or other, unless, like Shakespeare, he happened to be a dramatist, where the poetry, if not of the essence of the journeywork, is, so to speak, inextricably connected with it, so that the writer passes from one to the other with no sense of change or rupture. It may, in particular, or it may not be, possible to write, but, as a matter of fact, no man has written great poetry on a large scale and in bulk while he was perpetually called off to go to a newspaper office and “get a subject”; to go home or to his club to write on it; to visit a library to look up facts for a book of another kind; to write a chapter or a page of that, and the like. Every known example shows that dame Oiseuse is as much the portress of poetry as she is of love. Helen of Troy, though, in parts, very beautiful, is not an achieved poem as a whole. If the author could have been shut up for a year or two in a fairly comfortable prison it might have been.