Text: Athenaeum, 24 June 1843, pp. 583–84
Orion: an Epic Poem. By R. H. Horne, Author of "Cosmo de' Medici," &c.
We are not of those whom Sir Philip Sidney classed quaintly as "poet-whippers," – we are not of those who despair of the republic, – or commit monarchical treason by imagining a king's death, – or sing dolefully their "De Profundis" over the poetical literature of their country and day. With one hand upon the heart of our poetry, we feel the living pulse; and use the mirror which sad critics, more "melancholy and gentlemanlike" than ourselves, have denied to the triumph and the vanity, to prove at least, and by the very cloud on it, the breath which goeth upwards from the living mouth, and will articulate presently. True it is that another sort of gentlemen – "the gentlemen parcel-poets" – have increased and multiplied in an inverse ratio to the glories of the art they practise . . . against. True, indeed, it is, that Mr. Carlyle's "Sham" is especially observable in our poetical literature; and that the False has done its usual work in depreciating the True with the public. Men ask, like jesting Pilate, "What is truth? what is poetry?" and do not wait for an answer. But the answer will follow them; the answer will overtake them; leaping from one bare crag to another, it will be up with them before they reach home: there are piercing voices which the world must hear, be it ever so grey and deaf. That the world is too old for chivalry, we have been told; that it is too old for Spartan morals and Ægyptian short-hand, we can guess; that it will hereafter be too old for comfortable population and coal fires, for class prejudices, church establishments, wars, and corn laws, we may fear or hope, according to our degree of nervous susceptibility; but that it is or ever will be too old for Poetry, the nature of our humanity forbids, and the stars of God, not inaudibly, do deny. We scarcely need, at this hour of the day, to write treatises in proof of the immortality of the soul; but a "Phædon," in favour of the nonmortality of soul's song, may enter with a grace into our dialogues. In which, if we individually took a part, we should say, aft er a Socratic μα κυνα, (stroking passionately the ears of our dog till the sparks seemed to come,) that we believe in an infinite succession of divine lyrics, didactics, dramas, and epic poems, – είς τους αίωνας των αίωνων – the end of this world, and beyond it.
No degree, however, of sanguine expectation could prevent us from being a little startled by this new announcement of "Orion, an epic poem, in three books, price one farthing!" In the first place, we had lost the habit of epic poems; they have gone out of fashion like the toga; and for a generation which reads and writes running, to draw a long epic breath seemed tending to prodigy. If, in the apprehension of many, the Drama is dead, the Epopoeia is buried; and there is something ghastly in the stir of an epic poem, – it is as if the Black Prince's armour moved of itself, and rode away from the Tower on one of Her Majesty's cream-coloured horses. Nor is this the whole of the marvel. For, in the second place, that an epic poem in three books should be sold for a farthing, is likely to remain a singularity through all possible vicissitudes of anise and cummin. We began by an absolute Pyrrhonism on the existence of any poem whatever; and having seen, tasted, and handled the hundred and thirty-seven pages, of which the poem doth consist, we end in a state of dreamy surprise as to what the author and the publisher can mean by it. Perhaps – if Sphinx will let us guess – a mere antithesis? – perhaps, a royal generosity? – perhaps, a practical sarcasm on the generous patronage of poets accorded by the public? "An epic poem in three books for one farthing!"
At last, the scepticism hangs by us. The poem, although a true poem, is scarcely a true epic; and we cannot recognize it as belonging to that class. The essence of the epopoeia is action. Event evolving itself from action may pass as a description of the epos; whereas, in "Orion," the action is subsidiary to the philosophy, and the whole consists of a philosophical problem worked out by typical or allegorical figures. Mr. Horne is known by his dramas: to strike the epic end of the gamut was worthy of a comprehensive ambition. "Yet, once more, O ye laurels." But he has missed the epic; and we cannot, while we admire the poem, miscall it. If epical in anywise, it is a spiritual epic, (and that may be the right name for it,) bearing the same relation to the common epic, as Homer's είδωλον of a hero does to the heroic body, and putting soul's experience in the place of life's experience. The subject appears to be the growth of a poet's mind; and the design, to show how – the interruption making surer the ascent, the obstacle developing the power, the very error increasing the ultimate triumph, – such a soul graduates upwardly, with a completed work, into the clear height and daylight above all. The poet casts his abstract ideas in the old classical forms, so that the poem is very "Heathen Greek" in its nomenclature, while the signification is rather Christian than classical: according to his own words, in the prefatory note, it has been his "object to create new associations, founded upon those of the antique age, which are the most purely poetical and suggestive." He opens his fable in Chios, and takes for his hero Orion, the builder, (meaning the artistic mind), who is a giant, simple, rude, sincere, occupied with the elements of life, and consorting with other giants; Biastor, the forceful; Rhexergon, the breaker down; Akinetos, the unmoved; all opposed in actual nature to the builder, but his "wood friends," on the authority of the poet, by accidental association. It is morning in Chios, and Orion, hunting on the hills, is approached by Artemis, with no friendly gesture: –
Her bow, with points drawn back,
A golden hue on her white rounded breast
Reflecting, while the arrow's ample barb
Gleams o'er her hand, and at his heart is aimed.
She relents, however: –
The goddess paused, and dropt her arrow's point –
Raised it again – and then again relaxed
Her tension, and, while slow the shaft came gliding
Over the centre of the bow, beside
Her hand, and gently drooped, so did the knee
Of that heroic shape do reverence
Before the goddess.
She looked with favour upon the "heroic shape," and he loved her.
And he was blest
In her divine smile, and his life began
A new and higher period, nor the haunts
Of those his giant brethren ever sought,
But shunned them and their way, and slept alone
Upon a verdant rock, while o'er him floated
The clear moon, causing music in his brain,
Until the skylark rose. He felt 'twas love. (I.i)
But Orion's association with Artemis (perhaps speculative imagination) is imperfect, and soon broken. She is high and pure, and his nature, though improved, is not spiritualized enough for such exclusive intercourse. False, therefore, to Artemis, he loves Merope, – falling from imagination into human passion, – upon which the crescent goddess revenges her wrong, by striking him with blindness, and Merope deserts him; and he sits alone by Akinetos, the great unmoved, who preaches to him the impotence of all aspiration and all work, and the sufficiency of his blindness. Rising above this moody influence and his own desolation, he has recourse to Eos, the goddess of the morning and of religious cheerful practical philosophy, and she restores his sight and hope, inspiring him with an undying love towards herself.
"Eos! blest goddess of the morning, hear
The blind Orion praying on thy hill,
And in thine odorous breath his spirit steep,
That he, the soft gold of thy gleaming hand
Passing across his heavy lids, sealed down
With weight of many nights, and night-like days,
May feel as keenly as a new-born child,
And, through it, learn as purely to behold
The face of nature. Oh, restore my sight!"
His prayer paused tremulous. O'er his brow he felt
A balmy beam, that with its warmth conveyed
Divine suffusion and deep sense of peace
Throughout his being; and amidst a pile,
Far in the distance, gleaming like the bloom
Of almond trees seen through long floating halls
Of pale ethereal blue and virgin gold,
A Goddess, smiling like a new-blown flower,
Orion saw! And as he gazed he wept:
The tears ran mingling with the morning dews
Down his thick locks. (III.i)
We are tempted onward, but must break off, in order to secure the description of the palace of this gracious benefactress: –
Level with the summit of that eastern mount,
By slow approach, and like a promontory
Which seems to glide and meet a coming ship,
The pale gold platform of the morning came
Towards the gliding mount. Against a sky
Of delicate purple, snowbright courts and halls,
Touched with light silvery green, gleaming across,
Fronted by pillars vast, cloud-capitalled,
With shafts of changeful pearl, all reared upon
* * * *
From the bright peak of that surrounded mount,
One step sufficed to gain the golden floor,
Whereon the palace of the morning shone,
Scarcely a bow-shot distant; but that step,
Orion's humbled and still mortal foot
Dared not adventure. In the goddess' face
Imploringly he gazed. "Advance," she said,
In tones more sweet than when some heavenly bird,
Hid in a rosy cloud, its morning hymn
Warbles unseen, wet with delicious dews,
And to earth's flowers, all looking up in prayer,
Tells of the coming bliss.
* * * *
Forward Orion stepped: the platform bright
Shook like the reflex of a star in water
Moved by the breeze. (III.ii)
The jealousy of Artemis strikes him dead in the midst of his new happiness and glory and expansive schemes for the good of the human race; after which, having stood in melancholy and remorse before Eos, who reproaches her for the deed, the rivals unite in supplication to Zeus, and receive from the supreme god, not indeed Orion's restoration to earth, but his exaltation into the heavenly cycle.
So fares it ever
With the world's builder. He, from wall to beam,
From pillar to roof, from shade to corporal form,
From the first vague thought to the temple vast,
A ceaseless contest with the crowd endures,
For whom he labours.
* * * *
He who will do and suffer, must – and end.
Hence, death is not an evil, since it leads
To somewhat permanent, beyond the noise
Man maketh on the tabor of his will,
Until the small round burst, and pale he falls,
His ear is stuffed with the grave's earth, yet feels
The inaudible whispers of eternity,
While Time runs shouting to Oblivion
In the upper fields. (III.iii)
We must transcribe one noble passage, which embodies the philosophy of the whole work, and entreat our country's poets to lay to heart the persuasion of its conclusion: –
The wisdom of mankind creeps slowly on,
Subject to every doubt that can retard
Or fling it back upon an earlier time;
So timid are man's footsteps in the dark,
But blindest those who have no inward light.
One mind, perchance, in every age contains
The sum of all before and much to come;
Much that's far distant still; but that full mind,
Companioned oft by others of like scope,
Belief, and tendency, and anxious will,
A circle small transpierces and illumes:
Expanding, soon its subtle radiance
Falls blunted from the mass of flesh and bone.
The man who, for his race might supersede
The work of ages, dies worn out – not used,
And in his track disciples onward strive,
Some hairs' breadths only from his starting point:
Yet lives he not in vain; for if his soul
Hath entered others, though imperfectly,
The circle widens as the world spins round, –
His soul works on while he sleeps 'neath the grass.
So, let the firm philosopher renew
His wasted lamp – the lamp wasted not in vain,
Though he no mirrors for its rays may see,
Nor trace them through the darkness; – let the hand,
Which feels primæval impulses, direct
A forthright plough and make his furrow broad,
With heart untiring while one field remains;
So let the herald Poet shed his thoughts,
Like seeds that seem but lost upon the wind.
Work in the night, thou sage, while Mammon's brain
Teems with low visions on his couch of down; –
Break, thou, the clods, while high-throned vanity,
'Midst glaring lights and trumpets, holds its court; –
Sing, thou, thy song amidst the stoning crowd,
Then stand apart, obscure to man, with God.
The poet of the future knows his place,
Though in the present shady be his seat,
And all his laurels deepening but the shade.
We would willingly follow the beautiful with further extracts, but the reader must seek for himself Orion's anguish aft er his blindness, and his ultimate beatification, not omitting his morning hunt of shadowy stags in Chios –
There's always morning somewhere in the world;
and the fine scenic descriptions which abound in the poem. Here is a pastoral revel not unworthy of Theocritus: –
Rhexergon tore down boughs, while Harpax slew
Oxen and deer, more than was need; and soon
On the green space Orion built the pile
With cross logs, underwood, dry turf and ferns,
And cast upon it fat of kine, and heaps
Of crisp dry leaves, and fired the pile, and beat
A hollow shield, and called the Bacchic train,
Who brought their skins of wine, and loaded poles
That bent with mighty clusters of black grapes
Slung midway. In the blaze Orion threw
Choice gums, and oil, that with explosion bright
Of broad and lucid flame alarmed the sky,
And fragrant spice, then set the Fauns to dance,
While whirled the timbrels, and the reed-pipes blew
A full-toned melody of mad delight.
Down came the Mænads from the sun-brown hills,
And flocked the laughing nymphs of groves and brooks;
With whom came Opis, singing to a lyre,
And Sida, ivory-limbed and crowned with flowers.
High swelled the orgie; and the roasting bulk
Of bull and deer was scarce distinguishable
Mid the loud-crackling boughs that sprawled in flame.
Now richest odours rose and filled the air,
Made glittering with the cymbals spun on high,
Through jets of nectar upward cast in sport,
And raging with songs and laughter and wild cries.
* * * *
The wine ran wastefully, and o'er the ears
Of the tall jars that stood too near the fire,
Bubbled and leapt, and streamed in crimsoning foam,
Hot as the hissing sap of the green logs; –
But none took heed of that nor anything,
Thus song and feast, dance, and wild revelry,
Succeeded; now in turn, now all at once
Mingling tempestuously. In a blind whirl
Around the fire Binstor dragged a rout
In osier bands and garlands; Harpax fiercely
The violet scarfs and autumn-tinted robes
From Nymph and Mænad tore; and, by the hoofs,
Autarces seized a Satyr, with intent,
Despite his writhing freaks and furious face,
To dash him on a gong, but that amidst
The struggling mass Encolyon thrust a pine,
Heavy and black as Charon's ferrying pole,
O'er which they, like a bursting billow, fell. (I.iii)
With regard to these "wood friends," we cannot follow their significant misfortunes. Akinetos, the unmoved, who is in his great shapeless lumbering calm so striking to the imagination as to deserve well of the memory, after an interview with Chronos on the "ribbed sea-sand," perishes worthily, but as poets, alone – or, for aught we know, geologists – can understand – by gradual petrifaction and adhesion to the rock.
The reader will infer from our analysis and extracts, that neither in its intention, nor in its execution, is this an ordinary work; and, indeed, for a work to show unity in its design, and labour in its developement, distinguishes it sufficiently from what is called work in our days, to justify some protraction of critical attention. That it will ever be a popular poem (notwithstanding the announcement which just reaches us of a second edition), is a different question; and it is hard to believe that the very author of it thought sanguinely of a popular reception, even while he was adjusting the eccentricity of a popular price. To thoughtful minds the poem will be welcome for its original cast and elevated cheerful teaching; and by poetical minds it will be received cordially as a poet's gift. If to either it should occur, as it certainly does to ourselves, that the personal in the work trenches too closely on the allegorical, and fades too dimly and coldly away into the mere symbolical; that the action becomes contemplation, the epos a vision, and the reader a riddle-guesser, unstartled (though he began with hunting in Chios) by meeting Father Time upon the sands; the answer to the objection lies, we suppose, in the fact that the author has written no epic, but a spiritual epic; and in the illustration, that such as seek for warmth and colour, or anythingbesides a grand design and outline, will not go for satisfaction to the new Cartoons in Westminster Hall. A gift horse is not to be looked too narrowly in the mouth, far less a horse of the divine breed of Pegasus – far less when we hope for other fountains to be struck forth into silver beneath his hoof; and when we ourselves, with all our self-respect, are unconscious of miraculous Borrow-skill in the breathing of our critical whispers. Enough, that Mr. Horne has obliged us to believe in his power where we least believe in his epic; and that we recommend his poem to the public, pointing significantly to the fate of Akinetos, the great unmoved, which adorns it.