The Edinburgh Review (review date 1831)
SOURCE: A review of The Undying One and Other Poems, in The Edinburgh Review, Vol. LIII, No. CVI, June, 1831, pp. 361-69.
[In the essay that follows, the unsigned critic analyzes Norton's poem "The Undying One," suggesting that if Norton would "confine herself to simpler themes" she would assuredly be a success.]
Some persons of a desponding turn of mind will have it, that the attendance on Apollo's levees has been for some time past on the decline—that the older nobility have been keeping aloof, and that, under cover of a profusion of finery and false ornaments, several suspicious characters have been seen moving about the apartments of late, whom the vigilance of the gentlemen in waiting ought to have excluded. Nevertheless, we see no great reason for despair; for, as to the obnoxious parvenus, they have seldom long escaped detection; and upon their second intrusion, have generally been invited, as the French say, when a member of the House of Commons is turned out, to quit the chamber with all celerity. Some of them, indeed, like Mr. Montgomery, have found their way into the street with such emphasis and rapidity, that, on recovering their senses, they have turned round, and, with strange contortions of visage, and frightful appeals, have bitterly reviled the officials, who, in the discharge of their duty, had been obliged to shut the door in their face. Others, like Mr. Reade, who made a very violent attempt the other day to gain admittance, flourishing the knocker till he disturbed the neighbourhood,—put a more blustering face upon the matter, after their exclusion; affect to say, that they never made any such application—that they would not walk in though they had been invited; and, with a 'calm confidence,' enter their appeal, as Swift dedicated his Table of a Tub, to Prince Posterity. Again, although it cannot be denied that the visits of the old supporters of the court have been less frequent, we, who would wish to look at the cheerful side both of politics and poetry, are inclined to think that among the recent arrivals, there are several names of no inconsiderable promise; nay, already of very respectable performance. Among the later presentations, it rather strikes us the majority has consisted of ladies; and of these, if report says true, none seems to have made a more successful appearance than Mrs. Norton. She might indeed, with advantage to herself, have chosen a robe of a more sober and unpretending character; but we are ready to admit, that she wears it gracefully, and are not surprised, on the whole, that her entrance did produce what the newspapers call a sensation.
It was natural, indeed, that the descendant of so gifted a family should be received with attention. But if her poem has been successful—as we are told it has—it assuredly owes extremely little of its interest and attractions to the subject. She has pleased, not in consequence of, but in spite of, the fable on which she has employed her powers.
We really had begun to flatter ourselves—rashly, as it appears—that the reading world had finally got quit of the Wandering Jew, who, for centuries past, has occasionally revisited the glimpses of the moon, making polite literature hideous. His scene with the Bleeding Nun, in Lewis's romance, we should have thought, would have been his last appearance on the stage, for a century at least; but instead of discreetly retiring for a time, as might have been expected, after such an exhibition, into the privacy of infinite space, the appearances of this intolerable revenant in our lower world have of late become more frequent and alarming than ever. In Germany, Klingemann, and Achim von Armin, have not scrupled to introduce him under his true character; and Shelley, and Captain Medwyn, both bold men in their way, have tried a similar experiment with the English public. All this, however, might be borne; for, so long as he chooses to come forward as the veritable Ahasuerus, we should feel inclined, with Antonio, to say, 'there was much kindness in the Jew,'—in enabling us, we mean, to pass by on the other side, and avoid his society in due time. But the worst and most dangerous feature about his late appearances is this, that he has been assuming various aliases, and obtaining admittance into respectable circles under borrowed names; a device, against which no precaution can avail; for his general manner in the outset resembles so much that of any other gentleman (of the Corsair school,)—he avoids so skilfully any allusion to his reminiscences of Judaea, that we only begin to suspect him when about to part company with him; and can hardly even then persuade ourselves that our agreeable companion in the post-chaise, is our old Jewry friend, till he vanishes at last, as old Aubrey says, 'with a melodious twang,' and a sulphureous odour. Nay, to such a remarkable extent have his devices in this way been carried, that he lately prevailed upon a respectable English divine, to introduce him under the euphonious name of Salathiel, in which character, we understand, he swindled the proprietors of some circulating libraries—to a small amount. And here is a second insidious attempt of the same nature, in which this intolerable Jew again comes forward to levy contributions on the public, by the style and title of Isbal the "Undying One."
Seriously—Is it not singular that a legend so absurd, and the unfitness of which for poetical narrative appears so obvious, should have been such a favourite with poets and novelists? Not that we mean to deny that the more general conception of the position of a being on whom the curse of immortality on earth has been suddenly imposed, is not in itself a striking, an impressive one. Nothing is more easy to conceive, than that in the hands of a person whose mind combines the philosophical element with the poetical, the picture of such a being,—solitary in the centre of a busy world, disconnected from all human hopes, passions, sympathies,—longing to die and to rest, to follow where all that made life worth living for had gone before him, may be capable of producing the profoundest emotion. In fact, this has been done by Godwin in his St. Leon, where the train of reflection of such an immortal—at first joyous and exulting in the boundless expansion of his powers, gradually sinking into sadness, and at last into an overpowering sensation of loneliness and desolation—is depicted with a deep knowledge of the human heart, and in a strain of touching and mournful eloquence.
But though those prospects of futurity, in which the victim of immortality throws forward his views into unborn ages, appear impressive and effective when thus embodied merely in reflection; or although a momentary glimpse of his situation may be one of solemn interest, there are insuperable obstacles to any attempt to pursue the fortunes of such a being through the lapse of centuries, or to exhibit his feelings in successive detail. Not to mention the extreme difficulty of carrying onward our sympathies to the third and fourth generation, even with the assistance of a connecting link in the existence of some one who survives them all, such an attempt invariably leads to one of two things,—either a dreary monotony, or a variety obtained at the expense of consistency and truth. To represent such a being, labouring under the consciousness that he has nothing in common with those around him, as susceptible and impassioned to the last—loving, hating, grieving on, with the same unabated energy, at the latest stage of his career, as when first he commenced his restless pilgrimage—if it enable the poet to vary the scene, deprives the conception of all which redeems it from the character of absurdity, or gives it a distinctive character. The whole effect of such an idea on the mind, is produced by the simple representation of that state of callous, impassive, unalterable desolation into which such a creature sinks—a state of gloomy, tideless tranquillity, and weatherbeaten hardihood of soul, which nothing can agitate, nothing overpower. What human passion, indeed, should interest him over whom the experience of centuries has passed?—what new grief plough deep where so many old ones have left their furrows?—what attachment bind him who soon feels that he can now love nothing truly, because he now loves nothing with that identity of heart, that abandonment of soul, wherein resides the charm and essence of the feeling? 'In the tomb of my wife and children,' says St. Leon, as he follows out to its dreary consequences the effects of the secret of the stranger,
I felt that my heart would be buried. Never, never, through the countless ages of eternity, should I form another attachment. In the happy age of delusion, happy and auspicious, at least, to the cultivation of the passions, when I felt that I also was a mortal, I was capable of a...
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