« PreviousContinue »
ART. II.- Zeila ; the Fair Maid of Caubul ; a tale of the
Afghan insurrection and massacre of the British troops in the Khúnd Caubul passes, in six Cantos; by Charles Mackenzie, Esq., late 41st Welch Regiment. London. 1850.
A POEM in six cantos, and four hundred long octavo pages, is rather more than we can stand in this, the prosiest of ages. But from his work, whatever he think, a doughty critic must not shrink. Being “a scholar," it is fit, that he should boldly
speak to it.”* 'Tis true such apparitions are, in these prosaic regions, rare. They seldom come across our path, to win our smiles, or wake our wrath. We very rarely have to do, with any thing that is not true. Our pages have a sombre hue. And yet we do not look askance, at either poem or romance. Far be it from us to refuse a fitting welcome to the Muse. on the critic's table, lie heaps of fact and little fable. Southey is dead and Moore is dying, perhaps, e'en now, in grave-yard lying. Scant, therefore, are the streams that flow, from the great spring of D'Herbelot. It would be something to review Kehama on the banks of the Ganges; and Lalla Rookh-dear Lalla-too, where now encamped are our phalanges, at Hussan Abdul, I charming spot, where Akbar's son the world forgot-forgot his throne, pomp, power, and all, in presence of his Nourmahal. But hard, most hard, the critic's fate, born half a century too late. Practise we must, however inclined, reviewing of another kind; for, fatal to poetic hopes, our work is now with troops, not tropes. With fleshly feet 'tis ours to tread lands to which airy fancy sped-with adult eyes to look on things, beyond our young imaginings. Hydaspes now, or Hyphasis, like any other river is; and “frosty Caucasus”ß no more, than Shooter's Hill in days of yore. 'Tis nothing now at all to scan the mystic realms of Khorassan; we look at it quite close and swear, that there are no “ veiled prophets” there. Whilst even in thy fair realms, Cashmere, we smoke our pipes and drink our
* “Thou art a seholar. Speak to it, Horatio."-Hamlet. + D'Herbelot's Bibliothéque Orientale was once the Hippocrene of our Eastern tale. tellers. They drank their inspiration there. “I dont care one lump of sugar for my poetry,” said Lord Byron; “ but for my costume and my correctness-on those points I will combat lustily.” All things considered, our English Poets got up their orien talism with tolerable correctness. The only wonder is, that they did not make more mistakes.
Hussan Abdul is honorably mentioned in Lalla Rookh, as one of the balting places of the princess, and we are told that“ bere often had Jehanguire, the Light of the Faith, wandered with the beloved and beautiful Nourmahal ; and here would Lalla Rookh have been happy to remain for ever, giving up the throne of Buchania and the world for Firamorz, and love in this sweet lonely valley."
§ Or who can hold a fire in his hand,
By thinking of the frosty Caucasus?
Sive facturus per inhospitalem
eer. Thy blissful vale, thy perfumed lake, are only things for us to-take. Time was, we dreamt of thee with rapture. Time is, we think but of thy-capture !
But happily we are not so pressed for time as to be unable to write ordinary prose. Mr. Mackenzie seems to have found it very easy to write verse. When Mr. Wakley said in the House of Commons that it was very easy to write such poetry as Wordsworth's by the mile, be made a very grievous mistake ; but it certainly is not difficult to write verse by the mile. It is easier indeed to write verse of a certain kind than to write wellbalanced prose.
One is seldom at a loss for a rhyme; but one is often sorely puzzled about the euphonious rounding of a sentence of prose. Many people can dance tolerably well, who cannot walk with becoming elegance and dignity. We do not say that this is Mr. Mackenzie's case. He walks better than he dances. We like his prose, of which there is a scattering in his notes, much better than his poetry. We do not see under what compulsion he was to deliver himself in verse. Judging by the notes, to which we have referred, our author possessed å "MS. Journal,” kept during his residence in Afghanistan,-& journal which, judging by the specimens before us, would have been more acceptable to the friends, who have subscribed to his book, and more likely to be patronized by the public, than the poem in six cantos before us.
We do not ask why the author publishes at all. He has satisfactorily answered the question; and we honour him for what he has done. “An object," he says, “of the deepest and most filial interest has sanctified
the author's labours throughout the composition of the present * work;” and we have heard enough from other sources to believe that no book was ever written under a worthier impulse, or better deserved the patronage of the public. All we ask is why he should have written a poem in six cantos, whilst he, apparently, had a volume of unexceptionable prose already written on his table. We say "apparently,” for it is just possible that the oft-quoted “MS. Journal” may be something like
Our troops who wintered at Bamían, found it both frosty and inhospitable. As for the Hydaspes, in spite of the enthusiastic protest of a writer in the North British Review, it has ceased to be a “fabulous” river. It is nothing more to us now than the Tbames. Victor Hugo thought it a very fine thing to read the Constitutionnel on the banks of the Hydaspes. In these days we read anything anywhere, and feel no sur. prise at all.
the “MS. Dramas,” which novelists, lacking more legitimate mottos, are apt to quote at the head of their chapters-useful, and not unpardonable, fiction. But assuming the journal to be a fact, we cannot help thinking that Mr. Mackenzie would have acted with more wisdom in publishing it, than in writing and printing eight thousand lines of octo-syllabic verse. The “subscribers," whose names are printed in the volume before us, would have paid their guinea, we repeat, quite as cheerfully for the writer's prose as for his verse; the public would, to some extent, have purchased the volume; and it is not improbable that we should have had to welcome a really valuable addition to our scattered records of the Afghan war. As it is, we can hardly hope that Zeila will find many purchasers among the public, or many critics among the press. There are very few poems in the present day, which find either purchasers or critics.
We are very sorry for this. We are always sorry for the poets. They are more sensitive on the score of failure tban other men, and they are much more certain to fail. A novelist, an essayist, or å writer of travels, seldom fails altogether. He obtains some readers; he sells some copies of his book ; he is pretty sure to be noticed by the critics. But for the poet there is nothing but great success, or profound abysmal failure. It was recently remarked by a writer in one of our local journals, dating from that great mart of unsaleable literature, London, that there is nothing sadder in the vocation of the critic than his necessary contact with heaps of poetry, that he cannot conscientiously praise, and which he is most reluctant to condemn-poetry, which he knows will neither be bought nor read by any living creature beyond the pale of the author's own immediate connexions. Doubtless, this is very sad. Poets, as we have said, are very sensitive, and their delusions are very strong. They have great faith in themselves. An historian has faith in his facts ; a novelist has faith in his story ; but a poet has faith in his own genius, and believes that that will sell his book. His failure is, therefore, the more mortifying, inasmuch as it is more personal to himself. He has more pride in his work than any other literary workman, for it is more immediately, and more entirely, an emanation from his own soul; and he loves his brain-child in proportion to the pleasure, which it has afforded him to beget it. It is fortunate, if poetry is to him “its own exceeding great reward :"* for it is often times the only reward that is in store for him. The public will read very bad novels, very indifferent biographies, and very vapid books of travel, but they have no place in their hearts, or in their libraries, for any but good poetry. It must be very good to induce them to read it at all.
* If we err not, this declaration has been put forth manfully enough by a young Anglo-Indian poet, in one of two volumes of poetry, of more than ordinary merit, recently published in London. We have now only one of these before us, and in this he writes :-“I have written poetry, because I felt it; I publish for no better reason." Mr. Minchin, who dates his prefaces from Tranquebar, is, we believe, a young Civilian
We are sorry then, that Mr. Mackenzie should have thought of writing a poem in six cantos instead of publishing a volume of prose: but, as the deed is done and not to be cancelled, we purpose to give some account of the performance. The character of the work is pretty clearly indicated by the title-page. A little time ago, the loves of an English officer and a fair maid of Kabul would have afforded a subject for one of those wild and incredible romances, which the reader never thinks of associating with the incidents of real life, any more than he does the exploits of Hercules, or the achievements of the Giant-killer. Now such an incident belongs rather to the historical, than to the romantic. “Omne ignotum pro poetico." We think of the intrigues of British officers and Kabuli ladies, not to marvel, but to deplore. No sketch of imagination is demanded. We have to regard but a sombre fact. The Parises and Helens of the Afghan war are, unhappily, no creatures of the fancy. When the history of that great event comes to be written, the historian may deal gently with the crime, by fairly weighing the temptation : but he must not obscure the fact. Like all other facts, it must have its legitimate place in history. The “causa teterrima" was there. But to what extent it conduced to the
on the Madras Establishment. His two volumes of poetry published in England
Trafford, the Reward of Genius, &c." are of too European a character to warrant our reviewing them in this journal; but we may bere transfer to our pages a fine sonnet, addressed to a Jesuit Missionary in India. The poems are among the best, that have emanated of late years from authors unknown to fame, and, as such, have been honoured with unusual commendation by some of the leading critical journals. of Great Britain :
May the pure thoughts, that in thy spirit bloom,
Shield thee from all the glooms that might appal.
Seldom on thee thy country's accents fall:
The voices of affection, that would call
Thee back to earth, thou hast abandoned all,
What human names they bear, who love Him here :
Of earth, are nought to Him. The heart sincere
Is, aye, the noblest altar we can rear.
great Kabul outbreak, it is the province rather of the historian, than of the critic, to declare. Mr. Mackenzie seems to have very little doubt about the matter himself. But what would the Iliad be without Paris and Helen ? What should we care about the siege of Troy, but for the judgment of Paris, and the fatal gift of "Idalian Aphrodite golden-reined "
Tbe fairest and most loving wife in Greece 3* What should we care indeed, for the battle and the strife, but for these loving auxiliaries ? And what would Mr. Mackenzie's poem be without its Zeila? But we must proceed to show what it is.
The poem opens with a brief description of an Afghan au• tumn, which is not an unfavourable specimen of the author's powers of rhyming :
O’er Caubul's far famed clustering vines
year, grown ancient and sedate,
Which stud the slopes of Seah sung ! The time being thus indicated, we have a sketch of the place. The reader is told that if he would " Caubul's city fairly view,” he must “ seek Kaja-Suffa's westward height, when morning beams are o'er the dew;" and, looking down thence, he will see “ the village roofs of Beni-sber" and the “hushed city," “ Behmaroo's storied height, and the British cantonment." This last unfortunate section of the panorama calls forth some serious reflections, and is indignantly apostrophised by the poet :
Doth martial musing chain thy mind?
Oh! monument of feeble skill!
* So Alfred Tennyson-but whether Helen was the most loving wife in Greece, let Menelaus declare.