Reviews (Germ313)


Some Account of the Life and Adventures of Sir Reginald Mohun, Bart. Done in Verse by George John Cayley. Canto1st. Pickering. 1849.

Inconsistency, whether in matters of importance of in trifles, whether in substance or in detail, is never pleasant. We do not here impute to this poem any inconsistency between one portion and another; but certainly its form is at variance with its subject and treatment. In the wording of the title, and the character of typography, there is a studious archaism: more modern the poem itself could scarcely be.

"Sir Reginald Mohun" aims, to judge from the present sample, at depicting the easy intercourse of high life; and the author enters on his theme with a due amount of sympathy. It is in this respect, if in any, that the mediaeval tone of the work lasts beyond the title page. In Mr. Cayley's eyes, the proof of the comparative prosperity of England is that

     "Still Queen Victoria sits upon her throne;
        Our aristocracy still keep alive,
        And, on the whole, may still be said to thrive,--
     Tho' now and then with ducal acres groan
        The honored tables of the auctioneer.
        Nathless, our aristocracy is dear,
     Tho' their estates go cheap; and all must own
     That they still give society its tone." -- p.16.
He proceeds in these terms:

     "Our baronets of late appear to be
        Unjustly snubbed and talked and written down;
        Partly from follies of Sir Something Brown,
     Stickling for badges due to their degree,
        And partly that their honor's late editions
        Have been much swelled with surgeons and physicians;
     For `honor hath small skill in surgery,'
     And skill in surgery small honor." -- p.17.
What "honor" is here meant? and against whom is the taunt implied? -- against the "surgeons and physicians," or against the depreciation of them. Surely the former can hardly have been intended. The sentence will bear to be cleared of some ambiguity, or else to be cleared off altogether.


Our introduction to Sir Reginald Mohun, Lord of Nornyth Place, and of "an income clear of 20,000 pounds," and to his friends Raymond St. Oun, De Lacy, Wilton, Tancarville, and Vivian -- (for the author's names are aristocratic, like his predilections) -- is effected through the medium of a stanza, new, we believe, in arrangement, though differing but slightly from the established octave, and of verses so easy and flowing as to make us wonder less at the promise of

                "provision plenty
        For cantos twelve, or may be, four and twenty,"
than at Mr. Cayley's assertion that he
        "Can never get along at all in prose."
The incidents, as might be expected of a first canto, are neither many nor important, and will admit of compression into a very small compass.

Sir Reginald, whose five friends had arrived at Nornyth Place late on the preceding night, is going over the grounds with them in a shooting party after a late breakfast. St. Oun expresses a wish to "prowl about the place" in preference, not feeling in the mood for the required exertion.

      "`Of lazy dogs the laziest ever fate
        Set on two useless legs you surely are,
        And born beneath some wayward sauntering star
      To sit for ever swinging on a gate,
        And laugh at wiser people passing through.'
        So spake the bard De Lacy: for they two
      In frequent skirmishes of fierce debate
      Would bicker, tho' their mutual love was great." -- p.35.
Mohun, however, sides with St. Oun, and agrees to escort him in his rambles after the first few shots. He accordingly soon resigns his gun to the keeper Oswald, whose position as one who

                  "came into possession
      Of the head-keepership by due succession
      Thro' sire and grandsire, who, when one was dead,
      Left his right heir-male keeper in his stead,"
Mr. Cayley evidently regards with some complacence. The friends enter a boat: here, while sailing along a rivulet that winds through the estate, St. Oun falls to talking of wealth, its value and insufficiency, of death, and life, and fame; and coming at length to ask after the history of Sir Reginald's past life, he suggests "this true epic opening for relation:"


       "`The sun, from his meridian heights declining
      Mirrored his richest tints upon the shining
      Bosom of a lake. In a light shallop, two
        Young men, whose dress, etcaetera, proclaims,
        Etcaetera, -- So would write G.P.R. James--
      Glided in silence o'er the waters blue,
      Skirting the wooded slopes. Upward they gazed
      On Nornyth's ancient pile, whose windows blazed

       "`In sunset rays, whose crimson fulgence streamed
      Across the flood: wrapped in deep thought they seemed.
      `You are pensive, Reginald,' at length thus spake
         The helmsman: `ha! it is the mystic power
         Fraught by the sacred stillness of the hour:
      Forgive me if your reverie I break,
      Craving, with friendship's sympathy, to share
      Your spirit's burden, be it joy or care.'" -- pp. 48, 49.
Sir Reginald Mohun's story is soon told. -- born in Italy, and losing his mother at the moment of his birth, and his father and only sister dying also soon after, he is left alone in the world.

     "`My father was a melancholy man,
        Having a touch of genius, and a heart,
        But not much of that worldly better part
     Called force of character, which finds some plan
        For getting over anguish that will crush
     Weak hearts of stronger feeling. He began
        To pine; was pale; and had a hectic flush
        At times; and from his eyelids tears would gush.

     "`Some law of hearts afflicted seems to bind
        A spell by which the scenes of grief grew dear;
        He never could leave Italy, tho' here
     And there he wandered with unquiet mind,--
        Rome, Florence, Mantua, Milan; once as far
     As Venice; but still Naples had a blind
        Attraction which still drew him thither. There
        He died. Heaven rest his ashes from their care.

     "`He wrote, a month or so before he died,
        To Wilton's father; (he is Earl of Eure,
        My mother's brother); saying he was sure
     That he should soon be gone, and would confide
        Us to his guardian care. My uncle came
     Before his death. We stood by his bedside.
        He blessed us. We, who scarcely knew the name
        Of death, yet read in the expiring flame

     "`Of his sunk eyes some awful mystery,
        And wept we knew not why. There was a grace
        Of radiant joyful hope upon his face,
     Most unaccustomed, and which seemed to be
        All foreign to his wasted frame; and yet
     So heavenly in its consolation we
        Smiled through the tears with which our lids were wet.
        His lips were cold, as, whispering, `Do not fret

     "`When I am gone,' he kissed us: and he took 
        Our uncle's hands, which on our heads he laid,
        And said: `My children, do not be afraid
     Of Death, but be prepared to meet him. Look;
        Here is your mother's brother; he to her
     As Reginald to Eve.' His thin voice shook.--
        `Eve was your Mother's name.' His words did err,
        As dreaming; and his wan lips ceased to stir.'"-- pp. 55-57.
(We have quoted this passage, not insensible to its defects, -- some common-place in sentiment and diction; but independently of the good it does really contain, as being the only one of such a character sustained in quality to a moderate length.)

Reginald and his cousin Wilton grew up together friends, though not bound by common sympathies. The latter has known life early, and "earned experience piecemeal:" with the former, thought has already become a custom.

Thus far only does Reginald bring his retrospect; his other friends come up, and they all return homeward. Here, too, ends the story of this canto; but not without warranting some surmise of what will furnish out the next. There is evidence of observation adroitly applied in the talk of the two under-keepers who take charge of the boat.

      "They said: `Oh! what a gentleman to talk
         Is that there Lacy! What a tongue he've got!
         But Mr. Vivian isa pretty shot.
      And what a pace his lordship wish to walk!
        Which Mr. Tancarville, he seemed quite beat:
      But he's a pleasant gentleman. Good lawk!
        How he do make me laugh! Dang! this 'ere seat
        Have wet my smalls slap thro'. Dang! what a treat!

      "`There's company coming to the Place to morn:
        Bess housemaid told me. Lord and Lady -- --: dash
        My wigs! I can't think on. But there's a mash
      O' comp'ny and fine ladies; fit to torn
        The heads of these young chaps. Why now I'd lay
      This here gun to an empty powder-horn
        Sir Reginald be in love, or that-a-way.
        He looks a little downcast-loikish, -- eh?'"--pp.62, 63.
It will be observed that there is no vulgarity in this vulgarism: indeed, the gentlemanly good humour of the poem is uninterrupted. This, combined with neatness of handling, and the habit of not overdoing, produces that general facility of appearance which it is no disparagement, in speaking of a first canto, to term the chief result of so much of these life and adventures as is here "done into verse." It may be fairly anticipated, however, that no want of variety in the conception, or of success in the pourtrayal, of character will need to be complained of: meanwhile, a few passages may be quoted to confirm our assertions. The first two extracts are examples of mere cleverness; and all that is aimed at is attained. The former follows out a previous comparison of the world with a "huge churn."

      "Yet some, despising life's legitimate aim,
         Instead of butter, would become "the cheese;"
      A low term for distinction. Whence the name
         I know not: gents invented it; and these
      Gave not an etymology. I see no
         Likelier than this, which with their taste agrees;
      The caseine element I conceive to mean no
      Less than the beau ideal of the Casino." -- p.12.

       "Wise were the Augurers of old, nor erred
         In substance, deeming that the life of man--
         (This is a new reflection, spick and span)--
      May be much influenced by the flight of birds.
         Our senate can no longer hold their house
         When culminates the evil star of grouse;
      And stoutest patriots will their shot-belts gird
      When first o'er stubble-field hath partridge whirred." -- p.12.
In these others there is more purpose, with a no less definite conciseness:

        "Comes forth the first great poet. Then a number
        Of followers leave much literary lumber.

      He cuts his phrases in the sapling grain
         Of language; and so weaves them at his will.
      They from his wickerwork extract with pain
         The wands now warped and stiffened, which but ill
      Bend to their second-hand employment." -- pp. 4, 5.

               "What's life? A riddle;
      Or sieve which sifts you thro' it in the middle." -- p.45.
The misadventures of the five friends on their road to Nornyth are very sufficiently described:

      "The night was cold and cloudy as they topped
        A moorland slope, and met the bitter blast,
      So cutting that their ears it almost cropped;
        And rain began to fall extremely fast.
      A broken sign-post left them in great doubt
        About two roads; and, when an hour was passed,
      They learned their error from a lucid lout;
      Soon after, one by one, their lamps went out." -- p.29.
There remains to point out one fault, -- and that the last fault the occurrence of which could be looked for, after so clearly expressed an intention as this:

      "But, if an Author takes to writing fine,
        (Which means, I think, an artificial tone),
      The public sicken and won't read a line.
      I hope there's nothing of this sort in mine." -- p.6.
A quotation or two will fully explain our meaning: and we would seriously ask Mr. Cayley to reflect whether he has always borne his principle in mind, and avoided "writing fine;" whether he has not sometimes fallen into high-flown common-place of the most undisguised stamp, rendered, more over, doubly inexcusable and out of place by being put into the mouth of one of the personages of the poem; It is Sir Reginald Mohun that speaks; and truly, though not thrust forward as a "wondrous paragon of praise," he must be confessed to be,

      "Judging by specimens the author quotes,
        An utterer of most ordinary phrases,"
not words only and sentences, but real phrases, in the more distinct and specific sense of the term.


            "`There, while yet a new born thing,
          Death o'er my cradle waved his darksome wing;
      My mother died to give me birth: forlorn
          I came into the world, a babe of woe,
      Ill-omened from my childhood's early morn;
         Yet heir to what the idolators of show
         Deem life's good things, which earthly bliss bestow.
      "`The riches of the heart they call a dream;
         Love, hope, faith, friendship, hollow phantasies:
         Living but for their pockets and their eyes,
      They stifle in their breasts the purer beam
         Of sunshine glanced from heaven upon their clay,
      To be its light and warmth. This is a theme
         For homilies: and I will only say,
         The heart feeds not on fortune's baubles gay.'" -- p.51.
Sir Reginald's narrative concludes after this fashion:

      "`But what is this? A dubious compromise;
        Twilight of cloudy zones, whereon the blaze
        Of sunshine breaks but seldom with its rays
      Of heavenly hope, towards which the spirit sighs
        Its aspirations, and is lost again
      "Mid doubts: to grasp the wisdom of the skies
         Too feeble, tho' convinced earth's bonds are vain,
        Cowering faint-hearted in the festering chain.'" -- p.60.
A similar instance of conventionality constantly repeated is the sin of inversion, which is no less prevalent, throughout the poem, in the conversational than in the narrative portions. In some cases the exigencies of rhyme may be pleaded in palliation, as for "Cam's marge along" and "breezy willows cool," which occur in two consecutive lines of a speech; but there are many for which no such excuse can be urged. Does any one talk of "sloth obscure," or of "hearts afflicted?" Or what reason is there for preferring "verses easy" to easy verses? Ought not the principle laid down in the following passage of the introduction to be followed out, not only into the intention, but into the manner and quality also, of the whole work?

         "`I mean to be sincere in this my lay:
      That which I think I shall write down without
         A drop of pain or varnish. Therefore, pray,
      Whatever I may chance to rhyme about,
      Read it without the shadow of a doubt.'" -- p.12.

Again, the Author appears to us to have acted unwisely in occasionally departing from the usual construction of his stanzas, as in this instance:

       "`But, as I said, you know my history;
      And your's -- not that you made a mystery
      Of it, nor used reserve, yet, being not
         By nature an Autophonophilete,
         (A word De Lacy fashioned and called me it)--
      Your's you have never told me yet. And what
      Can be a more appropriate occasion
      Than this true epic opening for relation?'" -- p.48.
Here the lines do no cohere so happily as in the more varied distribution of the rhymes; and, moreover, as a question of principle, we think it not advisable to allow of minor deviations from the uniformity of a prescribed metre.

It may be well to take leave of Mr. Cayley with a last quotation of his own words, -- words which no critic ought to disregard:

      "I shall be deeply grateful to reviews,
        Whether they deign approval, or rebuke,
      For any hints they think may disabuse
      Delusions of my inexperienced muse." -- p.8.
If our remarks have been such as to justify the Author's wish for sincere criticism, our object is attained; and we look forward for the second canto with confidence in his powers.




Last modified 12/14/95