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

§ 3. Bailey’s Festus

The third member of this trio, though somewhat closer, in some ways, to Tupper than either he or Tupper is to Macaulay, and almost, though not quite, sharing the oblivion which has engulfed Proverbial Philosophy and has not engulfed The Lays of Ancient Rome, is, perhaps, the most difficult of the three to estimate aright. Philip James Bailey, when, at the age of twenty-three, he wrote Festus, in its original form, had the full benefit of that comparatively dead season, in poetry and criticism, which has been spoken of above. Editions by the dozen in England and by the score in America (where men, at that time, were desperately busy “getting culture”) came at his call as they came at Tupper’s; but the nature of the call was itself essentially different, and (as it is almost safe to say never happened in the case of Proverbial Philosophy) contemporaries of undoubted poetical competence, from Tennyson himself to Westland Marston, were ready to welcome Bailey as a brother. He had, in fact, as Macaulay had not attempted to do in his principal work, and as Tupper, if he had ever attempted to do it, had obviously and ludicrously failed to do, in an old-new way—effective if not perfect—struck that vein of “strangeness” which, from Aristotle downwards, all the greatest writers have recognised as more or less necessary to poetry. As being so, it had been a main source of the earlier romantic triumphs; but the great poets of that time had not found it necessary to labour this vein extravagantly or exclusively, though some signs of doing this were obvious in the group who, in a former chapter, have been called “the intermediates.” Bailey drove what pickaxe he had straight at this vein and never thought of limiting his extraction from it. He was almost immediately followed by some notable persons who will be dealt with next under their nickname “spasomodics”—and it is by no means unarguable that both Tennyson and Browning showed signs of slight infection—while the creed of “strangeness for strangeness’ sake” has never wanted adherents up to the present day, and it now has quite a company of them. Every now and then some generous member of this community makes a plea—with due stridency and gesticulation—for Festus: and it is doubtful whether any critic endowed by nature with some catholicity of judgment has read the poem without seeing its merits, especially in its original form. But the defects even of that form, and, still more, of the later transformation, can, at the same time, escape no such critic.

To give any account of The Lays of Ancient Rome in detail would be absurd, for everybody knows them; to give any account of Proverbial Philosophy in detail would be as impossible as to do the same to a bale of cotton wool; but something of the kind is necessary—and, in fact, from what has been said, must be seen to be at least very desirable—in the case of Festus. As originally planned, and as its name indicates pretty clearly, it is a variant on the Faust story. The hero neither succumbs wholly to diabolic temptation, as in the Marlowe version, nor is saved by the Ewigweibliche, as in Goethe; but he has an accompanying tempter in Lucifer himself, and he has a whole harem of Gretchens, none of whom he exactly betrays, and one of whom, Clara, he eventually marries, though a sort of battle of Armageddon, followed by the consummation of all things, interrupts the honeymoon. In the enormous interim, Lucifer, for purposes not always obvious, personally conducts Festus about the universe—and all the universes; foregathers with him in merely mundane societies both of a mixed ordinary kind and also of political-theosophical studentry, and once creates a really poetical situation (which the author, unable, to deal with it even at first, spoilt further in the incredible processes to be described immediately) by himself falling in love with a girl whom he has thought to use for ensnaring Festus. Usually, the tempter indulges in speeches of great length, replied to with tenfold volubility by Festus, who might have claimed (as Joanna Southcott is said actually to have done) to have “talked the devil dead,” inasmuch as Lucifer himself at least once cries for mercy. The whole concludes with the complete defeat of the spirit unfortunate; but with more than a hint of an apocatastasis—of an assize in which he will share.

It is quite possible that this argument, so far as the strict Festus of 1839 is concerned, may be slightly contaminated by later insertions, for the writer has read the poem in more versions than one, as, indeed, is necessary, owing to the unparalleled processes (above alluded to) which Bailey adopted towards it. Between 1839 and 1850, Festus had a comparatively fair field opened to it; but, by the latter year, Tennyson had thoroughly established himself, Browning was there for those who could like him and others had come or were coming. The Angel World, a sort of satellite of Festus, was not received cordially; The Mystic and The Spiritual Legend (1855) still less so; and, when an entirely new poetical period had thoroughly set in, the Universal Hymn in 1868 least of all. No one but a very curmudgeonly person quarrels with a parent, poetical or other, for standing by his unpopular children. But the way in which Bailey acted towards his was without precedent, and, one may hope, will never be imitated. He stuffed large portions of the unsuccessful books into what was becoming the not very popular body of Festus itself, which, thereby, from a tolerably exacting individuality of 20,000 lines or thereabout, became an impossible sausage of double the number.

The earlier eulogists of Festus dwelt almost wholly, and their more recent successors, after a very long gap, have dwelt partly, on a supposed magnificence of subject—the ways of God being justified to man on the basis of what is called universalism. This, it would be quite out of place here to discuss, though, perhaps, one may, without too much petulance, repeat that perambulation of the universe or universes in blank verse shares the drawback of that medium, as immortally urged by Thackeray, that it is “not argument.” The person who succeeds in reading Festus, even in the original, much more in the later, form, “for the story,” “for the argument,” or for anything else of the kind, must be possessed of a singular prowess or of a still more singular indifference and insensibility.

The form requires some notice. It is, perhaps, more eccentrically blended, and the elements of the blend are more strangely selected and associated, than is the case with any other long poem which has ever attained, as Festus has done, both popularity and critical acceptance of a kind. The greater part of it, as indicated above, is couched in a curious loose blank verse, neither definitely individual nor clearly imitated from anybody else; but marking a further stage of the pseudodramatic “blanks” of the “intermediates.” It drops, occasionally, into couplet or into semi-doggerel anapaestic—generally bad—while it is, in one part frequently, in others sometimes, interspersed with lyrics of extraordinary weakness. Bailey’s “spasmodic” pupils (see below) were to redeem their faults and frailties by occasional bursts of genuine lyric of high and (as lyrics go) new quality. But his near namesake Haynes Bayly himself could give the author of Festus points and beat him in a pseudo-Mooreish, twaddling-thinkling kind of melody, which never (so far as it is safe to use that word in connection with an author so voluminous and so difficult to pin down in printed form as Bailey) attains any clear lyrical colour, passion or “cry.” On the other hand, in the blank verse itself there are occasionally to be found—and this was probably the cause of the original recognition by brother poets and has always been the handle seized by later eulogists of ability—passages of extraordinary brilliance, in diction, versification and (with a slightly rhetorical limitation) general literary appeal. Sometimes, these are merely lines or short fragments; sometimes, more sustained and substantive pieces of accomplishment. They rarely have, as the common phrase goes, “much to do with anything” and are usually “purple patches” in the strictest sense—purple enough, but, also, patchy enough. They are acceptable for their own beauty and they acquire additional interest from the point of view of the historian; because, it was certainly Festus and its limitations which, coming, as they did, just at the time when a critical “instauration” was beginning, set Matthew Arnold, Bagehot and others against detailed ornament of treatment not demonstrably connected with the subject. It is probable that this somewhat barbaric jewellery had not a little to do with Bailey’s popularity and with that which, for a time, at least, rewarded his followers next to be treated. It will be best to postpone some general remarks on it till they have been dealt with, but others may be interposed here.

The central point in Bailey and in these others who, though they can hardly be called his disciples and form a very loose “school,” have this centre in common with him, is a kind of solidifying or, at least, centripetalising of the loose and floating endeavours towards something new and strange which we found in the “intermediates.” None of these can stand by himself in individual quality, like Tennyson and Browning; none of them can, by an effect of scholarship and poetic determination, reach the eclectic individuality of Matthew Arnold; they have not even virility of genius enough to work in a definite school like the later pre-Raphaelites. But, by a certain gorgeousness or intricacy of language, by a scrupulous avoidance of the apparent commonplace in subject; by more or less elaborately hinted or expressed unorthodoxy in religion or philosophy; and, above all, by a neurotic sentimentalism which would be passion if it could, and, sometimes, is not absolutely far from it, though it is in constant danger of turning to the ridiculous or of tearing its own flimsiness to tatters—by all these things and others they struggled to avoid the obvious and achieve poetic strangeness.

The most usually quoted names in the group are those of Sydney Dobell, Alexander Smith and the two Joneses, Ernest and of Ebenezer, each of whom deserves some special notice here. But some community of character, both in the respects noticed above and, sometimes, also, in a sort of vague political unrestfulness, may be observed in others, such as William Bell Scott and Thomas Gordon Hake, who, after showing “spasmodic” signs, became, as it were, outside pre-Raphaelites later.