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

§ 43. “Owen Meredith”

Three charges—heavy and, if fully substantiated, damaging if not even damning—have been brought by some against Robert, second lord and first earl Lytton, viceroy of India and author of a long series of books in various kinds of verse. It is the opinion of others that they cannot be fully substantiated; and that there are in “Owen Meredith,” as he called himself at first, especially in his earliest and latest work, counter-balancing merits which have been too much disregarded by critics. But dangerous defects, laying him open to the charges referred to, cannot be denied. The first and vaguest is something like a repetition of accusations constantly brought against his father—accusations of unreality, affectation, pose, theatricality and so forth. That he does not always avoid the suggestion of such things may be granted: that he was able to avoid them and frequently did so may be affirmed. With regard to the second charge—that of plagiarism—a somewhat similar position may be taken up. There is, undoubtedly, a good deal more echo of other men’s work in “Owen Meredith” than was either necessary or wise. But, as this echoing was always of work generally known, the writer could never possibly hope to escape detection or to pass off what was not his own as his own—which is the essence of plagiarism—and the habit, in fact, was only an incident or item of the third count, which cannot be denied at all, and which really contains within itself almost everything that can justly be said against lord Lytton as a poet. This concerns his enormous, and almost fatal, fluency. He did not live to be an old man; and his life was full of vocations and avocations of all kinds. Yet, the bulk of his work in verse would be unusually large for a man who had as little else to do as Wordsworth or Tennyson, and who had lived as long as either. It was said that, even when he corrected his work, he was sure to recoup himself for any omissions by manifold insertions; and he had a fancy for extensive verse-novels, such as Lucile and Glenaveril. His really brilliant satiric-epic-fantasy King Poppy, which was posthumously published after he had been writing and rewriting it for twenty years, would be much better if it were half the length. Yet, from the early Wanderer to the again posthumous collection of lyrics called Marah, which contains some of his very best work, there is constant evidence that, when some invisible mentor seized him and forced him to concentrate his powers, they were equal to the composition of real poetry of a high class. The piece variously called Astarte and Fata Morgana in The Wanderer, and that entitled Selenites (though a slight licence is taken with the quantity of the word) in Marah, are, perhaps, the very best of all; but there are scores nearly as good. A Love Letter, which has been the most general favourite and which opens admirably, would have gained by losing half its forty-two stanzas. For those who do not insist upon lyric, not a few passages and some pieces in Chronicles and Characters, Fables in Song and After Paradise ought to give a satisfaction which, if they have, up to the time, only thought of lord Lytton as a flashy Byronist, born out of due time, will surely make them change their minds.