Orion/Brief Commentary

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EVERY Preface, or introductory commentary, has a certain number of readers, who may be described as the natural friends of Prefaces, or their natural enemies. Let me hope to mitigate the animosity of the latter (being one of the number myself) by informing them, that, although this Poem has passed through six editions in England, and several more in foreign countries, the present Commentary—a portion of which was, in a manner, forced from me in Australia, some sixteen years ago—is the only one that has been written for it,—that the remarks will be as concise as possible,— and that, in my own opinion, there really is no great need that anybody should read them. They are offered, however, in deference to the judgment of others.

The poem of 'Orion' was intended to work out a special design, applicable to all times, by means of antique or classical imagery and associations; and this design, with the hero and the several characters who appear on the scene, as well as the general structure and distribution of the action, were long considered before a line was written. A sort of cartoon of the whole was then made, and submitted to my friend Dr. Leonhard Schmitz, long since recognised as one of the most learned men of the day, and equally possessed of a profound philosophical spirit. To his kind and thoughtful revision I have great pleasure in acknowledging my obligations.

Orion, the hero of my fable, is meant to present a type of the struggle of man with himself, i.e. the contest between the intellect and the senses, when powerful energies are equally balanced. Orion is man standing naked before Heaven and Destiny, resolved to work as a really free agent to the utmost pitch of his powers for the good of his race. He is a truly practical believer in his gods, and in his own conscience; a child with the strength of a giant; innocently wise; with a heart expanding towards the largeness and warmth of Nature, and a spirit unconsciously aspiring to the stars. He is a dreamer of noble dreams, and a hunter of grand shadows (in accordance with the ancient symbolic mythos), all tending to healthy thought, or to practical action and structure. He is the type of a Worker and a Builder for his fellow-men. He presents the picture (well or ill painted, the author cannot certainly know) of a great and simple nature, struggling to develope all its loftiest energies—determined to be, and to do, to obtain knowledge, and to use it—to live up to its faculties—feeling and acting nobly and powerfully for the service of the world, and seeking its own reward and happiness in the consciousness of a well-worked life, and the possession of a perfect sympathy enshrined in some lovely object. (Footnote 1)

With regard to this intense sympathy with some lovely object of personal passion and affection, a witty authoress once said to me,—'But why should it require three goddesses to perfect one giant?' The question, though put playfully, is too profound to be answered in the same vein. It may be briefly said, however, that the three great phases of the ordeal of the passion of love, which most strong natures pass through, are fairly portrayed in the story of 'Orion.' He might have been represented as finding perfection at the outset; but since the lot of humanity is seldom (if ever) so fortunate, it seemed best that he should pass through the several gradations of disappointment and suffering, in order to arrive at the highest refinements of sympathy and happiness. If the happiness was short-lived, and met with destruction at the selfish hands of a limited nature (an imperfect sympathy), who resented the bliss it was itself incapable of attaining or conferring, that also is the type of a melancholy truth. The law of progress forbids man to rest in happiness: in his misery he will not, cannot rest; but this law generally cuts short the work of a man, not merely when he has done his best, or perhaps before, but even when he has done as much as his age is capable of using. He must go away, and make room for a different greatness. The needs of a future age must be supplied by future genius, because to see too far in advance is just so much intellectual activity projected into the air. Nothing can be done with it. And the only result is the ridicule, persecution, or utter neglect of the day.

Mr. G. H. Lewes, at the time this poem was first published, being specially occupied with the German metaphysicians, among whom the business of a long life has often been that of abstract speculation, and a kind of illustration of the Hegelian subjectivity and objectivity interpenetrating each other, endeavoured one day to show me that the real hero of my poem was not Orion, but Akinetos. Now, I had studiously drawn the character of the giant Akinetos—the Great Unmoved—in contradistinction to that of Orion—a Great Mover of the world—the one all action, the other all thought leading to no action. Had Akinetos heard the remark, he would have scorned to be called a hero of any kind: he would have asked what was the good of building houses on the sands of the sea-shore? The amusement of fools incapable of sitting still. The philosophy of Akinetos may be difficult to refute in the abstract, but since human life is a mixture of hard realities, with perfect illusions, Akinetos was no hero, nor a good model for any one to follow, and therefore I finally set him in stone, while Orion shines for ever.

The other characters speak for themselves. My friend Mr. Tennyson smilingly accused me about the same period, of intending the plausible giant Encolyon as a largely outlined portrait of a certain eminent statesman of the day. There was, perhaps, an amusing resemblance in some respects; but I had no such intention. Besides, it would have been unbecoming the dignity of Epic story. For. a similar reason some objection has been taken to the corn-dealing episode of the inhabitants of stony Ithaca during a famine, in Canto ii. B. i. But while I believe the principles there set forth in fable, are simple and universal—applicable in all ages—I trust the form and picture are sufficiently idealized to be in perfect harmony with the rest of the story, its imagery, local scenery, and characteristics. The reader, therefore, ought not, I think, to reproach me for this, especially as it is not certain that many people would have found it out, if I had not told them.

Of the design and structure of this poem, as a work of imagination, and also of its execution, it does not become me to speak; but as various complimentary remarks on its philosophy were made in England and America (more especially in the Times, and in the critical essays of so accomplished a genius as Edgar Allan Poe)—remarks to which I never offered any due acknowledgment or reply—a few words may now be permitted me in explanation.

The philosophy of 'Orion' gives the widest scope to nature, natural action, and genius; it advocates the broadest views, and most energetic progress, with a belief in the constant advancement of mankind, here and hereafter. It may be said that the converse of all this can be shown by the quotation of certain passages; and the words of the starving man gathering gum from the lentisk-trees have been cited:—

'Like the hot springs
That boil themselves away, and serve for nought,
Which yet must have some office, rightly used,
Man hath a secret source for some great end,
Which by delay seems wasted. Ignorance
Chokes us, and Time outwits us.'—B. i. canto iii.

This is admitted; nor need I be ashamed to confess that, like many others, I have myself had hours, even days, of extreme despondency (never of despair), during which the foregoing lines were realized to a degree that, had I then been dying, might have induced me to choose those words for my epitaph. But garbled extracts are no proof of a desponding philosophy, nor of anything else in most cases. The morbid is burnt up in the sanguine. With all vigorous natures these periods of gloom and hopelessness are very brief; and for every single passage of such tendency in 'Orion,' a dozen may be found of the opposite: and this belief in the pre-arranged and constant progress of man is expressly developed in the opening of Book iii. Canto i. Although it may be true, in some rare instances, that—

'The man, who for his race might supersede
The work of ages, dies worn out—not used!'

Yet it is shown that his influence continues:—

'The circle widens as the world spins round—
The earth hath tough rind, but a subtle heart—
His soul works on, while he sleeps 'neath the grass.'

The opening of the last Canto, and the concluding Song of Orion, after death, while taking his station among the constellated thrones, certainly place the philosophy of the poem beyond question as a whole, whatever speeches or remarks may be cited from Akinetos.

With similar design, the Intellectual and the Sensuous have each been given a fair and open field. Detached passages might be found equally forcible on each side; and in order to render this equi-vocal philosophy not equivocal in the dishonest sense of the word, a certain sage, in opposition to the courtiers of Oinopion's palace, hazards an opinion on this all-important point,—

'That human nerves,
And what they wrought, were wondrous as the mind,
And in the eye of Zeus none could decide
Which held the higher place.'—B. ii. canto i.

If the temeritous sage, by promulgating the above opinion, became a martyr to the hypocritical mind of society (i. e. the outward pretences of minds that know better), nobody can find anything unusual in such a result, down to this very day of our self-deluding civilization. The early ages in their philosophies, their 'loves and wars,' only display the same generic characteristics as at present—the American Civil War, and the late Franco-Prussian ferocities being a perfect settlement of the question of Christian authorities and influence;—and those who have seen savage life as well as the highest modern refinements, can but have observed that the savage man and the civilized man are identical in first principles. There is only a sheet of papyrus between them. When the great sanitary reformer, the late Dr. Southwood Smith, wrote his Philosophy of Health, and his work on The Divine Government, one may clearly see that opinions on the right estimation of our corporeal conditions must have passed through his mind, which, had he given them a more palpable enunciation, with a practical bearing, would have caused the loss of all his private practice as a physician. But as it is, 'his soul works on, while he sleeps ' neath the grass;' and we may also say with the author of the Songs before Sunrise,—

'Thou art not dead, as these are dead who live
    Full of blind years, a sorrow-shaken kind:
    ********
 The savour of heroic lives that were,
 Is it not mixed into thy common air?
    The sense of them is shed about thee now!'

Whether the hypocrisies of a fundamental part of the present social scheme be unwise or wise, with a view to keeping the born-savage in order, a great change in our so-called 'science of ethics,' as far as relates both to ' frail' and forcible animal nature, will have to accompany, if it does not precede, the Church of the Future. And it is clear to me, that instead of resisting the idea of our Darwinian 'promotion,' we should gratefully and hopefully regard it as promissory of a series of higher grades for ever-aspiring humanity.

From time immemorial, though this monomania of superstition seemed to reach its height in the cruel self-martyrdom of old monastic devotees and their deluded victims, the system of 'mortifying the flesh,' and the general view taken of the human body, with all its immutable laws and functions, has continued down to the present day. Notwithstanding all the knowledge of physiology, and the psychology inextricably involved in our corporeal fabric and conditions, the same dead-set against man's body is constantly made. Man seems determined to know better than his Maker, and not merely to regulate dogmatically, but altogether to check, if not expunge, some of the Divine ordinations. Among the latest signs of this asceticism, we may point to an article that has just appeared—and in one of the most intellectual of our periodicals-—entitled The Fleshly School of Poetry. Supposing there were such a school, why should it not exist as well as schools that preach exclusively of the spirit? Are we gravely to be told, at this day, that 'the flesh, and the devil,' are almost cognate terms, and that the spirit and the devil never cause men to commit evil deeds?

The direct tendency of my fable, as far as it relates to the passion of love, is clearly shown to advocate that combination of the intellectual and the sensuous which is most conducive to the noble progress and happiness of special natures.

Thus, when a critique which appeared in the Athenæum (written by the greatest poetess of the age—of any age—need I say, Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning?) designated 'Orion' as a ' spiritual epic,' it might with equal truth have been termed a corporeal epic, or one of mere external action. It is both. The life of Orion begins amidst ' ponderous substance,' and is continually employed in physical action, when not absorbed with the converse. The poem is intended equally to advocate the real and the ideal, the precursive dream, theory, or shadow—and the substance and action which originate therefrom. The opinion that it was a ' spiritual epic' is a remarkable illustration of the tone which a highly-refined spirit can give to all that it contemplates; and how it can touch what the world calls 'pitch' without soiling the pearl and coral of the fairy fingers. Howbeit, the writer of this poem having been a sailor in many a stormy sea, intends to stick fast by the timbers of our mortal vessel.

After the allusions to 'ponderous substance' and other bodily forces, the reader, if he has duly observed my design, ought not to be surprised on reverting to a passage in the first Canto, commencing with —

'"Hunter of Shadows, thou thyself a Shade,"
Be comforted in this,—that substance holds
No higher attributes,' &c.

The elucidatory justification which follows may not, by everybody, be considered as satisfactory; suffice it for the writer that he honestly thought, and thinks, it was so.

I have been very frequently requested, particularly by letters from total strangers, to make some explanations of this kind concerning the design of 'Orion,' and have always resisted, simply because it seemed to me that it was plain enough, or at least open to such study as any epic poem, at all worthy of the name, might fairly ask of all lovers of poetry. I trust, however, that my tardy consent will not have made any of my old readers, in various parts of the world, angry or indifferent, since I have ever regarded an intellectual sympathy as the highest treasure an author can obtain,—the only heartfelt reward of all his labours.

As for the allegorical vein running through the poem, transparently enough, no one need be in the least troubled about that matter, if the underworking be not sufficiently obvious. A child may read the story. And here let me borrow Hazlitt's excellent and graphic settlement of the question. 'Some people,' he remarks, in his Lecture on the English Poets, 'will say that all this may be very fine, but that they cannot understand it on account of the allegory. They are afraid of the allegory, as if they thought it would bite them. They look at it as a child looks at a painted dragon, and think that it will strangle them in its shining folds. This is very idle. If they do not meddle with the allegory, the allegory will not meddle with them. Without minding it at all, the whole is as plain as a pike-staff. It might as well be pretended that we cannot see Poussin's pictures for the allegory.'

In a few instances, it is admitted, a certain fabulous aureola may render a passage not so clear to the understanding as if it had been elaborated in prose. There are occasions in imaginative compositions in which it is best not to strive to be too definite, because some designs are destroyed by a hard outline; and also because poems often suggest one thing to one person, and another thing to another person, by the variety of our memories and special natures,—and, in certain cases, poems suggest things differing in some degree from the poet's meaning and intention.

I must add one remark to this, which of course will be regarded by most persons as heretical; viz. that in many instances, the moment a poetical passage is 'laid upon the table' for analysis, the soul vanishes! The moving principle, the partner for life, is gone. This opinion obviously does not refer to philosophical, didactic, or what are called 'practical poems,' but only to those which depend, like most first impressions, upon sympathy. In like manner, the silly fellow who pauses in reading a beautiful lyric in order to examine if the rhymes suit his eye or his ear, need not read any more, for the essence of that beauty has evaporated for ever. In fine, it is quite certain, that what has been so constantly said about poets being born poets, applies in a similar sense to their readers. Many people, and of very great understanding in other respects, are born with the impossibility of understanding poetry in its highest essence, or even perhaps in its humblest, if it be true poetry. The Elephant who was introduced to Pegasus, said there must be a mistake somewhere!

The reader may smile to hear, or to remember, that in the preliminary Note to the early editions of 'Orion' it was said that the poem was, in several respects, 'an experiment upon the mind of a nation.' But considering that about that period the far-sweeping tide of broad-farce literature, caricature, and burlesque, had set in, and that it has continued with accumulating and desecrating influence during the last twenty years and more, my ' experiment' has been a success in the main. If the superstitious asceticism of ancient dogmas and legends still holds out in its old stone fortresses, 'Orion' has nevertheless starred the rock, and let in some clear rays of healthy light.

'But because,' writes Thomas Hobbes, 'there be many men called Criticks, and Wits, and Virtuosi, that are accustomed to censure the Poets, and most of them of divers Judgments: how is it possible (you'll say) to please them all? Yes, very well; if the Poem be as it should be. For, men can judge what's Good that know not what is Best. For he that can judge what is best must have considered all these things (though they be almost innumerable) that concur to make the reading of an Heroick Poem pleasant. Whereof I'll name as many as shall come into my mind.' (Footnote 2) Now, while it will be obvious that no writer can be so purblind and rash in self-opinion as to assume that even the majority must regard his work as good, there is one of the conditions set down by Hobbes as fourth in his list, to which I do make claim, viz. ' The Justice and Impartiality of the Poet.' The last he mentions is, 'Amplitude of the Subject;'—but this, of course, is in the nature of things, and the ' servant of Nature' can only lay claim to a profound and reverent sympathy.

In the early editions of 'Orion,' a sort of explanatory apology was offered for employing the old Greek names in a Greek fable, on the grounds that 'the Gods and Goddesses of ancient Italy were perfectly distinct from those of the ancient Hellenic races;' and that I had also adopted the latter 'with a view to getting rid of commonizing associations.' The Bacchus and Neptune, for instance, of the present day, are singularly vulgar and technical non-representatives of the beautiful lacchus and the grand Poseidon,—while Phoibos, Aphrodite, and Artemis may be truly said to be utterly burlesqued, and only worthy of the places in which they are most commonly found. The present Poem of elaborate design was the first that ventured to give, with one or two discretionary variations, the old Greek names: but there is no need to apologize for this at the present time.

It only remains to offer a word concerning several amusing speculations and idle fancies that have been extensively promulgated, and which have enabled those who know nothing of the poem to seem to say something. I allude to the unusual circumstance (which ought to be common enough with all those authors who could so much better afford it) of the book having been given away in the first instance. As there was scarcely any instance of an Epic Poem attaining any reasonable circulation during its author's lifetime (certainly not up to that period, with the exception of Voltaire's 'Henriade'), the first, second, and third editions of 'Orion' were published gratuitously,—that is, they were published at a nominal price, the least coin of the realm, to avoid the trouble and greatly additional expense of forwarding presentation copies; which, moreover, are not always particularly desired by those who receive them. After the third edition, there were several editions at a price which amply remunerated the publisher, and left the author no great loser. There has also been an Australian edition, and, I believe, more than one in America; but all have long been out of print.

The present is the first Library Edition, and has the author's latest, and probably his final corrections. Two lines have been erased from the poem as previously published, and some forty lines have been added to the last Canto. Hail! and farewell!

R. H. H.

London, November 1871.

Footnotes[edit]

^  On the first appearance of this poem, two young poets, who have since become eminent in various ways (Edmund Oilier and George Meredith), wrote to me their several views of the design and character of Orion, each of which was far better said than the above, and in less than half the space. I am ashamed to say that I cannot recollect their words, or they would have stood in the place of mine.

^  Preface to the Translation of the Iliads and Odysses, by Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. 1686.