American Monthly Review 4 (October 1833): 279-81
THE tale, as the title page declares, is truly “wondrous,” and not less wondrous is the style in which it is written, and most wondrous of all is it, that any critic, in a work pretending to more of authority in matters of taste than a newspaper, the vehicle of venal puffs, should come forth in unqualified and extravagant praise of such a production. We had occasion in a former number of this journal to make a passing comment or two upon some of the former writings of this author, and though the change from them to the present work is somewhat great in external appearance, yet it is not for the better; and examination shows the internal existence of the same flippancy and pertness, the same affectation of smartness and wit, the same want of pure taste and noble conception, on which we then bestowed our censure.
David Alroy is represented as the last male descendant from the house of David, and the “Prince of the Captivity” among the eastern Jews in the twelfth century, resident at Hamadan. Under the tuition and by the instigation of a fanatic and cabalist called Jabaster, he aspires to raise again to empire and glory the scattered and oppressed race of Israel, and to reinstate them in the promised land, in short, as we presume, though we do not recollect whether it is exactly so stated in the narration, he was to be the Messiah.
According to some tradition, no one could succeed in this vast undertaking unless he should possess the sceptre of Solomon, supposed to be hidden somewhere in the tombs of the Kings, or in some wonderful subterranean region, where the race of David was sequestrated alike from heaven or hell. To such a place Alroy finds access, and takes the sceptre from the hand of its rightful owner, leagues himself with a band of robbers, of all nations and creeds, in the vicinity of Hamadan, sends forth his invitation to his Jewish brethren to join him, goes on from small enterprises to greater, and becomes the conqueror of Persia and of the Caliphate of Bagdad.
Worldly ambition and worldly lust here get the better of his pretensions to the Messiahship; he ceases to burn for the restoration of Sion, loves a Moslem damsel, and is willing to tolerate the Moslem faith; permits the death of his tutor, counsellor, and high priest, Jabaster, who had been engaged in a revolt against him; loses the sceptre of Solomon by a flash of lightning, which strikes the place of its deposit, and in a vision sees it restored to its former owner, by the ghost of the murdered Jabaster, who announces also to him his coming downfal. This downfal is accomplished by the invasion of his newly acquired realms by Alp Arslan, and by the treachery of the partisans of Jabaster; and his head falls afterwards by the scimetar of his conqueror.
Such is the frame work of this singular production, which, from its structure and the remarks of the author in the preface, we suppose is meant for a poem, and intended to form a new era in the art of poetical composition. To us it seems a sort of monster, a Hybrid, composed by the union of bad epic, stale drama, and poor historical romance. From the first it derives the miserable and clumsy contrivance of supernatural machinery; formed by joining the absurd cabalistical magic and fables of half heathenized Jews with the acknowledged power of the Supreme. From the second it borrows its dialogue, and from the third its leading character of narration, while the language is a marvellous jumble of that of all the three, now stalking on stilts like bombastic tragedy, now making repartees and cutting bad jokes like low comedy or even farce, sometimes flowing along stately and measured, though without metre, like epic, and anon coming down to very plain and humble prose. Southey’s versification in “Thalaba” and the “Curse of Kehama,”* was not unaptly termed “prose run mad”; yet the insanity of the language was of a noble and poetical cast compared with that of “Alroy,” which is also “prose run mad,” but in that truly pitiable state of derangement, in which lofty or sublime raving comes only by fits of no long duration, while the rest of the time is spent in mere wildness, in hypochondriacal dulness, or dawdling idiocy.
Still, as scarcely anything is found altogether deformed, so in the midst of this absurdity of conception and execution, there are some good scenes and striking passages, though one of the best incidents, the patient and even as would appear cheerful toiling of Alroy's steed to clear his master of the deserts and bear him to a place of safety at the sacrifice of his own life, is a downright plagiarism, being taken, almost exactly as to everything but the language, from some work of oriental fiction that we have perused within a year or two; Anastasius* occurs to us at present as the work to which we allude, though we cannot recollect clearly. Some of the characters are too tolerably well sketched in parts, though scarcely any one is in perfect keeping throughout.
Should Mr. D'Israeli follow this essay at the creation of a new style of poetry with farther attempts, and be unfortunate enough to find imitators, as the new school will surely want a name, we beg leave in anticipation to recommend that of "Pistol,"* for we can think of no fitter prototype than that worthy "ancient."