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Alroy, Edited by Sheila A. Spector

Reviews

The London Literary Gazette: Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c. No. 842 (9 March 1833): 146-8.

THIS production, with many beauties not unworthy of the talents and literary reputation of the younger D’Israeli, seems to be an experiment on the English language and composition, and, in our opinion, not likely to be a successful one, or to lead to future imitation. It is, indeed, neither prose nor verse, neither rhyme nor rhythm, neither Ossian nor the translation of serious opera, neither connected narrative nor the oracles of somnambulism,—but apparently a mixture, partaking of all these styles and manners, and telling a tale of no human interest. From first to last, the reader cares nothing for the hero, or for any of his contemporaries; the wonders are too visionary to create either surprise or concern; and as the actors “come like shadows, so depart,” we finally close the volume with a feeling of dissatisfaction, strong in proportion to the weakness of the impressions made upon us by a waste of powers, surely capable of better things.

Alroy is the last Prince of the Captivity, an enthusiast who obtains the magical sceptre of Solomon, raises the sacred standard of Israel, and conquers the East, at some early period of history. He marries the daughter of the Caliph of Bagdad, offends the theocracy and the Jews who adhere to the ancient laws, is conspired against, betrayed, and brought to judgment by his Turkish conquerors. His sister Miriam, Jabaster a Cabalist, Honian an oriental Epicurian philosopher, Abidan a fanatic, Esther a prophetess, and Schirrene his lovely fate, are the other principal characters. The Talmud has furnished the raw material, and the author’s travels have enabled him to build up the superstructure with sketches of scenery, deserts, ruined cities, costume, individuals of various countries, customs, and modes of expression. From the mass we shall endeavour to disengage such parts as will afford a fair idea of the execution of the whole; and bear witness to the truth of the few remarks we have ventured to offer on a performance which is, if that be a merit, at least new in its fashion, and, like most new things, looks fanatical and odd. But first, let Mr. D’Israeli speak for himself:—

“I never hesitate, although I discard verse, to have recourse to rhythm whenever I consider its introduction desirable, and occasionally even to rhyme. There is no doubt that the style in which I have attempted to write this work is a delicate and difficult instrument for an artist to handle. He must not abuse his freedom. He must alike beware the turgid and the bombastic, the meagre and the mean. He must be easy in his robes of state, and a degree of elegance and dignity must accompany him even in the camp and the market-house. The language must rise gradually with the rising passions of the speakers, and subside in harmonious unison with their sinking emotions. With regard to the conduct of this tale, it will speedily be observed to be essentially dramatic. Had, indeed, the drama in this country not been a career encompassed with difficulties, I should have made Alroy the hero of a tragedy. But as, at the present day, this is a mode of composition which for any practical effect is almost impossible, I have made him the hero of a dramatic romance. The author, therefore, seldom interferes in the conduct of the story. He has not considered it his duty to step in between the reader and the beings of his imagination, to develope and dwell upon their feelings, or to account for their characters and actions. He leaves them in general to explain every thing for themselves, substituting, on his part, description for scenery, and occasional bursts of lyric melody for that illustrative music, without which all dramatic representations are imperfect, and which renders the serious opera of the Italians the most effective performance of modern times, and most nearly approaching the exquisite drama of the ancient Greeks.”

Alroy’s first ambitious aspirations are well illustrated in a conversation with his uncle, who has just paid the Moslemin tribute:—

“‘Live we like slaves?’ (argues the elder Hebrew.) ‘Is this hall a servile chamber! These costly carpets, and these rich divans, in what proud harem shall we find their match? I feel not like a slave. My coffers are full of dirhems. Is that slavish? The wealthiest company of the caravan is ever Bostenay’s. Is that to be a slave? Walk the bazaar of Bagdad, and you will find my name more potent than the caliph’s. Is that a badge of slavery?’ ‘Uncle, you toil for others.’ ‘So do we all; so does the bee; yet he is free and happy.’ ‘At least he has a sting.’ ‘Which he can use but once; and when he stings—’ ‘He dies, and like a hero. Such a death is sweeter than his honey.’”

The moody youth breaks away into solitude; and the style of Ossian, though mixed with other imitative notes, as we have mentioned, will be recognized in his soliloquy, and the ensuing dialogue with his sister.

‘My fathers, my heroic fathers! if this feeble arm cannot redeem thy heritage; if the foul boar must still wallow in thy sweet vineyard, Israel, at least I'll not disgrace ye. No! let me perish. The house of David is no more! no more our sacred seed shall lurk and linger, like a blighted thing, in this degenerate earth. If we cannot flourish, why then we’ll die!’ ‘Oh! say not so, my brother!’ A voice broke on the air, so soft, so sweet, so wildly musical; it sounded like a holy bell upon a summer day—a holy bell that calls to prayer, and stills each fierce emotion. And softly kneeling at his side, behold a female form! Her face is hid, her lips are pressed against the hand she gently steals. And now she raises up her head, and waits with tender patience for a glance from one who seldom smiles. ‘Oh! say not so, my brother!’ He turns; he gazes on a face beauteous as a starry night—a starry night in those far climes where not a cloud is marked in heaven; when all below on earth’s so sweet, and all above in air so still, that every passion melts away, and life seems but a fragrant dream. I too have wandered in those lands, and roamed mid Jordan’s vocal bowers. Ah! could the nightingale that sang to Syria’s rose now sing to me, I’d give the fame of coming years to listen to that lay! He turns—he gazes—and he bends; his heart is full, his voice is low. ‘Ah, Miriam! thou queller of dark spirits! is it thou? Why art thou here?’ ‘Why am I here? Are you not here? and need I urge a stronger plea? Oh! brother dear, I pray you come and mingle in our festival. Our walls are hung with flowers you love; I culled them by the fountain’s side; the holy lamps are trimmed and set, and you must raise their earliest flame. Without the gate my maidens wait, to offer you a robe of state. Then, brother dear, I pray you come and mingle in our festival.’”*

The concluding paragraphs almost jingle:—

Why am I here?
Art thou not here?
Oh! brother dear!
* * * *
Without the gate
My maidens wait,
To offer you a robe of state, &c.

Throughout the book the same style constantly occurs: thus, Alroy and his courser galloping over the desert:—

“Food or water they have none. No genial fount, no grateful tree, rise with their pleasant company. Never a beast or bird is there, in that hoary desert bare. Nothing breaks the almighty stillness. Even the jackal’s felon cry might seem a soothing melody. A grey wild rat, with snowy whiskers, out of a withered bramble stealing, with a youthful snake in its ivory teeth, in the moonlight grins with glee. This is their sole society.”

Suppose the extract printed in regular lines:

No genial fount, no grateful tree,
Rise with their pleasant company.
Never a beast or bird is there,
In that hoary desert bare.
Even the jackal’s felon cry
Might seem a soothing melody.

Then comes, perhaps the natural, but certainly the ludicrous, description of the rat with snowy whiskers, munching a youthful snake; which

In the moonlight grins with glee.
This is their sole society.

Again, a bird flies away:—

“A moment since, and it was there, glancing in the sunny air; and now the sky is without a guest. Alas, alas! no more is heard the carol of that lonely bird, singing in the wilderness.”

A moment since, and it was there,
Glancing in the sunny air.
Alas, alas! no more is heard
The carol of that lonely bird.

But why multiply these examples?—only it doth us strike, that we do not like to be taken in with chimes, with short metres and rhymes, in the shape of honest prose, which all the world knows.

Our next specimens of style are to mark what we have likened to the indifferent translation of Italian opera, rather than to striking original composition in our native tongue.

“I do observe the influence of women very potent over me. ’Tis not of such stuff that they make heroes. I know not love, save that pure affection that does subsist between me and this girl,—an orphan, and my sister. We are so alike, that when last Passover, in mimicry, she twined my turban round her graceful head, our uncle called her David. The daughters of my tribe, they please me not, though they are passing fair. Were our sons as brave as they are beautiful, we still might dance on Sion. Yet have I often thought, that could I pillow this moody brow upon some snowy bosom that were my own, and dwell in the wilderness, far from the sight and ken of man, and all the care, and toil, and wretchedness, that groan, and sweat, and sigh about me, I might haply lose this deep sensation of o’erwhelming woe that broods upon my being. No matter: life is but a dream, and mine must be a dull one.”

Again:—

“Pallid and mad, he swift upsprang, and he tore up a tree by its lusty roots, and down the declivity, dashing with rapid leaps, panting and wild, he struck the ravisher on the temple with the mighty pine. Alschiroch fell lifeless on the sod, and Miriam fainting into her brother’s arms. And there he stood, fixed and immovable, gazing upon his sister’s deathly face, and himself exhausted by passion and his exploit, supporting her cherished, but senseless body.”

And again:—

“‘Woe! woe! our house is fallen! The wildness of his gestures frightens me. David, David! I pray thee cease. He hears me not—my voice, perchance, is thin. I’m very faint. Maidens, kneel to your prince, and soothe the madness of his passion.’”

The “thin” voice is genuine operatic, and the sentiments in the three quotations partake largely of the same character, which is far alike from the truly touching or nobly passionate.

Part II.—(for another of the novelties of this tale is, that it is not divided into the ancient form of chapters, but into parts, sections of parts, and continuations of parts—a very useless innovation!)—Part II. commences in a similar strain, as follows:

“Speed, fleetly speed, thou courser bold, and track the desert’s trackless way. Beneath thee is the boundless earth, above thee is the boundless heaven,—an iron soil and brazen sky. Speed, swiftly speed, thou courser bold, and track the desert’s trackless way!”

Not quite a bull, maybe, but an extravagance; and, while tracking the trackless way, one might wish to view the viewless wind, or perform some other equally impossible exploit. This vein of exaggeration accompanies almost all the descriptive portions of this flight through the desert. For instance,—(but we quote more of the passage, as a general specimen, than our illustration needs,)—

“Just as the sun set, they reached the well. Alroy jumped off the horse, and would have led it to the fountain, but the animal would not advance. It stood dreadfully shivering, with a glassy eye, and then it bowed its head, and with a groan fell down and died. Night brings rest—night brings solace, rest to the weary, solace to the sad; and to the desperate, night brings despair. The moon has sunk to early rest; but a thousand stars are in the sky. The mighty mountains rise severe in the clear and silent air. In the forest all is still. The tired wind no longer roams, but has lightly dropped on its leafy couch, and sleeps like man. Silent all but the fountain’s drip. And by the fountain’s side a youth is lying. Suddenly a creature steals through the black and broken rocks. Ha! ha! the jackal smells from afar the rich corruption of the courser’s clay. Suddenly and silently it steals, and stops, and smells. Brave banqueting, I ween, to-night for all that goodly company! Jackal, and fox, and marten cat, haste ye now, ere morning’s break shall call the vulture to his feast, and rob ye of your prey. The jackal lapped the courser’s blood, and moaned with exquisite delight. And in a moment, a faint bark was heard in the distance. And the jackal peeled the flesh from one of the ribs, and again burst into a shriek of mournful ecstasy. Hark, their quick tramp! First six, and then three, galloping with ungodly glee. And a marten cat came rushing down from the woods; but the jackals, fierce in their number, drove her away; and there she stood without the circle, panting, beautiful, and baffled, with her white teeth and glossy skin, and sparkling eyes of rabid rage. Suddenly, as one of the half-gorged jackals retired from the main corpse, dragging along a stray member by some still palpitating nerves, the marten cat made a spring at her enemy, carried off his prey, and rushed into the woods. Her wild scream of triumph woke a lion from his lair. His mighty form, black as ebony, moved on a distant eminence—his tail flowed like a serpent. He roared, and the jackals trembled, and immediately ceased from their banquet, turning their heads in the direction of their sovereign’s voice. He advanced—he stalked towards them. They retired; he bent his head, examined the carcass with condescending curiosity, and instantly quitted it with royal disdain. The jackals again collected around their garbage. The lion advanced to the fountain to drink. He beheld a man. His mane rose—his tail was wildly agitated—he bent over the sleeping prince—he uttered an awful roar, which woke Alroy. He awoke; his gaze met the flaming eyes of the enormous beast fixed upon him with a blending feeling of desire and surprise. He awoke, and from a swoon: but the dreamless trance had refreshed the exhausted energies of the desolate wanderer; in an instant he collected his senses, remembered all that had past, and comprehended his present situation. He returned the lion a glance as imperious, and fierce, and scrutinising as his own. For a moment their flashing orbs vied in regal rivalry; but at length the spirit of the mere animal yielded to the genius of the man. The lion cowed, slunk away, stalked with haughty timidity through the rocks, and then sprang into the forest.”

In the foregoing we have the faults and the better qualities of the work pretty fairly balanced,—good ideas, bad epithets, true pictures, want of taste, and poetical images and something of philosophical reflection, marred by juxtaposition with monstrosities and turgid laboriousness, aiming at effect. The horse “dreadfully shivering;” the jackals, counted so accurately, peeling the bones, like Byron’s dogs those of man at Corinth, and barking faintly, moaning with exquisite delight, and shrieking with mournful ecstasy; the cat wild screaming, and the lion roaring till it was cowed,—do not enhance the horror of the scene. The description is too much wrought up; and instead of inspiring terror, is either disgusting or ridiculous.

There is another point in this writing, to which we must express considerable objection. We allude to the very frequent invocation of the Deity, which, though very fit for the Old Testament, and not misplaced in Jewish history, revolts the mind by repetition in a fiction like this. Alroy, on reaching the cave of Jabaster, exclaims,—

“‘God of Israel, lo, I kneel before thee! Here, in the solitude of wildest nature, my only witness here this holy man, I kneel and vow. Lord! I will do thy bidding. I am young, I am very young, O God, and weak; but thou, Lord, art all-powerful. What God is like to thee! Doubt not my courage, Lord, and fill me with thy spirit; but remember, remember her, O Lord, remember Miriam. It is the only worldly thought I have, and it is pure.”

We have many pages of similar ejaculation; of which we say no more, (except that the ill effect is heightened by often alternating with sportive passages, which do not well accord with even the more serious parts); but pass to a curious notice of an Arab custom, where the hero is taken under the protection of a robber.

“Scherirah unsheathed his dagger, punctured his arm, and, throwing away the weapon, offered the bleeding member to Alroy. The prince of the captivity touched the open vein with his lips. ‘My troth is pledged,’ said the bandit; ‘I can never betray him in whose veins my own blood is flowing.’ So saying, he led Alroy to his carpet.”

Having brought forward this favourable trait, we shall proceed to two or three other samples to match. Alroy drops down exhausted, to perish in the desert.

“The sun became blood-red, the sky darker, the sand rose in fierce eddies, the moaning wind burst into shrieks, and respired a more ardent and still more malignant breath. The pilgrim could no longer sustain himself. Faith, courage, devotion, deserted him with his failing energies. He strove no longer with his destiny, he delivered himself up to despair and death. He fell upon one knee with drooping head, supporting himself by one quivering hand, and then, full of the anguish of baffled purposes and lost affections, raising his face and arm to heaven, thus to the elements he poured his passionate farewell:—‘O life, once vainly deemed a gloomy toil, I feel thy sweetness now; farewell, O life, farewell my high resolves and proud conviction of almighty fame. My days, my short unprofitable days, melt into the past; and death, with which I struggle, horrible death! arrests me in this wilderness. O my sister, could thy voice, thy sweet, sweet voice, but murmur in my ear one single sigh of love; could thine eye with its soft radiance but an instant blend with my dim fading vision, the pang were nothing. Farewell, Miriam! my heart is with thee by thy fountain’s side. Fatal blast, bear her my dying words, my blessing. And ye, too, friends, whose too neglected love I think of now, farewell! Farewell, my uncle; farewell, pleasant home, and Hamadan’s serene and shadowy bowers! Farewell, Jabaster, and the mighty lore of which thou were the priest and I the pupil! Thy talisman throbs on my faithful heart. Green earth and golden sun, and all the beautiful and glorious sights ye fondly lavish on unthinking man, farewell, farewell! I die in the desert,—’tis bitter. No more, oh! never more, for me the hopeful day shall break, and its fresh breeze rise on its cheering wings of health and joy. Heaven and earth, water and air, my chosen country, and my antique creed, farewell, farewell! And thou, too, city of my soul, I cannot name thee, unseen Jerusalem.”

With the trifling exception of the allusion to Byron’s verse, and the disagreeable word “antique,” (which the author is fond of using for its superior synonyme, ancient,) there is much of force and tenderness in this farewell to fading life; and a hundred pages on, we fall in with an equally pleasing quotation, though of a more playful cast—it relates to a meeting in the temple of Jerusalem.

“‘It is written,’ said the Rabbi, ‘ ‘thou shalt have none other God but me.’ Now, know ye what our father Abraham said when Nimrod ordered him to worship fire? ‘Why not water,’ answered Abraham, ‘which can put out fire? why not the clouds, which can pour forth water? why not the winds, which can produce clouds? why not God, which can create winds?’’ A murmur of approbation sounded throughout the congregation. ‘Eliezer,’ said Zimri, addressing himself to a young Rabbi, ‘it is written that he took a rib from Adam when he was asleep. Is God then a robber?’ The young Rabbi looked puzzled, and cast his eyes on the ground. The congregation was very perplexed, and a little alarmed. ‘Is there no answer?’ said Zimri. ‘Rabbi,’ said a stranger, a tall, swarthy African pilgrim, standing in a corner, and enveloped in a red mantle, over which a lamp threw a flickering light; ‘Rabbi, some robbers broke into my house last night, and stole an earthen pipkin, but they left a golden vase in its stead.’ ‘It is well said, it is well said,’ exclaimed the congregation. The applause was loud. ‘Learned Zimri,’ continued the African, ‘it is written in the Gemara, that there was a youth in Jerusalem who fell in love with a beautiful damsel, and she scorned him. And the youth was so stricken with his passion that he could not speak; but when he beheld her, he looked at her imploringly, and she laughed. And one day the youth, not knowing what to do with himself, went out into the desert; and towards night he returned home, but the gates of the city were shut. And he went down into the valley of Jehosaphat, and entered the tomb of Absalom, and slept; and he dreamed a dream: and next morning he came into the city smiling. And the maiden met him, and she said, ‘Is that thou; art thou a laugher?’ And he answered, ‘Behold, yesterday, being disconsolate, I went out of the city into the desert, and I returned home, and the gates of the city were shut, and I went down into the valley of Jehosaphat, and I entered the tomb of Absalom; and I slept, and I dreamed a dream, and ever since then I have laughed.’ And the damsel said, ‘Tell me thy dream.’ And he answered and said, ‘I may not tell my dream only to my wife, for it regards her honour.’ And the maiden grew sad and curious, and said, ‘I am thy wife, tell me thy dream.’ And straightforth they went and were married, and ever after they both laughed.’ Now, learned Zimri, what means this tale, an idle jest for a master of the law, yet it is written by the greatest doctor of the captivity?’ ‘It passeth my comprehension,’ said the chief Rabbi. Rabbi Eliezer was silent; the congregation groaned.”

We must add another bit: It is an effort in the supernatural,—the colloquy of two spirits overheard by Alroy in the tombs at Jerusalem.

“After some hours he woke. He fancied that he had been wakened by the sound of voices. The chamber was not quite dark. A straggling moonbeam fought its way through an open fret-work pattern in the top of the tomb, and just revealed the dim interior. Suddenly a voice spoke—a strange and singular voice. ‘Brother, brother, the sounds of the night begin.’ Another voice answered, ‘Brother, brother, I hear them, too.’ ‘The woman in labour!’ ‘The thief at his craft!’ ‘The sentinel’s challenge!’ ‘The murderer’s step!’ ‘Oh! the merry sounds of the night!’ ‘Brother, brother, let us come forth and wander about the world.’ ‘We have seen all things. I’ll lie here and listen to the baying hound. ’Tis music for a tomb.’ ‘Choice and rare! You are idle. I like to sport in the starry air. Our hours are few, they should be fair.’ ‘What shall we see, heaven or earth?’ ‘Hell for me, ’tis more amusing.’ ‘As for me, I am sick of Hades.’ ‘Let us visit Solomon!’ ‘In his unknown metropolis?’ ‘That will be rare.’ ‘But where, oh! where?’ ‘Even a spirit cannot tell. But they say, but they say—I dare not whisper what they say.’ ‘Who told you?’ ‘No one. I overheard an Afrite whispering to a female Ghoul he wanted to seduce.’ ‘Hah, hah! hah, hah! choice pair, choice pair! We are more etherial.’ ‘She was a beauty in her way. Her eyes were luminous, though somewhat dank, and her cheek tinged with carnation caught from infant blood.’ ‘Oh! gay, oh! gay; what said they?’ ‘He was a deserter without leave from Solomon’s bodyguard. The trull wriggled the secret out.’ ‘Tell me, kind brother.’ ‘I’ll show, not tell.’ ‘I pr’ythee tell me.’ ‘Well, then, well. In Genthesma’s gloomy cave there is a river none has reached, and you must sail, and you must sail—Brother!’ ‘Ay.’ ‘Methinks I smell something too earthly.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘The breath of man.’ ‘Scent more fatal than the morning air! Away, away!’”

This appears to our humble apprehension to be wild nonsense; but we have done. The “Caliph Vathek,” the “Epicurean,” “Beckford,” “Moore,” and still more perhaps Chateaubriand,* have not, it is evident, been unread by the author; from whom, not to part in displeasure, we conclude with taking a glass of forbidden wine, and chanting a stave, as sung by a robber in Volume II.

“Drink, drink, deeply drink,
          Never feel, and never think.
What’s love? what’s fame? a sigh, a smile,
          Friendship but a hollow wile.
          If you’ve any thought or woe,

Drown them in the goblet’s flow.
Yes! dash them in this brimming cup,
Dash them in, and drink them up.
          Drink, drink, deeply drink,
          Never feel, and never think.”

The last half of the third volume is filled with a separate and contrast tale, called the “Rise of Iskander;” but we have no room to speak of it to-day. On the whole, its precursor has disappointed us:—in it we cannot but think that the author has mistaken his course, and fantastically wasted his genius.

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January 2005

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