The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal 37 (March 1833): 342-6.
We have received these volumes somewhat too late to afford them and their gifted writer so prolonged a criticism as we could wish. The time has gone by for us to criticise the former works of Mr. D’Israeli; to point out the faults and beauties of “Vivian Grey”—the racy and felicitous satire of “Poponilla,” (a work to which the world has not yet done justice)—or the various errors which marred the excellent conception of the “Young Duke.” Of “Contarini Fleming” we have, within the last few months, recorded our opinion; it is the highest and the most matured of Mr. D’Israeli’s novels; a work in which he has begun to learn that an author is an artist. The novel before us is not without glaring faults, but it is full of all sorts of beauties. The Tale of Alroy is a kind of prose opera; the same gorgeousness of scene—the same floridity of sentiment—the same union of music, pageantry, and action, that allure us at the King’s Theatre—dazzle, and sometimes almost fatigue us from their very brilliancy, in the volumes not before us. Debarred the stage in its present state, for which the talents of the author are peculiarly suited, Mr. D’Israeli embodies stage effects in a romance. Hence much of a certain startling and meretricious abruptness of style, which we cannot persuade ourselves to admire; hence, too, much of a poetical rhythm—evidently intended by the author (and not the result of negligence)—which, in the midst of a prose work, runs with a displeasing sweetness on the ear. Many of the sentences glide into “regular metre,” as the following, (we break the words printed as prose into blank verse)—
“Or sail upon the cool and azure lake
In some bright barque, like to a sea-nymph’s shell,
And followed by the swans.”
“There is no lake so blue as thy blue eye,
There is no swan so white as thy round arm.”
“Or shall we lance our falcons in the air,
And bring the golden pheasant to our feet?” &c.
Such instances occur perpetually, and often the verse is really so fine that it is a thousand pities it should be mistaken by that Mons. Jourdain, the Public, for prose; still more is it a pity when what would be a beauty in verse becomes a fault in prose.* Mr. D’Israeli has, we know, his own opinions in this respect, and denies that it is a fault. We cannot at present spare the space for a dispute—we adjourn the question. A very little additional trouble would have concocted these prose volumes into a tale in verse, and verse of no ordinary power, melody, and diversitude; and perhaps ten years ago we should have been criticising the poem—as fifty years ago we should have been crowding to the tragedy—and this day we are reviewing the romance—of Alroy, the ambitious aspirant to the Eastern Thrones. The subject is conceived with great boldness—the plot is perfectly original—it is essentially and even superbly dramatic. An Israelite of the name of David Alroy, who existed in the middle ages, assumed to himself the ambition of a king, and the sanctity of a Messiah. Assembling the Jewish tribes inhabiting the vicinity of the Mount of Chophta, he taught them to obey, to believe, and to make war. It is the career of this bold impostor that the author has traced. The dullest reader will perceive how rich are the materials he has employed—how full a scope the narrative presents for stirring adventure and for gorgeous description. The author, too, is no fireside delineator of fancied pictures. He has visited the vast plains and the mighty ruins, the burning deserts and the mystic rivers he describes; he assists his imagination by his memory. In selecting extracts from the work, we are made the more susceptible of its genius and its defects; it is too achingly brilliant—it wants repose; every page of the narrative is loaded with poetical adornment. We make
extracts at random, sure to chance upon a passage characteristic of the work, and manifesting the powers of the author.
THE JACKAL, THE MARTEN CAT, AND THE LION
“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 high 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 you 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 awoke Alroy.”
This description is full of poetry and power. But the finest scene in the book, perhaps a scene full of a very high and dark order of imagination, is to be found in Alroy’s successful enterprise for the sceptre of Solomon. To obtain this treasure, he braves the power of the Afrites, those terrible genii of the eastern superstition. And here the author exerts all the power, and calls in all the aid of imaginative poesy.
“In the range of mountains that lead from Olivet to the river Jordan is the great cavern of Genthesma, a mighty excavation formed by the combined and immemorial work of Nature and of Art; for on the high basaltic columns are cut strange characters and unearthly forms, and in many places the natural ornaments have been completed by the hands of the sculptor into symmetrical entablatures and fanciful capitals, the work, they say, of captive Dives and conquered Afrites, for the great king.
“It was midnight; the cold full moon showered its brilliancy upon this narrow valley, shut in on all sides by black and barren mountains. A single being stood at the entrance of the cave.
“It was Alroy. Desperate and determined, after listening to the spirits in the tomb, he resolved to penetrate the mysteries of Genthesma.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“A small and bright red cloud seemed sailing towards him. It opened, discharged from its bosom a silvery star, and dissolved again into darkness. But the star remained, the silvery star, and threw a long line of tremulous light upon the vast and raging rapid, which now, fleet and foaming, revealed itself on all sides to the eye of Alroy.
“The beautiful interposition in his favour re-animated the adventurous pilgrim. A dark shadow in the foreground, breaking the line of light shed by the star upon the waters, attracted his attention. He advanced, regained his former footing, and more nearly examined it. It was a boat, and in the boat, mute and immovable, sat one of those vast, singular, and hideous forms, which he had observed sculptured on the walls of the gallery.
“David Alroy, committing his fortunes to the God of Israel, leapt into the boat.
“And at the same moment the Afrite, for it was one of those dread beings, raised the oars, and the boat moved. The falling waters suddenly parted in the long line of the star’s reflection, and the barque glided through their high and severed masses.
“In this wise they proceeded for a few minutes, until they entered a beautiful and moonlit lake. In the distance was a mountainous country. Alroy examined his companion with a feeling of curiosity not unmixed with terror. It was remarkable that Alroy could never succeed in any way in attracting his notice. The Afrite seemed totally unconscious of the presence of his passenger. At length the boat reached the opposite shore of the lake, and the Prince of the Captivity disembarked.
“He disembarked at the head of an avenue of colossal lions of red granite, extending far as the eye could reach, and ascending the side of the mountain, which was cut into a flight of magnificent steps. The easy ascent was in consequence soon accomplished, and Alroy, proceeding along the avenue of lions, soon gained the summit of the mountain.
“To his infinite astonishment he beheld Jerusalem. That strongly-marked locality could not be mistaken: at his feet were Jehoshaphat, Kedron, Siloah; he stood upon Olivet; before him was Sion. But in all other respects, how different was the landscape from the one that he had gazed upon a few days back, for the first time! The surrounding hills sparkled with vineyards, and glowed with summer palaces, and voluptuous pavilions, and glorious gardens of pleasure. The city, extending all over Mount Sion, was encompassed with a wall of white marble, with battlements of gold; a gorgeous mass of gates and pillars, and gardened terraces; lofty piles of rarest materials, cedar, and ivory, and precious stones; and costly columns of the richest workmanship and the most fanciful orders, capitals of the lotus and the palm, and flowing friezes of the olive and the vine.
“And in the front a mighty Temple rose, with inspiration in its very form; a Temple so vast, so sumptuous, that there needed no priest to tell us that no human hand planned that sublime magnificence!
* * * * * * * * * * *
“The portal opened with a crash of thunder louder than an earthquake. Pale, panting, and staggering, the Prince of the Captivity entered an illimitable hall, illumined by pendulous balls of glowing metal. On each side of the hall, sitting on golden thrones, was ranged a line of kings, and, as the pilgrim entered, the monarchs rose, and took off their diadems, and waved them thrice, and thrice repeated, in solemn chorus. ‘All hail, Alroy! Hail to thee, brother king! Thy crown awaits thee!’
“The Prince of the Captivity stood trembling, with his eyes fixed upon the ground, and leaning breathless against a column. And when at length he had a little recovered himself, and dared again to look up, he found that the monarchs were reseated; and, from their still and vacant visages, apparently unconscious of his presence. And this emboldened him, and so, staring alternately at each side of the hall, but with a firm, perhaps desperate step, Alroy advanced.
“And he came to two thrones which were set apart from the others in the middle of the hall. On one was seated a noble figure, far above the common stature, with arms folded and downcast eyes. His feet rested upon a broken sword and a shivered sceptre, which told that he was a monarch, in spite of his discrowned head.
“And on the opposite throne was a venerable personage, with a long flowing beard, and dressed in white raiment. His countenance was beautiful, although ancient. Age had stolen on without its imperfections, and time had only invested it with a sweet dignity and solemn grace. The countenance of the king was upraised with a seraphic gaze, and, as he thus looked up on high, with eyes full of love, and thanksgiving, and praise, his consecrated fingers seemed to touch the trembling wires of a golden harp.
“And further on, and far above the rest, upon a throne that stretched across the hall, a most imperial presence straightway flashed upon the startled vision of Alroy. Fifty steps of ivory, and each step guarded by golden lions, led to a throne of jasper. A dazzling light blazed forth from the glittering diadem and radiant countenance of him who sat upon the throne, one beautiful as a woman, but with the majesty of a god. And in one hand he held a seal, and in the other a sceptre.
“And when Alroy had reached the foot of the throne, he stopped, and his heart misgave him. And he prayed for some minutes in silent devotion, and, without daring to look up, he mounted the first step of the throne, and the second, and the third, and so on, with slow and faltering feet, until he reached the forty-ninth step.
“The Prince of the Captivity raised his eyes. He stood before the monarch face to face. In vain Alroy attempted to attract his attention, or to fix his gaze. The large dark eyes, full of supernatural lustre, appeared capable of piercing all things, and illuminating all things, but they flashed on without shedding a ray upon Alroy.
“Pale as a spectre, the pilgrim, whose pilgrimage seemed now on the point of completion, stood cold and trembling before the object of all his desires and all his labours. But he thought of his country, his people, and his God; and, while his noiseless lips breathed the name of Jehovah, solemnly he put forth his arm, and with a gentle firmness grasped the unresisting sceptre of his great ancestor.
“And, as he seized it, the whole scene vanished from his sight!”
These extracts will suffice to give the reader a notion of the power of language, and the glowing fancy, which are exhibited in the “Wondrous Tale of Alroy.” It is a work far more adapted for popularity than “Contarini Fleming.” It is full of incident—of stir and passion—of wild and melodramatic adventure. It will doubtless be adapted to the stage, for which it is eminently well suited. Its faults we have already hinted at; viz. a diction too often rhythmical—a brilliancy too often meretricious—an imagination too often exaggerated. But there is always metal beneath its exuberant floridity—the sword of the thyrsus as well as the flowers. To the Tale of Alroy, which occupies about two volumes and a half, is added a story of simpler and less elaborate materials, but upon one of the noblest subjects that ever flashed on the conception of the romance-writer or the poet—viz. the “Rise of Iskander.” The two tales form a consistent and harmonious whole—there is a connexion as well as a contrast—between the fall of an impostor, and the rise of a patriot.
We cordially recommend these remarkable volumes to the attention they will doubtless receive: to the common reader, their exciting narrative and glowing diction will be their best charm—to a more examining and critical reader, we beg to observe that to us it seems necessary, in order fairly to judge the degree of merit to which they attain, to compare them to no every-day standard of romantic fiction. It will not be fair to apply to writings evidently written upon poetical models, the canons only of prose.