AUSTRALIAN POETRY. Prometheus the Fire-bringer; by R. H. Horne, Esq. IT is not to the Australian colonies that one would naturally look for the production of poetry possessing high classical excellence,
for therein men's minds take an extremely practical turn, whether they be "native and to the manner born," or those who have made these colonies their adopted home. It is a remarkable fact, and one deserving of note, that however highly cultivated and keenly, appreciative may have been the tastes of persons when in Europe for all that re- lates to art and refinement, that taste be- comes more, or less neutralised by a sojourn of a few years in Australia. This practical characteristic of thought and action has had the effect of narrowing down to a point as, it were not a few naturally vigorous and imaginative intellects of a high order, and which may be regarded as the re- sult of the absence of that lofty character of social intercourse that is so zealously upheld by the educated classes of the old world. It is this fact, and which must be patent to all observing persons, that renders Mr. Horne's production a matter of great im- portance; inasmuch that it marks a new era in the history of colonial literature. "Prometheus" may be justly regarded as the foundation stone of an Australian school of classic poetry—a school which in the old world many enter, but from which few come forth crowned with the laurel. It is a poem that is by no means calculated to arrest popular attention, at least in this part of the globe, since its elevated character appeals to the highly educated few, and not to the mil- lion. It is one that requires to be studied in the silence of the closet, when the Babel sounds of the pulsing outer world are un- heard and for the time, forgotten, in order to grasp the author's meaning and fully appre- ciate the lofty character of his fine imagina- tion; and therefore such a poem, it is to be feared, is somewhat in advance of the Aus- tralian public. Mr. Horne has seized the true spirit of the ancient Greek lyrical drama, and assigns to Prometheus attributes in every sense the opposite to those in which he has so long been popularly regarded. Instead of the vulgar character of a thief of fire, he views him in the highest conceivable character, viz., that of a regenerator of mankind, and revivi- fier of the earth. Musical, mild-eyed Shelly, even, fell far short of this conception of the Titanic god, while Byron chained down his fine imagination to the commonplace inter- pretation. The author of "Orion," however, views the beautiful fable in its profoundly scientific, as well as poetical relations. He has elaborately developed its deeply-seated symbolic truth, and while doing so has kept in view the ancient Greek mode of metrical construction. In a poem like this, abounding in beautiful passages, it were a somewhat embarrassing task to select the most striking examples of its merits. I will, however, venture to ex- tract one or two from the choruses:— "Grey, silent twilight of the dawn! How often have we watched in vain On lose sea-sands, or fields of weedy corn, Or barren stony plain, The coming of a season less forlorn When life, like day, would rise again." We are strongly reminded by this stanza of that sickness of soul, produced by hope de- ferred, which Tennyson portrays in the fifth verse of the "Lotus-eaters," and also in the second verse of his "Choric Song." That the poet has formed a truly lofty con- ception of the character of the mythical Pro- metheus is well illustrated in the following passage, by the sovereignty of mind that a great man will display under the most trying circumstances and which stands out all the more prominently by contrast:— Chorus of Islanders— We thought the hour was come for as to die! At certain times man is not half himself! It was not we who spake—it was our fear. Prometheus— Like death-bed babblings, when a man hath lost His nerve and steady sense, and his poor brain Spins off the melting pictures of the past— Into wild darkness. All men fear to die: Tis wrong, yet reasonable. Comfort ye my sons With recollections of your strongest hours, And loftiest thoughts. I know of no passage in any of this au- thor's productions which surpasses this reply of Prometheus. It is exquisite diction, preg- nant with a solemn truth. It is a master touch that would induce the most hyper- critical to look with a lenient eye on many shortcomings. "The poor brain spinning off the melting pictures of the past into wild darkness," is a most happy expression of a mournful fact, oftener felt and witnessed than uttered. There are few modern poets whose writings have been subjected to so severe an ordeal of a criticism as Mr. Horne's, and few that have so well withstood the test. There is nothing. throughout this poem that savors of the "fatiguingly fine," as it was once said of his "Gregory VII." by a very hyper-critic. Although Mr. Horne is in the evening of life —although his fertile mind has been sorely tried by hard work his conceptive faculty seems to be as vigorous and elastic as ever; as witness, in the following irresistibly im- petuous description of Prometheus being borne off to the scene of his perpetual punish- ment: Onward away! away his steeds, Mad with the momentary pause, Plunge through the scattered clouds!— Hellos! The East at heart exults, and bleeds In crimson forests and purpling flaws Seen through the flying vapoury shrouds Hellos! The wind flares back his blaz'ng?? heir Away he whirls!—a new-born sphere 'Midst roiling swathes of stormy gold— Fold over-running fold Divided rock, and torn up dell Temple, and fallen citadel, Of architectural air— Is one for radiating glare The exalted form and chariot disappear! All but the upraised guiding hand And d zzy, whitening wheel half seen below!
This is a passage that will haunt the memory long after the book is closed. It is one that no reader having warm poetical sympathies will willingly let fade from the mind. The elevated position that Mr. Horne holds in the world of letters is such that no- thing which I could set down would add to, or take from, his brilliant fame. There are, however, to my thinking, some few lines in this otherwise grand poem that are capable of improvement at the author's hands, but space warns me to leave them unspecified. No- thing has ever yet been so well done that was not open to an additional touch from a master-hand. In literature, no two persons, perhaps, read the same book from the same point of view. Hence, that which may ap- pear ineffective in the eyes of one reader, may not appear so in the eyes of another. Victoria has good cause to be proud that she can boast of having in her midst one who has made himself so illustrious by the exer- cise of his genius. There is nothing dubious about the value of intellectual distinction, whatever the cold, calculating, commercial world may think to the contrary. From the earliest ages down to the present time it has always held its own, irrespective of worldly wealth, for the reason that a great mind now, through the medium of the press, can exercise a most potent influence not only over the minds of thousands of contemporary man but also over those of after generations. A beautiful truth, beautifully expressed, can never perish utterly. Its humanising and perfecting influence will be felt long after the brain that eliminated it has perished and passed away. One very remarkable feature in the pro- duction of this poem is that it was composed under the most unfavorable circumstances. As the author himself remarks—"In this savage solitude—this Blue Mountain of dark forests, rains, and hurricanes—without books, without any society, impressed with a deep sense at times of the precariousness of human life amidst horse accidents, the fall of massive trees—this Lyrical Drama was com- posed in the intervals of labor of a very different kind, and written for the most part during the night." The history of its birth is not devoid of romance, for after its com- pletion it was entrusted "to a faithful but not infallible hand," and it was lost; and nothing was left the poet but to reproduce it, as best he could, from a few rough notes, old maps, and fragments, "against time." Such is a feeble sketch of the character of this grand poem, and such a faint outline of the peculiar difficulties attending its produc- tion. If, however, by these loosely put together remarks the attention of but half-a- dozen Tasmanian readers will be drawn to it this will not have been written in vain. S. H. W.