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Chapter 1. Lord Lytton's 'Fables In Song'
It seems as if Lord Lytton, in this new book of his, had found the form most
natural to his talent. In some ways, indeed, it may be held inferior to Chronicles
and Characters; we look in vain for anything like the terrible intensity of the night-
scene in Irene, or for any such passages of massive and memorable writing as
appeared, here and there, in the earlier work, and made it not altogether
unworthy of its model, Hugo's Legend of the Ages. But it becomes evident, on
the most hasty retrospect, that this earlier work was a step on the way towards
the later. It seems as if the author had been feeling about for his definite medium,
and was already, in the language of the child's game, growing hot. There are
many pieces in Chronicles and Characters that might be detached from their
original setting, and embodied, as they stand, among the Fables in Song.
For the term Fable is not very easy to define rigorously. In the most typical form
some moral precept is set forth by means of a conception purely fantastic, and
usually somewhat trivial into the bargain; there is something playful about it, that
will not support a very exacting criticism, and the lesson must be apprehended by
the fancy at half a hint. Such is the great mass of the old stories of wise animals
or foolish men that have amused our childhood. But we should expect the fable,
in company with other and more important literary forms, to be more and more
loosely, or at least largely, comprehended as time went on, and so to degenerate
in conception from this original type. That depended for much of its piquancy on
the very fact that it was fantastic: the point of the thing lay in a sort of humorous
inappropriateness; and it is natural enough that pleasantry of this description
should become less common, as men learn to suspect some serious analogy
underneath. Thus a comical story of an ape touches us quite differently after the
proposition of Mr. Darwin's theory. Moreover, there lay, perhaps, at the bottom of
this primitive sort of fable, a humanity, a tenderness of rough truths; so that at the
end of some story, in which vice or folly had met with its destined punishment,
the fabulist might be able to assure his auditors, as we have often to assure
tearful children on the like occasions, that they may dry their eyes, for none of it
was true.
But this benefit of fiction becomes lost with more sophisticated hearers and
authors: a man is no longer the dupe of his own artifice, and cannot deal playfully
with truths that are a matter of bitter concern to him in his life. And hence, in the
progressive centralisation of modern thought, we should expect the old form of
fable to fall gradually into desuetude, and be gradually succeeded by another,
which is a fable in all points except that it is not altogether fabulous. And this new
form, such as we should expect, and such as we do indeed find, still presents the
essential character of brevity; as in any other fable also, there is, underlying and