Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. VIII: Literary Criticism - part 01 (1902), 8:222-229


[page 222, continued:]


[Southern Literary Messenger, February, 1836.]

WE have long learned to reverence the fine intellect of Bulwer. We take up any production of his pen with a positive certainty that, in reading it, the wildest passions of our nature, the most profound of our thoughts, the brightest visions of our fancy, and the most ennobling and lofty of our aspirations will, in due turn, be enkindled within us. We feel sure of rising from the perusal a wiser if not a better man. In no instance are we deceived. From the brief Tale — from the “Monos and Daimonos” of the author — to his most ponderous and labored novels — all is richly, and glowingly intellectual — all is energetic, or astute, or brilliant, or profound. There may be men now living who possess the power of Bulwer — but it is quite evident that very few have made that power so palpably manifest. Indeed we know of none. [page 223:] Viewing him as a novelist — a point of view exceedingly unfavorable (if we hold to the common acceptation of “the novel”) for a proper contemplation of his genius — he is unsurpassed by any writer living or dead. Why should we hesitate to say this, feeling, as we do, thoroughly persuaded of its truth? Scott has excelled him in many points, and “The Bride of Lammermuir” is a better book than any individual work by the author of Pelham — “Ivanhoe” is, perhaps, equal to any. Descending to particulars, D’Israeli has a more brilliant, a more lofty, and a more delicate (we do not say a wilder) imagination. Lady Dacre has written Ellen Wareham, a more forcible tale of Passion. In some species of wit Theodore Hook rivals, and in broad humor our own Paulding surpasses him. The writer of “Godolphin” equals him in energy. Banim is a better sketcher of character. Hope is a richer colorist. Captain Trelawney is as original — Moore is as fanciful, and Horace Smith is as learned. But who is there uniting in one person the imagination, the passion, the humor, the energy, the knowledge of the heart, the artist-like eye, the originality, the fancy and the learning of Edward Lytton Bulwer? In a vivid wit — in profundity and a Gothic massiveness of thought — in style — in a calm certainty and definitiveness of purpose — in industry — and above all in the power of controlling and regulating by volition his illimitable faculties of mind, he is unequalled — he is unapproached.

As Rienzi is the last, so it is the best novel of Bulwer. In the Preface we are informed that the work was commenced two years ago at Rome, but abandoned upon the author's removing to Naples, for the “Last Days of Pompeii” — a subject requiring, more than [page 224:] Rienzi, the advantage of a personal residence within reach of the scenes described. The idea of the present work, however, was never dismissed from the writer's mind, and soon after the publication of “Pompeii” he resumed his original undertaking. We are told that having had occasion to look into the original authorities whence are derived all the accounts of modern historians touching Rienzi, Mr. B. was induced to believe that no just picture of the Life or Times of that most remarkable man was at present in the hands of the people. Under this impression the novelist had at first meditated a work of History rather than of Fiction. We doubt, however, whether the spirit of the author's intention is not better fulfilled as it is. He has adhered with scrupulous fidelity to all the main events in the public life of his hero; and by means of the relief afforded through the personages of pure romance which form the filling in of the picture, he has been enabled more fully to develop the private character of the noble Roman. The reader may indeed be startled at the vast difference between the Rienzi of Mr. Bulwer, and the Rienzi of Sismondi, of Gibbon, and of Miss Mitford. But by neither of the two latter are we disposed to swear — and of Sismondi's impartiality we can at no moment be certain. Mr. B., moreover, very justly observes that as, in the work before us, all the acts are given from which is derived his interpretation of the principal agent, the public, having sufficient data for its own judgment, may fashion an opinion for itself.

Generally, the true chronology of Rienzi's life is preserved. In regard to the story — or that chain of fictitious incident usually binding up together the constituent parts of a Romance — there is very little of it in the book. This follows necessarily from the character [page 225:] of the composition — which is essentially Epic rather than Dramatic. The author's apology seems to us therefore supererogative when he says that a work which takes for its subject the crimes and errors of a nation and which ventures to seek the actual and the real in the highest stage of action or passion can rarely adopt with advantage the melo-dramatic effects produced by a vulgar mystery. In his pictures of the Roman populace, and in those of the Roman nobles of the fourteenth century — pictures full at all times of an enthralling interest — Mr. B. professes to have followed literally the descriptions left to us.

Miss Mitford's Rienzi will of course be remembered in reading that of Bulwer. There is however but one point of coincidence — a love-intrigue between a relative of the hero and one of the party of the nobles. This, it will be recollected, forms the basis of the plot of Miss M. In the Rienzi of Bulwer, it is an Episode not affecting in any manner either the story itself, or the destinies of the Tribune.

It is by no means our intention to give an analysis of the volume before us. Every person who reads at all will read Rienzi, and indeed the book is already in the hands of many millions of people. Any thing, therefore, like our usual custom of a digest of the narrative would be superfluous. The principal characters who figure in the novel are Rienzi himself — his brother, whose slaughter by a noble at the commencement of the story, is the immediate cause of Rienzi's change of temper and consequent exaltation — Adrian di Castello, a young noble of the family of Colonna but attached to the cause of the people — Martino di Porto the chief of the house of the Orsini — Stephen Colonna, [[the]] chief of the house of the Colonna — Walter [page 226:] de Montreal, a gentleman of Provence, a knight of St. John, and one of the formidable freebooters who at the head of large “Companies” invaded states and pillaged towns at the period of Rienzi's Revolution — Pandulfo di Guido a student, whom, under the appellation of Pandolficcio di Guido, Gibbon styles “the most virtuous citizen of Rome” — Cecco del Vecchio, a smith — Giles D’Albornoz of the royal race of Arragon — Petrarch the poet, and the friend of Rienzi — Angelo Villani — Irene, the sister of the Tribune and betrothed to Adrian di Castello — Nina, Rienzi's wife — and Adeline, the mistress of Walter de Montreal.

But as was said before, we should err radically if we regard Rienzi altogether in the light of Romance. Undoubtedly as such — as a fiction, and coming under the title of a novel, it is a glorious, a wonderful conception, and not the less wonderfully and gloriously carried out. What else could we say of a book over which the mind so delightedly lingers in perusal? In its delineations of passion and character — in the fine blending and contrasting of its incidents — in the rich and brilliant tints of its feudal paintings — in a pervading air of chivalry, and grace, and sentiment — in all that can throw a charm over the pages of Romance, the last novel of Bulwer is equal, if not superior, to any of his former productions. Still we should look at the work in a different point of view. It is History. We hesitate not to say that it is History in its truest — in its only true, proper, and philosophical garb. Sismondi's works — were not. There is no greater error than dignifying with the name of History a tissue of dates and details, though the dates be ordinarily correct, and the details indisputably true. Not even with the aid [page 227:] of acute comment will such a tissue satisfy our individual notions of History. To the effect let us look — to the impression rather than to the seal. And how very seldom is any definite impression left upon the mind of the historical reader! How few bear away — even from the pages of Gibbon — Rome and the Romans. Vastly different was the genius of Niebuhr — than whom no man possessed a more discriminative understanding of the uses and the purposes of the pen of the historiographer. But we digress. Bearing in mind that “to contemplate” — ιστορειν(1) — should and must be allowed a more noble and a more expansive acceptation than has been usually given it, we shall often discover in Fiction the essential spirit and vitality of Historic Truth — while Truth itself, in many a dull and lumbering Archive, shall be found guilty of all the inefficiency of Fiction.

Rienzi, then, is History. But there are other aspects in which it may be regarded with advantage. Let us survey it as a profound and lucid exposition of the morale of Government — of the Philosophies of Rule and Misrule — of the absolute incompatibility of Freedom and Ignorance — Tyranny in the few and Virtue in the many. Let us consider it as something akin to direct evidence that a people is not a mob, nor a mob a people, nor a mob's idol the idol of a people — that in a nation's self is the only security for a nation — and that it is absolutely necessary to model upon the character of the governed, the machinery, [page 228:] whether simple or complex, of the governmental legislation.

It is proper — we are persuaded — that Rienzi should be held up in these many different points of view, if we desire fully to appreciate its own merits and the talents of Mr. Bulwer. But regard it as we will, it is an extraordinary work — and one which leaves nothing farther to accomplish in its own particular region. It is vastly superior to the “Last Days of Pompeii” — more rich — more glowing, and more vigorous. With all and more than all the distinguishing merits of its noble predecessor, it has none of its chilliness — none of that platitude which (it would not be difficult to say why) is the inevitable result of every attempt at infusing warmth among the marble wildernesses, and vitality into the statue-like existences, of the too-distantly antique.

We will conclude our notice of Rienzi with an Extract. We choose it not with any view of commending it above others — for the book has many equally good and some better — but to give our readers — such of them as have not yet seen the novel, an opportunity of comparing the passage with some similar things in Boccaccio. We may as well say that in all which constitutes good writing the Englishman is infinitely the superior. What we select is Chapter V, of the sixth Book. Irene, the betrothed of the noble Roman Adrian di Castello, being in Florence during the time of the Great Plague, is sought by her lover at the peril of his life. Overpowered by a fever he meets with Irene — but his delirium prevents a recognition. She conveys him to one of the deserted mansions, and officiates as his nurse. Having thrown aside her mantle, under the [page 229:] impression that it retained the infection of the Pestilence, it is found and worn by another.

  · · · · · · · ·  


Here, in many incidents of extraordinary force — in the call of the Becchini on the third night — in the most agonizing circumstance of Irene's abandonment of Adrian — in the bodily weakness and mental prostration of that young nobleman — in the desolation of the streets — in the meeting with Rienzi — in the colossal dignity of the words, “I am he that was Rienzi!” — in the affectionate attention of the fallen hero — and lastly, in the appalling horror of the vault and its details — may be seen and will be felt much, but not all, of the exceeding power of the “Last of the Tribunes.”


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 227:]

1.  History, from ιστορειν, to contemplate, seems, among the Greeks, to have embraced not only the knowledge of past events, but also Mythology, Esopian and Milesian fables, Romance, Tragedy and Comedy. But our business is with things, not words.





[S:1 - JAH08, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes)