Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lytton, Edward Robert Bulwer
LYTTON, EDWARD ROBERT BULWER, first Earl of Lytton (1831–1891), statesman and poet, only son of the first Baron Lytton [q. v.], was born in London 8 Nov. 1831. He was educated for a short time at Harrow, and afterwards privately and at Bonn, where he especially applied himself to modern languages. His first verses, written at the age of twelve, and hitherto unpublished, show that he even then possessed a great command of literary expression, and in their gay banter and half-serious sentiment are as unlike as possible to the ordinary productions of even a clever boy. Most of his first published volume was also composed before 1849, when he went to Washington as private secretary to his uncle, Lord Dalling [see Bulwer, William Henry Lytton Earle]. He accompanied him on his removal to Florence, and was subsequently paid attaché at the Hague and Vienna, spending sufficient time in London to mix in literary circles and contract warm friendships with Dickens and Forster. His first book, ‘Clytemnestra, The Earl's Return, and other Poems,’ had meanwhile appeared in 1855, under the pseudonym of ‘Owen Meredith,’ adopted from two christian names of early use in his family, and had been followed in 1857 by ‘The Wanderer,’ a volume of lyrical poems. Both attracted very considerable attention from their extraordinary fluency and command of poetic diction, combined with vivid description and strokes of genuine imagination. The form, however, was too imitative. Browning has never been reproduced so well, but reproduction it is. Some pieces in ‘The Wanderer,’ nevertheless, showed independence of models. ‘King Solomon and the Mouse’ and ‘The Portrait,’ in particular, are admirable narratives, simple, straightforward, and impressive.
Lytton's attachéship at Vienna was diversified by missions to Belgrade, where he acted as consul-general during a period of much disturbance, and wrote valuable commercial reports. In 1862 he became second secretary at Vienna; in 1863 he was made secretary of legation at Copenhagen at the time of the Princess of Wales's marriage; in 1864 he was transferred to Athens, and in 1865 to Lisbon. At all these courts he frequently acted as chargé d'affaires, and at Lisbon he negotiated a commercial treaty. He had (4 Oct. 1864) married Edith, second daughter of the Hon. Edward Villiers and niece of the Earl of Clarendon.
His literary reputation had meanwhile been much extended by the publication (1860) of ‘Lucile,’ a poem which he afterwards described as ‘representing the result of an experiment so alien to my present appreciation of the nature and conditions of verse that I could have wished to withdraw it from print.’ The experiment, however, was worth making. It proved that the English language was equal to the substantial reproduction, in rhyming anapæstic couplets, of a French novel, and though some of the incidents and some of the diction are avowedly borrowed from George Sand's ‘Lavinia,’ the characters are quite different, and the poet's own individuality is more distinctly apparent than in any of his former or in several of his subsequent writings. ‘Tannhäuser,’ for instance (1861), written in conjunction with his friend Julian Fane, and published under the pseudonym of Neville Temple and Edward Trevor, is a pallid copy of Tennyson. The title of ‘Serbski Pesme,’ imitations of Servian national songs (1861), involves a solecism, and on this and other grounds the pieces were attacked with vehemence bordering on virulence by Lord Strangford in the ‘Saturday Review.’ They mostly reappeared in the appendix to ‘Orval, or the Fool of Time,’ 1869, a work of much importance, as the sole representative in English literature of the great Polish school of mystical poetry which arose after, and perhaps partly in consequence of, the extinction of Polish independence, while it also abounds with poetical beauties. These, no doubt, are mainly the property of Count Sigismund Krasinski, of whose ‘Infernal Comedy’ ‘Orval’ is a paraphrase; but the imitation has all the ease and freedom of an original work. It is accompanied by a highly interesting preface, in which Lytton describes his own conception of a great social drama, abandoned when he fell in with Krasinski's, ‘which left me thoroughly dissatisfied with my own work,’ and expounds some of his own ideas on social questions, which are well worthy of attention. ‘Chronicles and Characters’ (1868), a series of poetical impersonations of remarkable men at remarkable conjunctures, from the age of Greek mythology to the days of Richelieu, inevitably challenges comparison with Victor Hugo's ‘Légende des Siècles,’ which it as inevitably fails to sustain.
From 1868 to 1872 Lytton was successively employed at Madrid and at Vienna, where he had a large share in the negotiation of a commercial treaty; from 1872 to 1874 he was secretary to the embassy at Paris, frequently acting as chargé d'affaires; and in October 1872 he was promoted to be British minister at Lisbon. In January 1873 he became Baron Lytton by the death of his father, to whom he was deeply attached, and to whom he had adhered in all contentions public and private. In 1874 he achieved a more individual position as a poet than before with his ‘Fables in Song;’ less lofty in aim than some of his previous works, but distinctly his own, in an unborrowed and entirely appropriate manner, limpid and luminous, graceful and familiar, a delightful blending of the gay and the serious. About the same time he began to write ‘King Poppy,’ deservedly his own favourite among his works. Privately printed copies were circulated among friends as early as 1875, but more serious avocations interrupted the revision at the time, and when it eventually appeared after his death it was found that hardly a line remained unaltered. In January 1876, a year after declining the governorship of Madras, he received, to his own great surprise, the offer of the Indian viceroyalty, which Lord Northbrook was about to vacate, and which he accepted at the urgent instance of Lord Beaconsfield. The appointment at first excited as much astonishment in the public as in the recipient. But Lord Beaconsfield had himself exploded the prejudice against men of letters as men of business, and though Lytton's pursuits had estranged him from English political life, his abilities were as well known to the premier as Lord Canning's, on a parallel occasion, had been to Lord Palmerston.
Lytton quitted England on 1 March, and, after a short delay in Egypt to meet the Prince of Wales returning from his eastern tour, arrived in India in April, and was installed as viceroy on the 12th. The internal condition of India then appeared satisfactory. But the new ruler was at once engrossed as a diplomatist with our uneasy relations with Afghanistan, and with the congenial task of preparing for the proclamation of the queen as empress of India in the presence of all the native sovereigns and feudal princes. This pageant was held at Delhi on 1 Jan. 1877, and, though criticised from a western point of view, impressed the oriental imagination. Meanwhile, however, a great calamity had occurred by the total failure of the crops throughout southern and western India. Lytton's first direct personal action was when on a visit to Bombay in December, and shortly afterwards at Delhi, he adjusted the differences which, during his absence from Simla, had grown up between the majority of his council and the Bombay government: Lytton's decision was substantially in favour of the latter. Shortly afterwards he despatched Sir Richard Temple to inspect the famine districts, especially in Madras, where the envoy found much to criticise, and where the state of affairs became so bad that in the following August the viceroy repaired thither in person. Before his departure he recorded his views in a very elaborate minute, printed in Mr. Digby's ‘Famine Campaign in Southern India.’ He arrived in Madras on 29 Aug., accompanied, among others, by Sir Alexander Arbuthnot, representative of that presidency in his council, and by General (afterwards Sir Michael) Kennedy, public works secretary at Bombay. Arrangements were speedily made for placing the relief system mainly under the latter, whose management at Bombay had been highly efficient, and the situation rapidly improved. In Mysore, which Lytton also visited personally, and where great mismanagement had prevailed, sweeping changes were made by the appointment of Sir Charles Elliott and Sir Colin Scott Moncrieff as virtual chiefs of administration. Early in 1878 the famine had ceased in most districts. It remained to provide against its recurrence. Lytton appointed a commission, under the presidency of General Strachey, with the object of studying facts and placing principles on record. Its report resulted in the enactment in every province of India of a code of rules prescribing, always with reference to special local circumstances, the system to be pursued on the occurrence of dearth. A great scheme was at the same time devised for the rapid extension throughout India of railways and works of irrigation. But the home government thought Lytton too bold, and the expenditure he deemed necessary was greatly curtailed. To make provision for the future, it was also determined, in the words of Sir John Strachey, ‘that, in addition to the necessary margin of revenue over expenditure, a surplus of 1,500,000l. must every year be provided on account of famine relief alone, and that this sum, when the country was free from famine, must be regularly devoted to the discharge of debt, or the prevention of debt which would have been otherwise incurred for the construction of railways and canals.’ This system of famine insurance, as it was called, has since been modified, and sometimes suspended in crises of financial pressure, but in essentials it has been maintained and has worked successfully.
Scarcely had famine retired from India before war appeared in its place. Difficulties with Afghanistan had arisen in 1873, when it had been found impossible to grant the ameer the guarantees of protection which he was anxious to obtain from the British government. His estrangement consequently followed, and, in view of the danger to be feared from the possible action of Russia, Lytton was commissioned to attempt a restoration of friendly relations. But neither his instructions nor his inclination disposed him to grant the ameer the assurances he sought without exacting equivalents, the most important being the appointment of British officers as residents on the Central Asian frontier of Afghanistan. These agents were needed in the view of Lytton and his advisers to furnish trustworthy information, which was almost completely wanting, respecting the proceedings of Russia in those regions. A tedious and unsatisfactory negotiation ensued, which was abruptly, and, as some thought, injudiciously, broken off by Lytton just as the ameer appeared about to yield (March 1878). In August a Russian envoy appeared at Cabul, and was cordially received. No course was left to the Indian government but to insist upon the immediate reception of a British embassy; and the contumelious refusal of this demand equally necessitated the invasion of Afghanistan in November and the short triumphant campaign which overthrew Shere Ali, raised his son Yakoub from a prison to the throne, and, by the treaty of Gandamak (26 May 1879), gave India what was known as ‘a scientific frontier’ and a British residency at Cabul. The latter proved the weak point of the arrangement. Afghan ferocity and fanaticism had not been sufficiently reckoned with. The massacre of the British envoy Sir Pierre Louis Cavagnari [q. v.] and his entire suite (3 Sept.) reopened the war. Thereupon Lytton showed extraordinary energy. Winter was approaching, the army was on a peace footing, the difficulties of transport were almost insuperable; nevertheless, almost immediately upon the reception of the news at Simla, General Roberts left it to take command of an avenging force, and, greatly favoured by the fortunate acquisition of the new frontier, entered Cabul as a conqueror on 12 Oct. Yakoub Khan, suspected of complicity, or at least connivance, surrendered, abdicated, and was sent to India. Lytton's personal concern with Afghan affairs after this date was mainly confined to the selection of a successor to Yakoub. With characteristic boldness he chose Abdurrahman, a pensioner of Russia. ‘The greatest leap in the dark on record,’ says Mr. Forbes; but Abdurrahman still reigns, and his relations with England have hitherto been fairly satisfactory. Had Lytton remained in India his plans would have been completed by the annexation of Candahar and the extension of railway communication to this point, but his policy was reversed by the succeeding English administration.
Few questions have provoked more difference of opinion among competent judges than the retention of Candahar; but the soundness of Lytton's views respecting the strategic railway was proved by its hasty resumption upon the menaced war with Russia in 1885. The brilliance of the final military operations in Afghanistan during Lytton's government was somewhat overcast by the discovery that the expenditure was greatly in excess of the estimates. On 24 Feb. 1880 a surplus of 417,000l. in the estimates for the Indian budget of 1880–1 was announced, but the accounts for the year subsequently disclosed a deficit, owing to the expenses of the war and of the frontier railway, of 4,044,139l. (see Accounts appended to Major Baring's Financial Statement for 1882–3). The financial condition of India was at the time generally prosperous, and but for the war and frontier-railway charges, a surplus of 6,320,358l. would have been realised. The error in the budget arose from a peculiarity in Indian military bookkeeping, by which disbursements were not brought into account until actually audited, so that government went on spending without accurate knowledge of the liabilities already incurred. In fact, Lytton's financial advisers, astonished at the apparent cheapness of a great war, had unsuccessfully applied for explanation to the military departments, whose estimates they were compelled to accept. The objectionable system was reformed in consequence (cf. Lord Hartington's Despatch, 4 Nov. 1880, in Further Correspondence relating to the Estimates for the War in Afghanistan, 1881). On the defeat of Lord Beaconsfield's government at the polls of March 1880, Lytton forwarded his resignation to the prime minister, who presented it to Queen Victoria at the same time as his own. He was created Earl Lytton on 28 April 1880.
The proclamation of the queen as empress, the famine campaign, and the Afghan war were the most conspicuous incidents in Lytton's eventful administration; but the internal reforms effected in 1879 were perhaps more truly memorable. One was the abolition of the inland customs, which had bisected India with ‘an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny trees and bushes,’ fifteen hundred miles long, and watched by twelve thousand persons. Another was the repeal of the duties on cotton goods, effected by the viceroy's own action against the opposition of a large majority of his council, and accompanied by radical changes in the entire customs tariff, preliminary to, and intended to necessitate, the system of absolute free trade now in operation. Another was the promulgation of new rules for the civil service, by which one-sixth of the vacancies were reserved for natives. These rules have not as yet realised all the results anticipated, but no viceroy has been more entirely exempt from race-prejudice than Lytton, and one of his first official acts was a warm, indeed an over-warm, espousal of the cause of an oppressed native. The system of decentralisation, giving increased liberty of action, especially in financial matters, to local governments, was also greatly extended by him. This most important of all recent Indian reforms had been actually introduced by Lord Mayo. His endeavour to amalgamate the armies of the three presidencies, which he was unable to accomplish, had been, like others of his measures, approved by previous viceroys in theory. At the same time he and his council deemed it necessary in 1878 to restrain the license of the native press by placing it under strict government control. It was a characteristic trait of his never to pigeonhole an inconvenient question, while his unswerving loyalty to his lieutenants gained him their enthusiastic attachment. The public voice for a time pronounced against him; one of the most industrious of governors-general was derided as idle and frivolous, and one of the most independent was deemed a puppet worked from Downing Street. At home especially his administration was regarded as a failure. Four principal reasons may be assigned: the attacks of politicians who assailed the government through him; his retirement before pending questions could be finally adjusted; the anger of the native press at the restrictions he had imposed upon it; and, not least, his own want of discretion in trifling matters. No man could have been less adapted to Indian society by innate taste or acquired habit. With all his intelligence, Lytton was unable to accommodate himself to conventions, and by sallies natural to a poetic temperament, but which dulness might regard or malevolence represent as fantastic follies, he provoked censure and engendered petty gossip pernicious alike to himself and to the empire committed to his charge. But his chief measures have been tested by experience, and the unfavourable verdict of the hour gives signs of being reversed.
Shortly after his return to England, in May 1880, Lytton delivered in the House of Lords a very able speech in defence of his policy as concerned Candahar, but took no prominent part in politics, and filled no public office until his appointment as ambassador at Paris in 1887. In 1883 he published the first two volumes of a biography of his father, admirably executed as far as it goes, but breaking off in 1832 just before the point which would have most severely tested his tact and his candour. In 1885 appeared ‘Glenaveril,’ a narrative poem in six books, for which he had expected uncommon success, and which does, in fact, display great ingenuity and much brightness both of thought and phrase. Unfortunately the novel in verse has no chance with the novel in prose in our day, and ‘Glenaveril’ fell exceedingly flat. Greater success attended ‘After Paradise’ (1887), a little volume mostly consisting of metrical legends and parables, much in the spirit of ‘Fables in Song.’ In the same year he was elected lord rector of Glasgow University, and delivered an address on morality within the sphere of politics, which occasioned much controversy. His appointment as ambassador to France in 1887 excited violent opposition in many quarters, but all parties were soon unanimous in his praise. The disadvantage of imperfect sympathy with the political institutions of France was greatly overbalanced by his cordial attachment to the French nation, whose social tastes and manners he shared, with whose ideas and whose literature he was thoroughly conversant, and with whom he felt entirely at home. His literary and artistic tastes made him intimate with the best intellectual society of a capital where art and letters are not without weight in public affairs, and his house was valued by all political parties as the only place where all could meet on equal terms. The preservation and even the improvement of friendly relations with France during a period of great political irritation was a special service which perhaps could have been rendered by no other man. His novel popularity affected him almost with sadness. ‘I devoted my life to India,’ he said, ‘and everybody abused me. I come here, do nothing, and am praised to the skies.’ His part was, indeed, rather that of a pervading influence than of an active agent. The time it left him for literary pursuits was evinced by the rewriting of an early romance, ‘The Ring of Amasis,’ of which no industry could make very much, and of ‘King Poppy;’ and by the composition of the lyrics, more personal in sentiment than usual with him, published after his death under the title of ‘Marah.’ They vary greatly in merit, and in general reproduce much of the manner of Heine. ‘King Poppy,’ which remained unpublished until Christmas 1892, is, on the other hand, entirely original, and will probably be regarded as his best work; the more elevated parts couched in a high strain of poetry, the lighter full of lively, ironic humour.
Lytton died very suddenly at Paris, 24 Nov. 1891, from aneurism of the aorta. He had been composing poetry all day, and was writing as he died. His health had for some time been precarious, but his sudden death was entirely unexpected. In the universal burst of sorrow which it elicited some regret might perhaps be detected for the severity of the attacks made on his administration of India. He was buried at Knebworth.
Lytton's position among the public men of his day was unique. It recalled the life of the Elizabethan noble, little concerned with the arts that influence deliberative assemblies, but leading alternately the lives of a scholar, a diplomatist, a magistrate, a courtier, and a man of letters. Had he but been a soldier too, the parallel would have been perfect. Few have touched life at so many points, have enjoyed such variety of interesting experiences, or have so profoundly fascinated their intimates, whether relatives, friends, or official colleagues. The antipathies he also provoked had seldom a deeper root than some unintentional slight or misinterpreted oddity on his part, or were affected for political purposes. The one serious fault of his public career was the unwise disregard of conventions, which passed for whimsical caprice, and, thus suggesting infirmity of judgment, injured the prestige on which the strongest must largely rely. As a poet he has the merit of extreme brilliancy of idea, phrase, and description. His defect is that this brilliancy is unrelieved—his massed jewels glitter against no background, and the eye becomes confused and fatigued with their dazzle. Some, also, are unquestionably paste, and many are not his property. At the same time he was not a plagiarist in intention. An enthusiastic lover of the beautiful, he was impressed by literary no less than by natural beauty, and was for the time possessed by an admired style as another might be possessed by an overpowering emotion. When this is the case he is the best of imitators, but his strain is hardly his own. The vital and enduring part of his poetry is that inspired by his own experience of life and observation of manners, when the compound of imagination and refined irony produces something really original and peculiar to himself. This is especially the case with ‘Fables in Song’ and ‘King Poppy,’ which, with some felicitous ballads and lyrics, will preserve his name when the bulk of his poetry, considerable as it is both in merit and extent, will attract more notice from the historians of literature than from readers. As a prose writer Lytton takes high rank; his minutes and despatches were the admiration of the India office; he could recognise merit in an unknown writer, and his appreciation was equally generous and discriminating. His reputation as a critic of life and letters will probably be much enhanced when his extensive correspondence with John Forster and other men of letters sees the light, as it is understood that it shortly will.