Linton- Life in the Collections
Richard Hengist Horne:
40) Orion. An Epic Poem in Three Books.
In a letter to his friend Leigh Hunt from June 1843, Horne exposed his revolutionary concept of distribution, by which he sought to prove evidence of the public disdain of poetry: ”Anybody who ought to have the poem can buy it for a farthing. (...) The book is refused, in numbers, to the trade and to unlikely messengers; and no friend can obtain two copies for his halfpenny. Other things I have ordained as check to rapacity. You see, this was necessary, for as the book is published at less than the price of waste paper, I had to protect myself from people sending five shillings and a sack, with an eye to trunks and pie-bottom. But as I said, any proper person can have a copy for a farthing.” “Even Horne was unprepared for the furore that followed. (...) The poem appeared at the beginning of June: by the start of the third week the first two editions of 500 copies each were sold and a third edition was coming from the presses. (...) The price went on and still the sales went on as extraordinarily as ever.” (Anne Blainey)
The poem represents a success that was to remain unique in Horne’s career which moreover was marked by permanent frustration and fierce criticism. Orion was highly praised by the likes of Thomas Carlyle, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Bronté, and Harriet Martineau. Though the most enthusiastic eulogy came from across the Atlantic. “It is our deliberate opinion,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe in Graham’s Magazine, ”that, in all that regards the loftiest and holiest attributes of the true Poetry, ‘Orion’ has never been excelled. Indeed we feel strongly inclined to say that it has never been equaled.” In Poe´s view, Orion was “one of the noblest, if not the very noblest poetical work of the age.” The critics couldn’t decide if Horne’s opus represented a spiritual epic – Barrett Browning advanced this view – or rather a social one. The latter had been the tenor of Douglas Jerrold’s review in The Illuminated Magazine. Isobel Armstrong considers Horne’s poem to be obeying W.J. Fox’ aesthetic principles “in the sense that it portrays a series of powerful conflicts which can be, as Horne’s preface remarks, ‘perfectly intelligible to all classes of readers.’ (...) Effectively, Horne’s epic is about ‘the principles of action.’ Orion the giant who represents the unchained energies of the oppressed, goes through a series of experiences (and mistresses) which include orgy, famine, revolution, blindness and social reconstruction, though he is doomed to hope rather than achievement. The poem is an attack on mindless labour and exploitation.” The whole framework of the poem can be considered as a result of Horne’s encounter with the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and his theory of the Master/Slave dialectic. The impact of Horne’s farthing opus on the conceptions of radical or emancipatory epic poems to follow, like Cooper’s The Purgatory of Suicides or Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh can hardly be ignored.