« VorigeDoorgaan »
the young and rising poets to a wider range for study and imitation. This collection of poems was Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, one of the most tasteful collections of poems in any language, and one of the best and most widely known : “The publication of which,” says Southey, “must form an epoch in the history of our poetry whenever it is written.” The first edition appeared in 1765, a year remarkable in more ways than one. Dr. Young, the sole survivor of the poets of the last generation, died at the great age of eighty-four, on the 5th of April; and Mr. Rogers, the still surviving patriarch of the past generation of poets, was born on the 30th of July of the same year. The effect of the Reliques was more immediate than some have been willing to imagine. The Hermit of Goldsmith, a publication of the following year, originated in the Reliques; and the Minstrel of Beattie, a publication of the year 1771, in the preliminary dissertation prefixed to the volumes. If Percy had rendered no other service to literature than the suggestion of the Minstrel, his name would deserve respect. “The Minstrel,” says Southey, “was an incidental effect of Percy's volumes. Their immediate consequence was to produce a swarm of ‘legendary tales,' bearing, in their style, about as much resemblance to the genuine ballad as the heroes of a French tragedy to the historical personages whose names they bear, or a set of stage-dances to the lads and lasses of a village-green, in the old times of the maypole.” This was the more immediate effect; the lasting result of the Reliques was their directing the rude groupings of genius in a Scott, a Southey, a Coleridge, and a Wordsworth. Beattie reappeared in 1766 with a volume of poems, better by far than what he had done before, but still insufficient to achieve the reputation which the Minstrel subsequently acquired for the author of the volume. A second candidate was Cunningham, a player, still remembered for his Kate of Aberdeen, a short but charming piece of simple-hearted poetry. Poor Cunningham made no great way with his verse; he had dedicated his volume, with all the ambition of an actor, to no less a personage than Garrick; but the head of the patentee players received the stroller's poetry with indifference, and did not on this occasion repay—which he commonly did—
Gray commended it to Wharton, and Smollett wrote his Humphrey Clinker (the last and best of his works) on Anstey's principle in his Guide. A publication of the year 1767, called the Beauties of English Poesy, selected by Olive Goldsmith, deserves to be remarked. The selection seems to have been made as a sort of antidote to Percy's Reliques. “My bookseller having informed me,” he says, “that there was no collection of English poetry among us of any estimation, . . . . I therefore offer this,” he adds, “to the best of my judgment, as the best collection that has yet appeared. I claim no merit in the choice, as it was obvious, for in all languages the best productions are most easily found.” It will hardly be believed by any one who hears it for the first time, that a poet of Goldsmith's taste in poetry could have made a selection from our poets without including a single poet (Milton excepted) from the noble race of poets who preceded the Restoration. Yet such, however, is the case, ; and I can only account for the principle on which the selection would appear to have been made, that it was meant as an antidote to Percy's publications, or that Goldsmith (and this is not unlikely) was perfectly unacquainted with the poets of a period previous to Dryden and Pope. Michael Bruce, a young and promising poet, died in the year 1767, at the too early age of twenty-one. Some of his poems, and they were posthumously published, without the last touches of the author— possess unusual beauties. His Lochleven is callen by Coleridge, “a poem of great merit;” and the same great critic directs attention to what he calls “the following exquisite passage, expressing the effects of a fine day on the human heart :”—
“Fat on the plain and mountain's sunny side,
Another poet whose song ceased before he had time to do still better things, was poor Falconer, who perished at sea, in the Aurora frigate, in the year 1769. He had sung his own catastrophe in his Shipwreck only a few years before. The poem of the year 1770 was The Deserted Village—in some respects a superior poem to The Traveller. It was immediately a favorite, and in less than four months had run through five editions. Gray thought Goldsmith a genuine poet. “I was with him,” says Nicholls, “at Malvern when he received the Deserted Village, which he desired me to read to him; he listened with fixed attention, and soon exclaimed, “This man is a poet !” If The Deserted Village was, as it certainly is, an accession to our poetry, the death of Akenside and the far too premature removal of Chatterton were real losses in the very same year in which Goldsmith's great poem appeared. Akenside had, no doubt, sang his song, but Chatterton was only in his eighteenth year. What a production for a boy was the ballad of “Sir Charles Bawdin'" There is nothing nobler of the kind in the whole compass of our poetry. “Tasso alone,” says Campbell, “can be compared to him as a juvenile prodigy. No English poet ever equalled him at the same age. The Deserted Village of the year 1770 was followed in 1771 by the first book of The Minstrel, a poem which has given more delight to minds of a certain class, and that class a high one, than any other poem in the English language. Since Beattie composed the poem on which his fame relies, and securely too for an hereafter, many poems of a far loftier and even a more original character have been added to the now almost overgrown body of our poetry, yet Beattie is still the poet for the young; and still in Edwin—that happy personification of the poetic temperament —young and enthusiastic readers delight and recognize a picture of themselves. Gray lived to commend and to correct it— with the taste of a true poet and the gener
The poem, however, made but a very slender impression on the public mind, nor is it now much read, save by the student of our poetry, to whom it affords a lesson of importance.
The only remembered publication in poetry of the year 1773 was The Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers, a caustic attack, replete with wit, humor, and invective, on the architect's Chinese eccentricities in the gardens at Kew. It was long before Mason was suspected of the satire. Tom Warton was the first to attribute it to his pen; he said it was Walpole's buchramed up by Mason. But Walpole, from a letter to Mason only recently published, would appear to have had nothing to do
with it. “I have read it,” writes Walpole, “so very often, that l have got it by heart, and now I am master of all its beauties. I confess I like it infinitely better than I did, though I liked it infinitely before. But what signifies what I think? All the world thinks the same. No soul has, I have heard, guessed within a hundred miles. I catched at Anstey's, and have, I believe, contributed to spread the notion. It has since been called Temple Luttrell's, and, to my infinite honor, mine. But now that you have tapped this mine of talent, and it runs so richly and easily, for Heaven's and for England's sake, do not let it rest.” The Heroic Epistle was followed, in 1774, by the Judah Restored, of Roberts, “a work,” says Campbell, “ of no common merit.” Southey calls the author a poet of the same respectable class as the author of Leonidas and Athenaid, and adds in a note, “Dr. Roberts's Judah Restored was one of the first books that I ever possessed. It was given me by a lady whom I must ever gratefully and affectionately remember as the kindest friend of my boyhood. I read it often then, and can still recur to it with satisfaction; and perhaps I owe something to the plain dignity of its style, which is suited to the subject, and every where bears the stamp of good sense and careful erudition. To acknowledge obligations of this kind is both a pleasure and duty.” I have Southey's copy of the Judah before me at this moment; on the fly-leaf is inscribed, in the neat handwriting of the poet, “Robert Southey—given me by Mrs. Dolignon, 1784.” The poet of Kehama was born the year in which the Judah appeared, and was only ten years old when a copy of the poem was given to him, by the lady he remembers so affectionately as “the kindest friend of his boyhood.” This one book may have had the same effect upon Southey that Spenser's works had upon the mind of Cowley; “I had read him all over,” he says, “before I was twelve years old, and was thus made a poet as immediately as a child is made an eunuch.” On the 4th of April, 1774, died Oliver Goldsmith, leaving unfortunately unfinished one of the best of his lighter pieces—his well-known and inimitable Retaliation. It was published a fortnight after his death, and became immediately a favorite. A second posthumous publication of the same poet was The Haunch of Venison, a clever
* Southey's Cowper, Vol. iii. p. 32.
epistle to Lord Clare, full of characteristic beauties peculiar to its author. Both pieces owe something to Anstey and his Guide—the suggestion certainly. In 1776 Mickle put forth his translation of the Lusiad—free, flowery, and periphrastical, full of spirit, and not devoid of beauties, but untrue to the majestic simplicity of the great Portuguese. While Goldsmith was confining his selection from our poets to a period too narrow to embrace many of the nobler productions of the British Miuse, Gray was annotating Lydgate, and the younger Warton collecting materials for his History of English Poetry. Our literature lies under other obligations to the younger Warton, L great as that obligation is for his noble but unfinished History. He was the first to explain and direct attention to many of the less obvious beauties of The Faerie Queen, and in conjunction with Edwards, the first to revive the sonnet among us, a favorite form of verse with our Elizabethan poets, with Shakspeare and with Milton, but entirely abandoned by the poets who came aster them. The first volume of Warton's History was published in 1774; his Poems containing his sonnets in 1777. The effect produced by their publication was more immediate than has hitherto been thought. We owe the sonnets of Bampfylde (4to. 1778) to the example of the younger Warton. Nor is the pupil unworthy of the master, or unwilling to own his obligation. Some of the Sixteen Sonnets of Bampfylde (for such is the title of his thin unpretending quarto) are “beautiful exceedingly,” and in one (the tenth) Warton is addressed in a way which he could well appreciate. The good effect of Percy's Reliques, Warton's volume of History, and Warton's Poems, received a temporary check in the year 1779, by the publication of the first part of Johnson's well-known Lives of the Poets, containing his celebrated criticism on the Lycidas of Milton, and his noble parallel between Dryden and Pope. The concluding portion of the Lives, containing his famous abuse of Gray, appeared two years later (1781), and, like the former portion of the work, was read with deserved avidity. The effect was catching. The school of Dryden and Pope revived. Hayley wrote his Triumphs of Temper in the verse recommended by Johnson; Crabbe composed his Library and his Village in the same versification; Cowper his Table Talk, and even Mason (though the last person in the world to admit it) his translation of Du Fresnoy, in Johnson's only measure. But the fear of Dr. Johnson did not reach beyond the grave, and when Cowper put forth his Task in the spring of 1785, the great critic was no more. Not that Cowper was likely to be deterred from blank verse by the criticisms of Johnson, for the Task was commenced in Johnson's lifetime, and in the same structure of versification. That Johnson could have hurt the sale for a time by a savage remark at the table of Reynolds, no one acquainted with the literature of the period will for a moment doubt. That he could have kept the poem fiom what it now possesses and deserves, a universal admiration, it would be equally absurd to suppose for a single moment. When Cowper put forth his Task there was no poet of any great ability or distinguished name in the field. Hayley ambled over the course, to use an expression of Southey, without a competitor. But Hayley had done his best, poor as that was, though his day was hardly by. It was Cowper who forced us from the fetters which Johnson had forged for future poets, and Hayley had done his best to rivet and retain. Nor was Cowper without some as: sistance at this time. Evans's old ballads did something to extend a taste for the early but unknown masters of our poetry. Some of Mickle's imitations, in the same collection, were read by younger minds with an influence of which we enjoy the fruits to this day. Charlotte Smith put forth a volume of her sonnets, replete with touching sentiment, eminently characteristic of the sofier graces of the female mind, and the late Sir Egerton Brydges, a volume of poems, containing one noble sonnet (“Echo and Silence”) which, though neglected at the time, will live as long as any poem of its length in the English language. The Task was followed by a volume of poems from a provincial press full of the very finest poetry, and one that has stood its test, and will stand for ever. The author of the Task was of noble extraction, and counted kin with lord-chancellors and earls. His fellow-author was a poor Scottish peasant, nameless and unknown when his poems were put forth, but known, and deservedly known, wherever the language of his country has been heard. This poet was Robert burns. Cowper and Burns were far too nobly constituted to think discouragingly of one another. “Is not the
Task,” says Burns, “a glorious poem " The religion of the Task, bating a few scraps of “Calvinistic divinity, is the religion of God and Nature; the religion that exalts and ennobles man.” “I have read Burns's poems,” says Cowper, “ and have read them twice; and though they be written in a language that is new to me, and many of them on subjects much inferior to the author's ability, I think them on the whole a very extraordinary production. He is, I believe, the only poet these kingdoms have produced in the lower rank of life save Shakspeare (I should rather say save Prior), who need not be indebted for any part of his praise to a charitable consideration of his origin, and the disadvantages under which he has labored. It will be pity if he should not hereafter divest himself of barbarism, and content himself with writing pure English, in which he appears perfectly qualified to excel. He who can command admiration dishonors himself if he aims no higher than to raise a laugh.” This, let it be remembered, was written at the time when the poet's reputation was as yet unconfirmed. But the praise is ample, and such as Burns would have loved to have heard from Cowper's lips. “Poor Burns!” he writes in another letter, “loses much of his deserved praise in this country through our ignorance of his language. I despair of meeting with any Englishman who will take the pains that I have taken to understand him. His candle is bright, but shut up in a dark lantern. I lent him to a very sensible neighbor of mine: but his uncouth dialect spoiled all ; and before he had half read him through, he was quite ramfeezled.” The word to which Cowper alludes occurs in the “Epistle to Lapraik;” if the meaning was somewhat difficult at the time, few will need to be told it now. The study of Burns is very general in England, and in Ireland he is almost as much understood and appreciated as in his own country. Mr. Rogers appeared as a poet in the same year with Burns. But his Ode to Superstition was little read at the time, and his fame rests now on a wide and a secure foundation. Another poet of the same year was Henry Headley, a young and promising writer, imbued with a fine and cultiwated taste, of which his two volumes of selections from our early poets, published in the following year, is still an enduring testimony. If Goldsmith had lived to have seen these selections published, culled by a boy of barely twenty-one, he surely would have blushed to have looked upon his own. There were other candidates for distinction at this time, imbued with the same tastes, and fostered in the same quarter, the cloisters of Trinity College, Oxford, and the wards of Winchester School. The first was Thomas Russell, prematurely snatched away (1788) in his twenty-sixth year, leaving a few sonnets and poems behind him, which his friends judged worthy of knowing hereafter. That he had intended his poems for publication was somewhat uncertain; that he was gifted with no ordinary genius, the magnificent sonnet supposed to be written at Lemnos has put beyond the pale of cavil or suspicion. The second candidate for distinction was William Lisle Bowles, whose fourteen sonnets appeared in 1789, while he was yet an under-graduate at Oxford. The younger Warton lived long enough to foretell the future distinction of the boy his brother had brought up; Coleridge, to thank him in a sonnet for poetic obligations:—
“My heart has thanked thee, Bowles, for those sost strains,
Whose sadness soothes me like the murmuring
Of wild bees in the sunny showers of spring:"
and Southey, to express in prose his gratitude for similar obligations. The Vicar of Bremhill (now in his eighty-fourth year) has reason to be proud of such testimonies in his favor. It would be idle assertion to call them undeserved; his sonnets are very beautiful, full of soothing sadness, and a pleasing love and reverence for nature, animate and inanimate. When Bowles was seeing his sonnets through the press, his old antagonist, Lord Byron, was a child in his mother's or his nurse's arms. While they were yet hardly a year before the public, the younger Warton was buried in the chapel of his college at Oxford amid the tears of many who knew the frank, confiding disposition of his nature.
“For though not sweeter his own Homer sang, Yet was his life the more endearing song.”
Other poems of consequence followed at intervals, not very remote. In 1791 Cowper put forth his translation of the Iliad into English blank verse, and Darwin his Botanic Garden, a poem in two parts, written in the measure of Pope, but polished till little remained save glitter and fine words.
The only poem of repute of the year 1792
that has reached our time, or seems likely to revive, and acquire an hereafter, is The Pleasures of Memory. This is a poem which Goldsmith would have read with pleasure, for it is much in his manner. “There is no such thing,” says Byron, “as a vulgar line in the book.” The versification is very finished, but not in Darwin's manner to too great a nicety, while there are passages here and there which take silent possession of the heart, a sure sign of unusual excellence. Wordsworth's first poem, An Evening Walk, an epistle in verse, addressed to a young Lady from the Lakes of the North of England, appeared the year after The Pleasures of Memory, and was followed the same year by a volume of Descriptive Sketches in verse, taken during a Pedestrian Tour in the Italian Grisons, Swiss and Savoyard Alps. Every line in The Evening Walk bears the mark of a keen observer for himself; there is not a borrowed image in the poem, though the pervading character throughout reminds one too closely perhaps of The Nocturnal Reverie of the Countess of Winchelsea, a wonderful poem, to which Wordsworth was the first to direct attention. Here is a picture from Wordsworth's first volume, something between a Hobbima and a Hondekoeter:—
“Sweet are the sounds that mingle from afar,
One feels that our poetry is enriched by a passage of this description,-that the poet who could write in this way was likely to make what Addison calls additions to Nature, and this Mr. Wordsworth has done in a pre-eminent degree.
Southey, in 1795, made his first public appearance as a poet in a thin duodecimo volume, printed at Bath, on the poor pale blue paper of the period. This was a kind of Lara and Jacqueline affair. One-half of the volume was by Southey, the other half by Lovell, the poems of the former being distinguished by the signature of “Bion,” of the latter by that of “Moschus.” The poems are not very many in number, nor are they very good, yet the little volume is not without its interest in the history of a great mind, feeling its way to a proud position in our letters.