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FAMOUS SPEECHES. First Series. From Cromwell to Gladstone. Selected and Edited with Introductory Notes by HERBERT PAUL. In demy 8vo, cloth, 470 pp. 7s. 6d. net.
FAMOUS SPEECHES. Second Series. From Lord Macaulay to Lord Rosebery. Selected and Edited with Introductory Notes by HERBERT PAUL. In demy 8vo, cloth, 398 pp. 7s. 6d. net.
FAMOUS SERMONS BY ENGLISH PREACHERS. From the VENERABLE BEDE to H.P. LIDDON. Edited with Historical and Biographical Notes by Canon DOUGLAS MACLEANE, M.A. In demy 8vo, cloth gilt. 6s. net.
SELECTED AND EDITED
WITH INTRODUCTORY NOTES
R. BRIMLEY JOHNSON
Authors are partial to their wit, ’tis true, But are not critics to their judgment too? _Pope_.
OF CRITICISM AND THE CRITIC
THE EDINBURGH REVIEW: EDITOR’S NOTE
From _The Edinburgh Review_
LORD JEFFREY ON– [SOUTHEY’S “THALABA” [SOUTHEY’S LAUREATE LAYS
[WORDSWORTH’S “EXCURSION” [“ENDYMION”
LORD BROUGHAM ON BYRON
SYDNEY SMITH ON HANNAH MORE
MACAULAY ON– [SOUTHEY’S COLLOQUIES [CROKER’S “BOSWELL”
[W. E. GLADSTONE
ANONYMOUS ON– [WORDSWORTH
THE QUARTERLY REVIEW: EDITOR’S NOTE
From _The Quarterly Review_
GIFFORD ON– [WEBER’S “FORD”
CROKER ON– [SYDNEY SMITH
LOCKHART ON– [THE AUTHOR OF “VATHEK” [S. T. COLERIDGE
SIR WALTER SCOTT ON JANE AUSTEN
ARCHBISHOP WHATELY ON JANE AUSTEN
W. E. GLADSTONE ON TENNYSON’S POEMS
CANON WILBERFORCE ON–[DARWIN
ANONYMOUS ON SCOTT’S–[“WAVERLEY”
[“TALES OF MY LANDLORD”
ANONYMOUS ON– [LEIGH HUNT’S “RIMINI” [“SHAKESPEARE HIMSELF AGAIN”
[“VANITY FAIR” AND “JANE EYRE” [GEORGE ELIOT
BLACKWOOD’S MAGAZINE: EDITOR’S NOTE
From _Blackwood’s Magazine_
PROFESSOR WILSON ON–[POPE AND WORDSWORTH (_Christopher North_) [LORD BYRON
[CRUMBS FROM THE “NOCTES”
ANONYMOUS ON– [S. T. COLERIDGE
[THE COCKNEY SCHOOL I
[” ” ” III
[” ” ” IV
THE WESTMINSTER REVIEW: EDITOR’S NOTE
From _The Westminster Review_
J. S. MILL ON– [TENNYSON’S POEMS
JOHN STERLING ON CARLYLE
FRASER’S MAGAZINE: EDITOR’S NOTE
From _Fraser’s Magazine_
THACKERAY ON DICKENS’S CHRISTMAS STORIES
CHARLES KINGSLEY ON THE LAKE POETS
ANONYMOUS ON CHRISTMAS BOOKS, 1837
W. F. FOX: EDITOR’S NOTE
From _The Monthly Repository_
W. F. FOX ON BROWNING’S “PAULINE”
DE QUINCEY: EDITOR’S NOTE
From Tail’s _Edinburgh Magazine_
DE QUINCEY ON POPE
Although regular literary organs, and the critical columns of the press, are both of comparatively recent origin, we find that almost from the beginning our journalists aspired to be critics as well as newsmongers. Under Charles II, Sir Roger L’Estrange issued his _Observator_ (1681), which was a weekly review, not a chronicle; and John Dunton’s _The Athenian Mercury_ (1690), is best described as a sort of early “Notes and Queries.” Here, as elsewhere, Defoe developed this branch of journalism, particularly in his _Review_ (1704), and in _Mist’s Journal_ (1714). And, again, as in all other departments, his methods were not materially improved upon until Leigh Hunt, and his brother John, started _The Examiner_ in 1808, soon after the rise of the Reviews. Addison and Steele, of course, had treated literary topics in _The Spectator_ or _The Tatler_; but the serious discussion of contemporary writers began with the Whig _Edinburgh_ of 1802 and the Tory _Quarterly_ of 1809.
By the end of George III’s reign every daily paper had its column of book-notices; while 1817 marks an epoch in the weekly press; when William Jerdan started _The Observator_ (parent of our _Athenaeum_) in order to furnish (for one shilling weekly) “a clear and instructive picture of the moral and literary improvement of the time, and a complete and authentic chronological literary record for reference.”
Though probably there is no form of literature more widely practised, and less organised, than the review, it would be safe to say that every example stands somewhere between a critical essay and a publisher’s advertisement. We need not, however, consider here the many influences which may corrupt newspaper criticism to-day, nor concern ourselves with those legitimate “notices of books” which only aim at “telling the story” or otherwise offering guidance for an “order from the library.”
The question remains, on which we do not propose to dogmatise, whether the ideal of a reviewer should be critical or explanatory: whether, in other words, he should attempt final judgment or offer comment and analysis from which we may each form our own opinion. Probably no hard and fast line can be drawn between the review and the essay; yet a good volume of criticism can seldom be gleaned from periodicals. For one thing all journalism, whether consciously or unconsciously, must contain an appeal to the moment. The reviewer is introducing new work to his reader, the essayist, or critic proper, may nearly always assume some familiarity with his subject. The one hazards prophecy; the other discusses, and illumines, a judgment already formed, if not established. It is obvious that such reviews as Macaulay’s in the _Edinburgh_ were often permanent contributions to critical history; while, on the other hand, many ponderous effusions of the _Quarterly_ are only interesting as a sign of the times.
The fame of a review, however, does not always depend on merit. The scandalous attacks on the Cockney school, for example, were neither good literature nor honest criticism. We still pause in wonder before the streams of virulent personal abuse and unbridled licence in temper which disgrace the early pages of volumes we now associate with sound and dignified, if somewhat conventional, utterances on the art of Literature as viewed from the table-land of authority. And, as inevitably the most famous reviews are those which attend the birth of genius, we must include more respectable errors of judgment, if we find also several remarkable appreciations which prove singular insight.
Following the “early” reviews, whether distinguished for culpable blindness, private hostility, or rare sympathy, we must depend for our second main source of material upon that fortunate combination of circumstances when one of the mighty has been invited to pass judgment upon his peers. When Scott notices Jane Austen, Macaulay James Boswell, Gladstone and John Stuart Mill Lord Tennyson, the article acquires a double value from author and subject. Curiously enough, as it would seem to us in these days of advertisement, many such treasures of criticism were published anonymously; and accident has often aided research in the discovery of their authorship. It is only too probable that more were written than we have yet on record.
In reviewing, as elsewhere, the growth of professionalism has tended to level the quality of work. The mass of thoroughly competent criticism issued to-day has raised enormously the general tone of the press; but genuine men of letters are seldom employed to welcome, or stifle, a newcomer; though Meredith, and more frequently Swinburne, have on occasion elected to pronounce judgment upon the passing generation; as Mrs. Meynell or Mr. G.K. Chesterton have sometimes said the right thing about their contemporaries. The days when postcard notices from Gladstone secured a record in sales are over; and, from whatever combination of causes, we hear no more of famous reviews.
R. BRIMLEY JOHNSON.
It is with regret that I have found it impossible to print more than a few of the following reviews complete. The writing of those days was, in almost every case, extremely prolix, and often irrelevant. It nearly always makes heavy reading in the originals. The _principle_ of selection adopted is to retain the most pithy, and attractive, portion of each article: omitting quotations and the discussion of particular passages. It therefore becomes necessary to remark–in justice to the writers–that most of the criticisms here quoted were accompanied by references to what was regarded by the reviewer as evidence supporting them. Most of the authors, or books, noticed however, are sufficiently well known for the reader to have no difficulty in judging for himself.
R. B. J.
OF CRITICISM AND CRITIC
There is a certain race of men, that either imagine it their duty, or make it their amusement, to hinder the reception of every work of learning or genius, who stand as sentinels in the avenues of fame, and value themselves upon giving ignorance and envy the first notice of a prey.
To these men, who distinguish themselves by the appellation of Critics, it is necessary for a new author to find some means of recommendation. It is probable, that the most malignant of these persecutors might be somewhat softened, and prevailed on, for a short time, to remit their fury. Having for this purpose considered many expedients, I find in the records of ancient times, that Argus was lulled by music, and Cerberus quieted with a sop; and am, therefore, inclined to believe that modern critics, who, if they have not the eyes, have the watchfulness of Argus, and can bark as loud as Cerberus, though, perhaps, they cannot bite with equal force, might be subdued by methods of the same kind. I have heard that some have been pacified with claret and a supper, and others laid asleep with the soft notes of flattery.–_The Rambler_.
I care not one single curse for all the criticism that ever was canted or decanted, or recanted. Neither does the world. The world takes a poet as it finds him, and seats him above or below the salt. The world is as obstinate as a million mules, and will not turn its head on one side or another for all the shouting of the critical population that ever was shouted. It is very possible that the world is a bad judge. Well, then– appeal to posterity, and be hanged to you–and posterity will affirm the judgment, with costs.–_Noctes Ambrosianae, Sept_., 1825.
Our current literature teems with thought and feeling,–with passion and imagination. There was Gifford, and there are Jeffrey, and Southey … and twenty–forty–fifty–other crack contributors to the Reviews, Magazines and Gazettes, who have said more tender, and true, and fine, and deep things in the way of criticism, than ever was said before since the reign of Cadmus, ten thousand times over,–not in long, dull, heavy, formal, prosy theories–but flung off-hand, out of the glowing mint–a coinage of the purest ore–and stamped with the ineffaceable impress of genius.–_Noctes Ambrosianae_, April, 1829.
The cause of a wrong taste is a defect of judgment. EDMUND BURKE.
We must not underrate him who uses wit for subsistence, and flies from the ingratitude of the age even to a bookseller for redress. OLIVER GOLDSMITH.
The critical faculty is a _rara avis_; almost as rare, indeed, as the phoenix, which appears only once in five hundred years. ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER.
The Supreme Critic … is … that Unity, that Oversoul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other. R. W. EMERSON.
Criticism’s best spiritual work which is to keep man from a self-satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarising, to lead him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and fitness of things. MATTHEW ARNOLD.
The whole history of criticism has been a triumph of authors over critics.
R. G. MOULTON.
Our criticism is disabled by the unwillingness of the critic to learn from an author, and his readiness to mistrust him. D. H. HOWELLS.
We have too many small schoolmasters; yet not only do I not question in literature the high utility of criticism, but I should be tempted to say that the part it plays may be the supremely beneficent one when it proceeds from deep sources, from the efficient combination of experience and perception. In this light one sees the critic as the real helper of mankind, a torch-bearing outrider, the interpreter _par excellence_. HENRY JAMES.
* * * * *
THE EDINBURGH REVIEW
“A confederacy (the word _conspiracy_ may be libellous) to defend the worst atrocities of the French, and to cry down every author to whom England was dear and venerable. A better spirit now prevails in the _Edinburgh Review_ from the generosity and genius of Macaulay. But in the days when Brougham and his confederates were writers in it, more falsehood and more malignity marked its pages than any other journal in the language.”
Landor is speaking, of course, with his usual impetuosity, particularly moved by antipathy to Lord Brougham. A fairer estimate of the “bluff and blue” exponent of Whig principles may be obtained from our brief estimate of Jeffrey below. His was the informing spirit, at least in its earliest days, and that spirit would brook no divided sway.
FRANCIS LORD JEFFREY
Jeffrey was editor of the _Edinburgh Review_ from its foundation in October 10th, 1802, till June, 1829; and continued to write for it until June, 1848. He was more patronising in his abuse than either _Blackwood_ or the _Quarterly_, and on the whole fairer and more dignified; though he was considerably influenced by political bias. In fact, his judgments–though versatile–were narrow, his most marked limitations arising from blindness to the imaginative.
The short, vivacious figure (so low that he might pass under your chin without ever catching the eye even for a moment, says Lockhart), was far more impressive when familiar than at first sight. Lord Cockburn praises his legal abilities (whether as judge or advocate) almost without qualification; but Wilson derides his appearance in the House:–“A cold thin voice, doling out little, quaint, metaphysical sentences with the air of a provincial lecturer on logic and _belles-lettres_. A few good Whigs of the old school adjourned upstairs, the Tories began to converse _de omnibus rebus et quibusdam aliis_, the Radicals were either snoring or grinning, and the great gun of the north ceased firing amidst such a hubbub of inattention, that even I was not aware of the fact for several minutes.”
He has been called “almost a lecturer in society,” and it is clear that his difficulty always was to cease talking. Men as different as Macaulay and Charles Dickens have spoken with deep personal affection of his memory.
In one of Carlyle’s inimitable “pen-portraits” he is described as “a delicate, attractive, dainty little figure, as he merely walked about, much more if he were speaking: uncommonly bright, black eyes, instinct with vivacity, intelligence and kindly fire; roundish brow, delicate oval face, full, rapid expression; figure light, nimble, pretty, though so small, perhaps hardly five feet four in height…. His voice clear, harmonious, and sonorous, had something of metallic in it, something almost plangent … a strange, swift, sharp-sounding, fitful modulation, part of it pungent, _quasi latrant_, other parts of it cooing, bantery, lovingly quizzical, which no charm of his fine ringing voice (_metallic_ tenor, of sweet tone), and of his vivacious rapid looks and pretty little attitudes and gestures, could altogether reconcile you to, but in which he persisted through good report and bad.”
* * * * *
Perhaps Jeffrey’s most famous criticism was the “This will never do” on Wordsworth; of which Southey wrote to Scott, “Jeffrey, I hear, has written what his friends call a _crushing_ review of the Excursion. He might as well seat himself on Skiddaw, and fancy that he crushed the mountain.”
It is obvious, indeed, that the Lake poets had little respect for their “superior” reviewers; whose opinions, on the other hand, were not subject to influences from high places. It will be noticed that Jefferey is even more severe on Southey’s Laureate “Lays” than on his “Thalaba.”
The review on Moore, quoted below, was followed by formal arrangements for a duel at Chalk Farm on 11th August, 1806; but the police had orders to interrupt, and pistols were loaded with paper. Even the semblance of animosity was not maintained, as we find Moore contributing to the _Edinburgh_ before the end of the same year.
We fear that the appreciation of Keats was partly influenced by political considerations; since Leigh Hunt had so emphatically welcomed him into the camp. It remains, however, a pleasing contrast to the ferocious onslaught on _Endymion_ of Gifford printed below.
HENRY LORD BROUGHAM
Brougham was intimately associated with Jeffrey in the foundation of the _Edinburgh Review_: he is said to have written eighty articles in the first twenty numbers, though like all his work, the criticism was spoilt by egotism and vanity. The fact is that an over-brilliant versatility injured his work. Combining “in his own person the characters of Solon, Lycurgus, Demosthenes, Archimedes, Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Chesterfield, and a great many more,” his restless genius accomplished nothing substantial or sound. His writing was far less careful than his oratory. A man from whom almost everything was expected, and who was always before the eye of the public; he has been described as “the God of Whiggish idolatry,” and as “impossible” in society. Harriet Martineau is unsparing in her criticism of his manners and language; and evidently he was an inveterate swearer. His enthusiasm for noble causes was infectious; only, as Coleridge happily expressed it, “because his heart was placed in what should have been his head, you were never sure of him–you always doubted his sincerity.”
In the Opposition and at the Bar this eloquent energy had full scope, “but as Lord Chancellor his selfish disloyalty offended his colleagues while,” as O’Connell remarked, “If Brougham knew a little of Law, he would know a little of everything.” Unquestionably his obvious failings obscured his real eminence, and even hinder us, to-day, from doing full justice to his memory.
* * * * *
It was the following, somewhat heavy-handed, review which inspired the _English Bards and Scotch Reviewers_, with all its “extraordinary powers of malicious statement”–truly a Roland for his Oliver.
The third founder of the _Edinburgh_ and one of its most aggressive reviewers, until March, 1827, Sydney Smith has been described as “most provokingly and audaciously personal in his strictures…. He was too complacent, too aboundingly self-satisfied, too buoyantly full of spirits, to hate anybody; but he burlesques them, derides them, and abuses them with the most exasperating effrontery–in a way that is great fun to the reader, but exquisite torture to the victim.” At the same time, his wit was always governed by commonsense (its most prevailing distinction); and, though almost unique among humorists for his personal gaiety, “his best work was done in promoting practical ends, and his wit in its airiest gambols never escaped his control.” There was, in fact, considerable independence–and even courage–in his seriously inspired attacks on various abuses, and on every form of affectation and cant. Though his manners and conversation were not precisely those we generally associate with the Cloth, Sydney Smith published several volumes of sermons, and always accepted the responsibilities of his position as a clergyman with becoming industry. Croker’s veiled sarcasm in the _Quarterly_ (printed below) was no more bitter, or truthful, than similar utterances on any Whig.
* * * * *
We know little to-day of–
The sacred dramas of Miss Hannah More Where Moses and the little muses snore,
but, in her own day, she was flattered in society and a real influence among the serious-minded. She understood the poor and gave them practical advice. Sydney Smith, of course, would be in sympathy with her “good works,” but could not resist his joke.
THOMAS BABINGTON LORD MACAULAY
To quote one of his own favourite expressions, “every schoolboy knows” the outlines of Macaulay’s life and work. We have recited the Lays, probably read some of the History, possibly even heard of his eloquent and unmeasured attacks on those whose literary work incurred his displeasure. We know that his memory was phenomenal, if his statements were not always accurate. The biographers tell us further that no one could be more simple in private life, or more devoted to his own family: his nephews and nieces having no idea that their favourite “Uncle Tom” was a great man. Criticism, of course, is by no means so unanimous. Mr. Augustine Birrell has wittily remarked that his “style is ineffectual for the purpose of telling the truth about anything”; and James Thomson epitomised his political bias in a biting paragraph:–“Macaulay, historiographer in chief to the Whigs, and the great prophet of Whiggery which never had or will have a prophet, vehemently judged that a man who could pass over from the celestial Whigs to the infernal Tories must be a traitor false as Judas, an apostate black as the Devil.” Always a boy at heart, and singularly careless of his appearance, Macaulay was so phenomenally successful in every direction that envy may account for most personal criticism not inspired by recognised opponents. Those who called him a bore were most probably over-sensitive about their own inability to hold up against arguments, or opinions, they longed to combat.
He was a student at Lincoln’s Inn when the brilliant article on the translation of a newly-found treatise by Milton on _Christian Doctrine_ appeared in the _Edinburgh_ (1825), and inaugurated a new power in English prose. Macaulay himself declared that it was “overloaded with gaudy and ungraceful argument”; but it secured his literary reputation and determined much of his career. He became an influence on the _Edinburgh_, probably somewhat modifying its whole tone, and generally identified with its reputation. “The son of a Saint,” says Christopher North, “who seems himself to be something of a reviewer, is insidious as the serpent, but fangless, as the glow worm”; and the Tory press were, naturally, up in arms against the champion critic of their pet prodigies.
* * * * *
_Southey_ received, as we must now admit, more than his fair share of abuse from the Liberal press, for the comfortable conservatism of his maturity; and Macaulay did not love the Laureate. We note that _Blackwood’s_ defended him with spirit, and Wilson’s protracted, and furious, attack on Macaulay for this particular review may be found in the _Nodes Ambrosianae_, April, 1830.
_Croker_, in all probability, deserved much of the scorn here poured upon his editorial labour (though it _had_ merits which his critic deliberately ignores); Wilson, again _(Noctes Ambrosianae,_ November, 1831), examines, and professes to confute, almost every criticism in the review. Croker himself found a convenient occasion for revenge in his review of Macaulay’s History printed below.
The interesting recognition of _Gladstone_ awakes pleasanter sentiments; especially when we notice the return compliment (in the same _Quarterly_, but twenty-seven years later than Croker’s attack) of the statesman’s generous tribute. “Macaulay,” says Gladstone, “was singularly free of vices … one point only we reserve, a certain tinge of occasional vindictiveness. Was he envious? Never. Was he servile? No. Was he insolent? No…. Was he idle? The question is ridiculous. Was he false? No; but true as steel and transparent as crystal. Was he vain? We hold that he was not. At every point in the ugly list he stands the trial.”
* * * * *
This earlier notice of Wordsworth is certainly in exact sympathy with Jeffrey on the Excursion, and may very well have come from the same pen. At any rate, it introduces the Edinburgh attitude towards the Lakers.
The criticism of Maturin has all the tone of moral authority which provoked many readers of the Review, and was, probably, in part responsible for the less “measured” attitude adopted by the _Quarterly_.
LORD JEFFREY ON SOUTHEY’S “THALABA”
[From _The Edinburgh Review_, October, 1802]
_Thalaba, the Destroyer: A Metrical Romance_. By ROBERT SOUTHEY. 2 vols. 12 mo. London.
Poetry has this much, at least, in common with religion, that its standards were fixed long ago, by certain inspired writers, whose authority it is no longer lawful to call in question; and that many profess to be entirely devoted to it, who have no _good works_ to produce in support of their pretensions. The catholic poetical church, too, has worked but few miracles since the first ages of its establishment; and has been more prolific, for a long time, of Doctors, than of Saints: it has had its corruptions and reformation also, and has given birth to an infinite variety of heresies and errors, the followers of which have hated and persecuted each other as cordially as other bigots.
The author who is now before us, belongs to a _sect_ of poets, that has established itself in this country within these ten or twelve years, and is looked upon, we believe, as one of its chief champions and apostles. The peculiar doctrines of this sect, it would not, perhaps, be very easy to explain; but, that they are _dissenters_ from the established systems in poetry and criticism, is admitted, and proved indeed, by the whole tenor of their compositions. Though they lay claim, we believe, to a creed and a revelation of their own, there can be little doubt, that their doctrines are of _German_ origin, and have been derived from some of the great modern reformers in that country. Some of their leading principles, indeed, are probably of an earlier date, and seem to have been borrowed from the great apostle of Geneva. As Mr. Southey is the first author, of this persuasion, that has yet been brought before us for judgment, we cannot discharge our inquisitorial office conscientiously, without premising a few words upon the nature and tendency of the tenets he has helped to promulgate.
The disciples of this school boast much of its originality, and seem to value themselves very highly, for having broken loose from the bondage of ancient authority, and re-asserted the independence of genius. Originality, however, we are persuaded, is rarer than mere alteration; and a man may change a good master for a bad one, without finding himself at all nearer to independence. That our new poets have abandoned the old models, may certainly be admitted; but we have not been able to discover that they have yet created any models of their own; and are very much inclined to call in question the worthiness of those to which they have transferred their admiration. The productions of this school, we conceive, are so far from being entitled to the praise of originality, that they cannot be better characterised, than by an enumeration of the sources from which their materials have been derived. The greater part of them, we apprehend, will be found to be composed of the following elements: (1) The antisocial principles, and distempered sensibility of Rousseau–his discontent with the present constitution of society–his paradoxical morality, and his perpetual hankerings after some unattainable state of voluptuous virtue and perfection. (2) The simplicity and energy (_horresco referens_) of Kotzebue and Schiller. (3) The homeliness and harshness of some of Cowper’s language and versification, interchanged occasionally with the _innocence_ of Ambrose Philips, or the quaintness of Quarles and Dr. Donne. From the diligent study of these few originals, we have no doubt that an entire art of poetry may be collected, by the assistance of which, the very _gentlest_ of our readers may soon be qualified to compose a poem as correctly versified as Thalaba, and to deal out sentiment and description, with all the sweetness of Lamb, and all the magnificence of Coleridge.
The authors, of whom we are now speaking, have, among them, unquestionably, a very considerable portion of poetical talent, and have, consequently, been enabled to seduce many into an admiration of the false taste (as it appears to us) in which most of their productions are composed. They constitute, at present, the most formidable conspiracy that has lately been formed against sound judgment in matters poetical; and are entitled to a larger share of our censorial notice, than could be spared for an individual delinquent. We shall hope for the indulgence of our readers, therefore, in taking this opportunity to inquire a little more particularly into their merits, and to make a few remarks upon those peculiarities which seem to be regarded by their admirers as the surest proofs of their excellence.
Their most distinguishing symbol, is undoubtedly an affectation of great simplicity and familiarity of language. They disdain to make use of the common poetical phraseology, or to ennoble their diction by a selection of fine or dignified expressions. There would be too much _art_ in this, for that great love of nature with which they are all of them inspired; and their sentiments, they are determined shall be indebted, for their effect, to nothing but their intrinsic tenderness or elevation. There is something very noble and conscientious, we will confess, in this plan of composition; but the misfortune is, that there are passages in all poems, that can neither be pathetic nor sublime; and that, on these occasions, a neglect of the embellishments of language is very apt to produce absolute meanness and insipidity. The language of passion, indeed, can scarcely be deficient in elevation; and when an author is wanting in that particular, he may commonly be presumed to have failed in the truth, as well as in the dignity of his expression. The case, however, is extremely different with the subordinate parts of a composition; with the narrative and description, that are necessary to preserve its connection; and the explanation, that must frequently prepare us for the great scenes and splendid passages. In these, all the requisite ideas may be conveyed, with sufficient clearness, by the meanest and most negligent expressions; and if magnificence or beauty is ever to be observed in them, it must have been introduced from some other motive than that of adapting the style to the subject. It is in such passages, accordingly, that we are most frequently offended with low and inelegant expressions; and that the language, which was intended to be simple and natural, is found oftenest to degenerate into mere slovenliness and vulgarity. It is in vain, too, to expect that the meanness of those parts may be redeemed by the excellence of others. A poet, who aims at all at sublimity or pathos, is like an actor in a high tragic character, and must sustain his dignity throughout, or become altogether ridiculous. We are apt enough to laugh at the mock-majesty of those whom we know to be but common mortals in private; and cannot permit Hamlet to make use of a single provincial intonation, although it should only be in his conversation with the grave-diggers.
The followers of simplicity are, therefore, at all times in danger of occasional degradation; but the simplicity of this new school seems intended to ensure it. _Their_ simplicity does not consist, by any means, in the rejection of glaring or superfluous ornament–in the substitution of elegance to splendour, or in that refinement of art which seeks concealment in its own perfection. It consists, on the contrary, in a very great degree, in the positive and _bona fide_ rejection of art altogether, and in the bold use of those rude and negligent expressions, which would be banished by a little discrimination. One of their own authors, indeed, has very ingeniously set forth (in a kind of manifesto that preceded one of their most flagrant acts of hostility), that it was their capital object “to adapt to the uses of poetry, the ordinary language of conversation among the middling and lower orders of the people.” What advantages are to be gained by the success of this project, we confess ourselves unable to conjecture. The language of the higher and more cultivated orders may fairly be presumed to be better than that of their inferiors: at any rate, it has all those associations in its favour, by means of which, a style can ever appear beautiful or exalted, and is adapted to the purposes of poetry, by having been long consecrated to its use. The language of the vulgar, on the other hand, has all the opposite associations to contend with; and must seem unfit for poetry (if there were no other reason), merely because it has scarcely ever been employed in it. A great genius may indeed overcome these disadvantages; but we can scarcely conceive that he should court them. We may excuse a certain homeliness of language in the productions of a ploughman or a milkwoman; but we cannot bring ourselves to admire it in an author, who has had occasion to indite odes to his college bell, and inscribe hymns to the Penates.
But the mischief of this new system is not confined to the depravation of language only; it extends to the sentiments and emotions, and leads to the debasement of all those feelings which poetry is designed to communicate. It is absurd to suppose, that an author should make use of the language of the vulgar, to express the sentiments of the refined. His professed object, in employing that language, is to bring his compositions nearer to the true standard of nature; and his intention to copy the sentiments of the lower orders, is implied in his resolution to make use of their style. Now, the different classes of society have each of them a distinct character, as well as a separate idiom; and the names of the various passions to which they are subject respectively, have a signification that varies essentially according to the condition of the persons to whom they are applied. The love, or grief, or indignation of an enlightened and refined character, is not only expressed in a different language, but is in itself a different emotion from the love, or grief, or anger, of a clown, a tradesman, or a market-wench. The things themselves are radically and obviously distinct; and the representation of them is calculated to convey a very different train of sympathies and sensations to the mind. The question, therefore, comes simply to be–which of them is the most proper object for poetical imitation? It is needless for us to answer a question, which the practice of all the world has long ago decided irrevocably. The poor and vulgar may interest us, in poetry, by their _situation_; but never, we apprehend, by any sentiments that are peculiar to their condition, and still less by any language that is characteristic of it. The truth is, that it is impossible to copy their diction or their sentiments correctly, in a serious composition; and this, not merely because poverty makes men ridiculous, but because just taste and refined sentiment are rarely to be met with among the uncultivated part of mankind; and a language, fitted for their expression, can still more rarely form any part of their “ordinary conversation.”
The low-bred heroes, and interesting rustics of poetry, have no sort of affinity to the real vulgar of this world; they are imaginary beings, whose characters and language are in contrast with their situation; and please those who can be pleased with them, by the marvellous, and not by the nature of such a combination. In serious poetry, a man of the middling or lower order _must necessarily_ lay aside a great deal of his ordinary language; he must avoid errors in grammar and orthography; and steer clear of the cant of particular professions, and of every impropriety that is ludicrous or disgusting: nay, he must speak in good verse, and observe all the graces in prosody and collocation. After all this, it may not be very easy to say how we are to find him out to be a low man, or what marks can remain of the ordinary language of conversation in the inferior orders of society. If there be any phrases that are not used in good society, they will appear as blemishes in the composition, no less palpably, than errors in syntax or quality; and, if there be no such phrases, the style cannot be characteristic of that condition of life, the language of which it professes to have adopted. All approximation to that language, in the same manner, implies a deviation from that purity and precision, which no one, we believe, ever violated spontaneously.
It has been argued, indeed (for men will argue in support of what they do not venture to practise), that as the middling and lower orders of society constitute by far the greater part of mankind, so, their feelings and expressions should interest more extensively, and may be taken, more fairly than any other, for the standards of what is natural and true. To this it seems obvious to answer, that the arts that aim at exciting admiration and delight, do not take their models from what is ordinary, but from what is excellent; and that our interest in the representation of any event, does not depend upon our familiarity with the original, but on its intrinsic importance, and the celebrity of the parties it concerns. The sculptor employs his art in delineating the graces of Antinous or Apollo, and not in the representation of those ordinary forms that belong to the crowd of his admirers. When a chieftain perishes in battle, his followers mourn more for him, than for thousands of their equals that may have fallen around him.
After all, it must be admitted, that there is a class of persons (we are afraid they cannot be called _readers_), to whom the representation of vulgar manners, in vulgar language, will afford much entertainment. We are afraid, however, that the ingenious writers who supply the hawkers and ballad-singers, have very nearly monopolised that department, and are probably better qualified to hit the taste of their customers, than Mr. Southey, or any of his brethren, can yet pretend to be. To fit them for the higher task of original composition, it would not be amiss if they were to undertake a translation of Pope or Milton into the vulgar tongue, for the benefit of those children of nature.
There is another disagreeable effect of this affected simplicity, which, though of less importance than those which have been already noticed, it may yet be worth while to mention: This is, the extreme difficulty of supporting the same low tone of expression throughout, and the inequality that is consequently introduced into the texture of the composition. To an author of reading and education, it is a style that must always be assumed and unnatural, and one from which he will be perpetually tempted to deviate. He will rise, therefore, every now and then, above the level to which he has professedly degraded himself; and make amends for that transgression, by a fresh effort of descension. His composition, in short, will be like that of a person who is attempting to speak in an obsolete or provincial dialect; he will betray himself by expressions of occasional purity and elegance, and exert himself to efface that impression, by passages of unnatural meanness or absurdity.
In making these strictures on the perverted taste for simplicity, that seems to distinguish our modern school of poetry, we have no particular allusion to Mr. Southey, or the production now before us: On the contrary, he appears to us, to be less addicted to this fault than most of his fraternity; and if we were in want of examples to illustrate the preceding observations, we should certainly look for them in the effusions of that poet who commemorates, with so much effect, the chattering of Harry Gill’s teeth, tells the tale of the one-eyed huntsman “who had a cheek like a cherry,” and beautifully warns his studious friend of the risk he ran of “growing double.”
* * * * *
The _style_ of our modern poets, is that, no doubt, by which they are most easily distinguished: but their genius has also an internal character; and the peculiarities of their taste may be discovered, without the assistance of their diction. Next after great familiarity of language, there is nothing that appears to them so meritorious as perpetual exaggeration of thought. There must be nothing moderate, natural, or easy, about their sentiments. There must be a “qu’il mourut,” and a “let there be light,” in every line; and all their characters must be in agonies and ecstasies, from their entrance to their exit. To those who are acquainted with their productions, it is needless to speak of the fatigue that is produced by this unceasing summons to admiration, or of the compassion which is excited by the spectacle of these eternal strainings and distortions. Those authors appear to forget, that a whole poem cannot be made up of striking passages; and that the sensations produced by sublimity, are never so powerful and entire, as when they are allowed to subside and revive, in a slow and spontaneous succession. It is delightful, now and then, to meet with a rugged mountain, or a roaring stream; but where there is no funny slope, nor shaded plain, to relieve them–where all is beetling cliff and yawning abyss, and the landscape presents nothing on every side but prodigies and terrors–the head is apt to gow giddy, and the heart to languish for the repose and security of a less elevated region.
The effect even of genuine sublimity, therefore, is impaired by the injudicious frequency of its exhibition, and the omission of those intervals and breathing-places, at which the mind should be permitted to recover from its perturbation or astonishment: but, where it has been summoned upon a false alarm, and disturbed in the orderly course of its attention, by an impotent attempt at elevation, the consequences are still more disastrous. There is nothing so ridiculous (at least for a poet) as to fail in great attempts. If the reader foresaw the failure, he may receive some degree of mischievous satisfaction from its punctual occurrence; if he did not, he will be vexed and disappointed; and, in both cases, he will very speedily be disgusted and fatigued. It would be going too far, certainly, to maintain, that our modern poets have never succeeded in their persevering endeavours at elevation and emphasis; but it is a melancholy fact, that their successes bear but a small proportion to their miscarriages; and that the reader who has been promised an energetic sentiment, or sublime allusion, must often be contented with a very miserable substitute. Of the many contrivances they employ to give the appearance of uncommon force and animation to a very ordinary conception, the most usual is, to wrap it up in a veil of mysterious and unintelligible language, which flows past with so much solemnity, that it is difficult to believe it conveys nothing of any value. Another device for improving the effect of a cold idea, is, to embody it in a verse of unusual harshness and asperity. Compound words, too, of a portentous sound and conformation, are very useful in giving an air of energy and originality; and a few lines of scripture, written out into verse from the original prose, have been found to have a very happy effect upon those readers to whom they have the recommendation of novelty.
The qualities of style and imagery, however, form but a small part of the characteristics by which a literary faction is to be distinguished. The subject and object of their compositions, and the principles and opinions they are calculated to support, constitute a far more important criterion, and one to which it is usually altogether as easy to refer. Some poets are sufficiently described as the flatterers of greatness and power, and others as the champions of independence. One set of writers is known by its antipathy to decency and religion; another, by its methodistical cant and intolerance. Our new school of poetry has a moral character also; though it may not be possible, perhaps, to delineate it quite so concisely.
A splenetic and idle discontent with the existing institutions of society, seems to be at the bottom of all their serious and peculiar sentiments. Instead of contemplating the wonders and the pleasures which civilization has created for mankind, they are perpetually brooding over the disorders by which its progress has been attended. They are filled with horror and compassion at the sight of poor men spending their blood in the quarrels of princes, and brutifying their sublime capabilities in the drudgery of unremitting labour. For all sorts of vice and profligacy in the lower orders of society, they have the same virtuous horror, and the same tender compassion. While the existence of these offences overpowers them with grief and confusion, they never permit themselves to feel the smallest indignation or dislike towards the offenders. The present vicious constitution of society alone is responsible for all these enormities: the poor sinners are but the helpless victims or instruments of its disorders, and could not possibly have avoided the errors into which they have been betrayed. Though they can bear with crimes, therefore, they cannot reconcile themselves to punishments; and have an unconquerable antipathy to prisons, gibbets, and houses of correction, as engines of oppression, and instruments of atrocious injustice. While the plea of moral necessity is thus artfully brought forward to convert all the excesses of the poor into innocent misfortunes, no sort of indulgence is shown to the offences of the powerful and rich. Their oppressions, and seductions, and debaucheries, are the theme of many an angry verse; and the indignation and abhorrence of the reader is relentlessly conjured up against those perturbators of society, and scourges of mankind.
It is not easy to say, whether the fundamental absurdity of this doctrine, or the partiality of its application, be entitled to the severest reprehension. If men are driven to commit crimes, through a certain moral necessity; other men are compelled, by a similar necessity, to hate and despise them for their commission. The indignation of the sufferer is at least as natural as the guilt of him who makes him suffer; and the good order of society would probably be as well preserved, if our sympathies were sometimes called forth in behalf of the former. At all events, the same apology ought certainly to be admitted for the wealthy, as for the needy offender. They are subject alike to the overruling influence of necessity, and equally affected by the miserable condition of society. If it be natural for a poor man to murder and rob, in order to make himself comfortable, it is no less natural for a rich man to gormandise and domineer, in order to have the full use of his riches. Wealth is just as valid an excuse for the one class of vices, as indigence is for the other. There are many other peculiarities of false sentiment in the productions of this class of writers, that are sufficiently deserving of commemoration; but we have already exceeded our limits in giving these general indications of their character, and must now hasten back to the consideration of the singular performance which has given occasion to all this discussion.
The first thing that strikes the reader of Thalaba, is the singular structure of the versification, which is a jumble of all the measures that are known in English poetry (and a few more), without rhyme, and without any sort of regularity in their arrangement. Blank odes have been known in this country about as long as English sapphics and dactylics; and both have been considered, we believe, as a species of monsters, or exotics, that were not very likely to propagate, or thrive, in so unpropitious a climate. Mr. Southey, however, has made a vigorous effort for their naturalisation, and generously endangered his own reputation in their behalf. The melancholy fate of his English sapphics, we believe, is but too generally known; and we can scarcely predict a more favourable issue to the present experiment. Every combination of different measures is apt to perplex and disturb the reader who is not familiar with it; and we are never reconciled to a stanza of a new structure, till we have accustomed our ear to it by two or three repetitions. This is the case, even where we have the assistance of rhyme to direct us in our search after regularity, and where the definite form and appearance of a stanza assures us that regularity is to be found. Where both of these are wanting, it may be imagined that our condition will be still more deplorable; and a compassionate author might even excuse us, if we were unable to distinguish this kind of verse from prose. In reading verse, in general, we are guided to the discovery of its melody, by a sort of preconception of its cadence and compass; without which, it might often fail to be suggested by the mere articulation of the syllables. If there be any one, whose recollection does not furnish him with evidence of this fact, he may put it to the test of experiment, by desiring any of his illiterate acquaintances to read off some of Mr. Southey’s dactylics, or Sir Philip Sidney’s hexameters. It is the same thing with the more unusual measures of the ancient authors. We have never known any one who fell in, at the first trial, with the proper rhyme and cadence of the _pervigilium Veneris_, or the choral lyrics of the Greek dramatists. The difficulty, however, is virtually the same, as to every new combination; and it is an unsurmountable difficulty, where such new combinations are not repeated with any degree of uniformity, but are multiplied, through the whole composition, with an unbounded licence of variation. Such, however, is confessedly the case with the work before us; and it really seems unnecessary to make any other remark on its versification.
The author, however, entertains a different opinion of it. So far from apprehending that it may cost his readers some trouble to convince themselves that the greater part of the book is not mere prose, written out into the form of verse, he is persuaded that its melody is more obvious and perceptible than that of our vulgar measures. “One advantage,” says Mr. Southey, “this metre _assuredly_ possesses; the dullest reader cannot distort it into discord: he may read it with a _prose mouth_, but its flow and fall will still be perceptible.” We are afraid, there are duller readers in the world than Mr. Southey is aware of.
* * * * *
The subject of this poem is almost as ill chosen as the diction; and the conduct of the fable as disorderly as the versification. The corporation of magicians, that inhabit “the Domdaniel caverns, under the roots of the ocean,” had discovered, that a terrible _destroyer_ was likely to rise up against them from the seed of Hodeirah, a worthy Arab, with eight fine children. Immediately the murder of all those innocents is resolved on; and a sturdy assassin sent with instructions to destroy the whole family (as Mr. Southey has it) “root and branch.” The good man, accordingly, and seven of his children, are dispatched; but a cloud comes over the mother and the remaining child; and the poem opens with the picture of the widow and her orphan wandering, by night, over the desarts of Arabia. The old lady, indeed, might as well have fallen under the dagger of the Domdanielite; for she dies, without doing anything for her child, in the end of the first book; and little Thalaba is left crying in the wilderness. Here he is picked up by a good old Arab, who takes him home, and educates him like a pious mussulman; and he and the old man’s daughter fall in love with each other, according to the invariable custom in all such cases. The magicians, in the meantime, are hunting him over the face of the whole earth; and one of them gets near enough to draw his dagger to stab him, when a providential _simoom_ lays him dead on the sand. From the dead sorcerer’s finger, Thalaba takes a ring, inscribed with some unintelligible characters, which he is enabled to interpret by the help of some other unintelligible characters that he finds on the forehead of a locust; and soon after takes advantage of an eclipse of the sun, to set out on his expedition against his father’s murderers, whom he understands (we do not very well know how) he has been commissioned to exterminate. Though they are thus seeking him, and he seeking them, it is amazing what difficulty they find in meeting: they do meet, however, every now and then, and many sore evils does the Destroyer suffer at their hands. By faith and fortitude, however, and the occasional assistance of the magic implements he strips them of, he is enabled to baffle and elude their malice, till he is conducted, at last, to the Domdaniel cavern, where he finds them assembled, and pulls down the roof of it upon their heads and his own; perishing, like Samson, in the final destruction of his enemies.
From this little sketch of the story, our readers will easily perceive, that it consists altogether of the most wild and extravagant fictions, and openly sets nature and probability at defiance. In its action, it is not an imitation of anything; and excludes all rational criticism, as to the choice and succession of its incidents. Tales of this sort may amuse children, and interest, for a moment, by the prodigies they exhibit, and the multitude of events they bring together: but the interest expires with the novelty; and attention is frequently exhausted, even before curiosity has been gratified. The pleasure afforded by performances of this sort, is very much akin to that which may be derived from the exhibition of a harlequin farce; where, instead of just imitations of nature and human character, we are entertained with the transformation of cauliflowers and beer-barrels, the apparition of ghosts and devils, and all the other magic of the wooden sword. Those who can prefer this eternal sorcery, to the just and modest representation of human actions and passions, will probably take more delight in walking among the holly griffins, and yew sphinxes of the city gardener, than in ranging among the groves and lawns which have been laid out by a hand that feared to violate nature, as much as it aspired to embellish her; and disdained the easy art of startling by novelties, and surprising by impropriety.
Supernatural beings, though easily enough raised, are known to be very troublesome in the management, and have frequently occasioned much perplexity to poets and other persons who have been rash enough to call for their assistance. It is no very easy matter to preserve consistency in the disposal of powers, with the limits of which we are so far from being familiar; and when it is necessary to represent our spiritual persons as ignorant, or suffering, we are very apt to forget the knowledge and the powers with which we had formerly invested them. The ancient poets had several unlucky rencounters of this sort with Destiny and the other deities; and Milton himself is not a little hampered with the material and immaterial qualities of his angels. Enchanters and witches may, at first sight, appear more manageable; but Mr. Southey has had difficulty enough with them; and cannot be said, after all, to have kept his fable quite clear and intelligible. The stars had said, that the Destroyer might be cut off in that hour when his father and brethren were assassinated; yet he is saved by a special interposition of heaven. Heaven itself, however, had destined him to extirpate the votaries of Eblis; and yet, long before this work is done, a special message is sent to him, declaring, that, if he chooses, the death-angel is ready to take him away instead of the sorcerer’s daughter. In the beginning of the story, too, the magicians are quite at a loss where to look for him; and Abdaldar only discovers him by accident, after a long search; yet, no sooner does he leave the old Arab’s tent, than Lobaba comes up to him, disguised and prepared for his destruction. The witches have also a decoy ready for him in the desart; yet he sups with Okba’s daughter, without any of the sorcerers being aware of it; and afterwards proceeds to consult the simorg, without meeting with any obstacle or molestation. The simoom kills Abdaldar, too, in spite of that ring which afterwards protects Thalaba from lightning, and violence, and magic. The Destroyer’s arrow then falls blunted from Lobaba’s breast, who is knocked down, however, by a shower of sand of his own raising; and this same arrow, which could make no impression on the sorcerer, kills the magic bird of Aloadin, and pierces the rebellious _spirit_ that guarded the Domdaniel door. The whole infernal band, indeed, is very feebly and heavily pourtrayed. They are a set of stupid, undignified, miserable wretches, quarrelling with each other, and trembling in the prospect of inevitable destruction. None of them even appears to have obtained the price of their self-sacrifice in worldly honours and advancement, except Mohareb; and he, though assured by destiny that there was one death-blow appointed for him and Thalaba, is yet represented, in the concluding scene, as engaged with him in furious combat, and aiming many a deadly blow at that life on which his own was dependent. If the innocent characters in this poem were not delineated with more truth and feeling, the notoriety of the author would scarcely have induced us to bestow so much time on its examination.
Though the tissue of adventures through which Thalaba is conducted in the course of this production, be sufficiently various and extraordinary, we must not set down any part of the incidents to the credit of the author’s invention. He has taken great pains, indeed, to guard against such a supposition; and has been as scrupulously correct in the citation of his authorities, as if he were the compiler of a true history, and thought his reputation would be ruined by the imputation of a single fiction. There is not a prodigy, accordingly, or a description, for which he does not fairly produce his vouchers, and generally lays before his readers the whole original passage from which his imitation has been taken. In this way, it turns out, that the book is entirely composed of scraps, borrowed from the oriental tale books, and travels into the Mahometan countries, seasoned up for the English reader with some fragments of our own ballads, and shreds of our older sermons. The composition and harmony of the work, accordingly, is much like the pattern of that patch-work drapery that is sometimes to be met with in the mansions of the industrious, where a blue tree overshadows a shell-fish, and a gigantic butterfly seems ready to swallow up Palemon and Lavinia. The author has the merit merely of cutting out each of his figures from the piece where its inventor had placed it, and stitching them down together in these judicious combinations.
It is impossible to peruse this poem, with the notes, without feeling that it is the fruit of much reading, undertaken for the express purpose of fabricating some such performance. The author has set out with a resolution to make an oriental story, and a determination to find the materials of it in the books to which he had access. Every incident, therefore, and description–every superstitious usage, or singular tradition, that appeared to him susceptible of poetical embellishment, or capable of picturesque representation, he has set down for this purpose, and adopted such a fable and plan of composition, as might enable him to work up all his materials, and interweave every one of his quotations, without any _extraordinary_ violation of unity or order. When he had filled his common-place book, he began to write; and his poem is little else than his common-place book versified.
It may easily be imagined, that a poem constructed upon such a plan, must be full of cumbrous and misplaced description, and overloaded with a crowd of incidents equally unmeaning and ill assorted. The tedious account of the palace of Shedad, in the first book–the description of the Summer and Winter occupations of the Arabs, in the third–the ill-told story of Haruth and Maruth–the greater part of the occurrences in the island of Mohareb–the paradise of Aloadin, etc., etc.–are all instances of disproportioned and injudicious ornaments, which never could have presented themselves to an author who wrote from the suggestions of his own fancy; and have evidently been introduced, from the author’s unwillingness to relinquish the corresponding passages in D’Herbelot, Sale, Volney, etc., which appeared to him to have great capabilities for poetry.
This imitation, or admiration of Oriental imagery, however, does not bring so much suspicion on his taste, as the affection he betrays for some of his domestic models. The former has, for the most part, the recommendation of novelty; and there is always a certain pleasure in contemplating the _costume_ of a distant nation, and the luxuriant landscape of an Asiatic climate. We cannot find the same apology, however, for Mr. Southey’s partiality to the drawling vulgarity of some of our old English ditties.
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From the extracts and observations which we have hitherto presented to our readers, it will be natural for them to conclude, that our opinion of this poem is very decidedly unfavourable; and that we are not disposed to allow it any sort of merit. This, however, is by no means the case. We think it written, indeed, in a very vicious taste, and liable, upon the whole, to very formidable objections: But it would not be doing justice to the genius of the author, if we were not to add, that, it contains passages of very singular beauty and force, and displays a richness of poetical conception, that would do honour to more faultless compositions. There is little of human character in the poem, indeed; because Thalaba is a solitary wanderer from the solitary tent of his protector: But the home group, in which his infancy was spent, is pleasingly delineated; and there is something irresistibly interesting in the innocent love, and misfortunes, and fate of his Oneiza. The catastrophe of her story is given, it appears to us, with great spirit and effect, though the beauties are of that questionable kind, that trespass on the border of impropriety, and partake more of the character of dramatic, than of narrative poetry. After delivering her from the polluted paradise of Aloadin, he prevails on her to marry him before his mission is accomplished. She consents with great reluctance; and the marriage feast, with its processions, songs, and ceremonies, is described in some joyous stanzas. The book ends with these verses–
And now the marriage feast is spread, And from the finished banquet now
The wedding guests are gone.
* * * * *
Who comes from the bridal chamber? It is Azrael, the Angel of Death.
The next book opens with Thalaba lying distracted upon her grave, in the neighbourhood of which he had wandered, till “the sun, and the wind, and the rain, had rusted his raven locks”; and there he is found by the father of his bride, and visited by her ghost, and soothed and encouraged to proceed upon his holy enterprise. He sets out on his lonely way, and is entertained the first night by a venerable dervise: As they are sitting at meal, a _bridal procession_ passes by, with dance, and song, and merriment. The old dervise blessed them as they passed; but Thalaba looked on, “and breathed a low deep groan, and hid his face.” These incidents are skilfully imagined, and are narrated in a very impressive manner.
Though the _witchery_ scenes are in general but poorly executed, and possess little novelty to those who have read the Arabian Nights Entertainments, there is, occasionally, some fine description, and striking combination. We do not remember any poem, indeed, that presents, throughout, a greater number of lively images, or could afford so many subjects for the pencil.
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All the productions of this author, it appears to us, bear very distinctly the impression of an amiable mind, a cultivated fancy, and a perverted taste. His genius seems naturally to delight in the representation of domestic virtues and pleasures, and the brilliant delineation of external nature. In both these departments, he is frequently very successful; but he seems to want vigour for the loftier flights of poetry. He is often puerile, diffuse, and artificial, and seems to have but little acquaintance with those chaster and severer graces, by whom the epic muse would be most suitably attended. His faults are always aggravated, and often created, by his partiality for the peculiar manner of that new school of poetry, of which he is a faithful disciple, and to the glory of which he has sacrificed greater talents and acquisitions, than can be boasted of by any of his associates.
ON SOUTHEY’S LAUREATE LAYS
[From _The Edinburgh Review_, June, 1816]
_The Lay of the Laureate. Carmen Nuptiale_. By ROBERT SOUTHEY, Esq., Poet Laureate, &c., &c. 12mo. pp. 78. London, 1816.
A poet laureate, we take it, is naturally a ridiculous person: and has scarcely any safe course to follow, in times like the present, but to bear his faculties with exceeding meekness, and to keep as much as possible in the shade. A stipendiary officer of the Royal household, bound to produce two lyrical compositions ever year, in praise of his Majesty’s person and government, is undoubtedly an object which it is difficult to contemplate with gravity; and which can only have been retained in existence, from that love of antique pomp and establishment which has embellished our Court with so many gold-sticks and white rods, and such trains of beef-eaters and grooms of the stole–though it has submitted to the suppression of the more sprightly appendages of a king’s fool, or a court jester. That the household poet should have survived the other wits of the establishment, can only be explained by the circumstance of his office being more easily converted into one of mere pomp and ceremony, and coming thus to afford an antient and well-sounding name for a moderate sinecure. For more than a century, accordingly, it has existed on this footing; and its duties, like those of the other personages to whom we have just alluded, have been discharged with a decorous gravity and unobtrusive quietness, which has provoked no derision, merely because it has attracted no notice.
The present possessor, however, appears to have other notions on the subject; and has very distinctly manifested his resolution not to rest satisfied with the salary, sherry, and safe obscurity of his predecessors, but to claim a real power and prerogative in the world of letters, in virtue of his title and appointment. Now, in this, we conceive, with all due humility, that there is a little mistake of fact, and a little error of judgment. The laurel which the King gives, we are credibly informed, has nothing at all in common with that which is bestowed by the Muses; and the Prince Regent’s warrant is absolutely of no authority in the court of Apollo. If this be the case, however, it follows, that a poet laureate has no sort of precedency among poets,– whatever may be his place among pages and clerks of the kitchen;–and that he has no more pretensions as an author, than if his appointment had been to the mastership of the stag-hounds. When he takes state upon him with the public, therefore, in consequence of his office, he really is guilty of as ludicrous a blunder as the worthy American _Consul_, in one of the Hanse towns, who painted the Roman _fasces_ on the pannel of his buggy, and insisted upon calling his foot-boy and clerk his _lictors_. Except when he is in his official duty, therefore, the King’s house-poet would do well to keep the nature of his office out of sight; and, when he is compelled to appear in it in public, should try to get through with the business as quickly and quietly as possible. The brawny drayman who enacts the Champion of England in the Lord Mayor’s show, is in some danger of being sneered at by the spectators, even when he paces along with the timidity and sobriety that becomes his condition; but if he were to take it into his head to make serious boast of his prowess, and to call upon the city bards to celebrate his heroic acts, the very apprentices could not restrain their laughter,–and “the humorous man” would have but small chance of finishing his part in peace.
Mr. Southey could not be ignorant of all this; and yet it appears that he could not have known it all. He must have been conscious, we think, of the ridicule attached to his office, and might have known that there were only two ways of counteracting it,–either by sinking the office altogether in his public appearances, or by writing such very good verses in the discharge of it, as might defy ridicule, and render neglect impossible. Instead of this, however, he has allowed himself to write rather worse than any Laureate before him, and has betaken himself to the luckless and vulgar expedient of endeavouring to face out the thing by an air of prodigious confidence and assumption:–and has had the usual fortune of such undertakers, by becoming only more conspicuously ridiculous. The badness of his official productions indeed is something really wonderful,–though not more so than the amazing self-complacency and self-praise with which they are given to the world. With the finest themes in the world for that sort of writing, they are the dullest, tamest, and most tedious things ever poor critic was condemned, or other people vainly invited, to read. They are a great deal more wearisome, and rather more unmeaning and unnatural, than the effusions of his predecessors, Messrs. Pye and Whitehead; and are moreover disfigured with the most abominable egotism, conceit and dogmatism, than we ever met with in any thing intended for the public eye. They are filled, indeed, with praises of the author himself, and his works, and his laurel, and his dispositions; notices of his various virtues and studies; puffs of the productions he is preparing for the press, and anticipations of the fame which he is to reap by their means, from a less ungrateful age; and all this delivered with such an oracular seriousness and assurance, that it is easy to see the worthy Laureate thinks himself entitled to share in the prerogatives of that royalty which he is bound to extol, and has resolved to make it
–his great example as it is his theme.
For, as sovereign Princes are permitted, in their manifestoes and proclamations, to speak of their own gracious pleasure and royal wisdom, without imputation of arrogance, so, our Laureate has persuaded himself that he may address the subject world in the same lofty strains, and that they will listen with as dutiful an awe to the authoritative exposition of his own genius and glory. What might have been the success of the experiment, if the execution had been as masterly as the design is bold, we shall not trouble ourselves to conjecture; but the contrast between the greatness of the praise and the badness of the poetry in which it is conveyed, and to which it is partly applied, is abundantly decisive of its result in the present instance, as well as in all the others in which the ingenious author has adopted the same style. We took some notice of the _Carmen Triumphale_, which stood at the head of the series. But of the Odes which afterwards followed to the Prince Regent, and the Sovereigns and Generals who came to visit him, we had the charity to say nothing; and were willing indeed to hope, that the lamentable failure of that attempt might admonish the author, at least as effectually as any intimations of ours. Here, however, we have him again, with a _Lay of the Laureate_, and a _Carmen Nuptiale_, if possible still more boastful and more dull than any of his other celebrations. It is necessary, therefore, to bring the case once more before the Public, for the sake both of correction and example; and as the work is not likely to find many readers, and is of a tenor which would not be readily believed upon any general representation, we must now beg leave to give a faithful analysis of its different parts, with a few specimens of the taste and manner of its execution.
Its object is to commemorate the late auspicious marriage of the presumptive Heiress of the English crown with the young Prince of Saxe-Cobourg; and consists of a Proem, a Dream, and an Epilogue–with a L’envoy, and various annotations. The Proem, as was most fitting, is entirely devoted to the praise of the Laureate himself; and contains an account, which cannot fail to be very interesting, both to his Royal auditors and to the world at large, of his early studies and attainments–the excellence of his genius–the nobleness of his views– and the happiness that has been the result of these precious gifts. Then there is mention made of his pleasure in being appointed Poet Laureate, and of the rage and envy which that event excited in all the habitations of the malignant. This is naturally followed up by a full account of all his official productions, and some modest doubts whether his genius is not too heroic and pathetic for the composition of an _Epithalamium,_– which doubts, however, are speedily and pleasingly resolved by the recollection, that as Spenser made a hymn on his own marriage, so, there can be nothing improper in Mr. Southey doing as much on that of the Princess Charlotte. This is the general argument of the Proem. But the reader must know a little more of the details. In his early youth, the ingenious author says he aspired to the fame of a poet; and then Fancy came to him, and showed him the glories of his future career, addressing him in these encouraging words–
Thou whom rich Nature at thy happy birth Blest in her bounty with the largest dower That Heaven indulges to a child of earth!
Being fully persuaded of the truth of her statements, we have then the satisfaction of learning that he has lived a very happy life; and that, though time has made his hair a little grey, it has only matured his understanding; and that he is still as habitually cheerful as when he was a boy. He then proceeds to inform us, that he sometimes does a little in poetry still; but that, of late years, he spends most of his time in writing histories–from which he has no doubt that he will one day or another acquire great reputation.
Thus in the ages which are past I live, And those which are to come my sure reward will give….
We come next, of course, to the Dream; and nothing more stupid or heavy, we will venture to say, ever arose out of sleep, or tended to sleep again. The unhappy Laureate, it seems, just saw, upon shutting his eyes, what he might have seen as well if he had been able to keep them open–a great crowd of people and coaches in the street, with marriage favours in their bosoms; church bells ringing merrily, and _feux-de-joie_ firing in all directions. Eftsoons, says the dreaming poet, I came to a great door, where there were guards placed to keep off the mob; but when they saw my Laurel crown, they made way for me, and let me in!–
But I had entrance through that guarded door, In honour to the Laureate crown I wore.
When he gets in, he finds himself in a large hall, decorated with trophies, and pictures, and statues, commemorating the triumphs of British valour, from Aboukir to Waterloo. The room, moreover, was filled with a great number of ladies and gentlemen very finely dressed; and in two chairs, near the top, were seated the Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold. Hitherto, certainly, all is sufficiently plain and probable;– nor can the Muse who dictated this to the slumbering Laureate be accused of any very extravagant or profuse invention. We come, now, however, to allegory and learning in abundance. In the first place, we are told, with infinite regard to the probability as well as the novelty of the fiction, that in this drawing-room there were two great lions couching at the feet of the Royal Pair;–the Prince’s being very lean and in poor condition, with the hair rubbed off his neck as if from a heavy collar– and the Princess’s in full vigour, with a bushy mane, and littered with torn French flags. Then there were two heavenly figures stationed on each side of the throne, one called Honour, and the other Faith;–so very like each other, that it was impossible not to suppose them brother and sister. It turns out, however, that they were only second cousins; or so at least we interpret the following precious piece of theogony.
Akin they were,–yet not as thus it seemed, For he of VALOUR was the eldest son,
From Arete in happy union sprung.
But her to Phronis Eusebeia bore,
She whom her mother Dice sent to earth; What marvel then if thus their features wore Resemblant lineaments of kindred birth? Dice being child of Him who rules above, VALOUR his earth-born son; so both derived from Jove. p. 29.
This, we think, is delicious; but there is still more goodly stuff toward. The two heavenly cousins stand still without doing any thing; but then there is a sound of sweet music, and a whole “heavenly company” appear, led on by a majestic female, whom we discover, by the emblems on our halfpence, to be no less a person than Britannia, who advances and addresses a long discourse of flattery and admonition to the Royal bride; which, for the most part, is as dull and commonplace as might be expected from the occasion; though there are some passages in which the author has reconciled his gratitude to his Patron, and his monitory duty to his Daughter, with singular spirit and delicacy. After enjoining to her the observance of all public duties, and the cultivation of all domestic virtues, Britannia is made to sum up the whole sermon in this emphatic precept–
Look to thy Sire, and in his steady way –learn thou to tread.
Now, considering that Mr. Southey was at all events incapable of sacrificing truth to Court favour, it cannot but be regarded as a rare felicity in his subject, that he could thus select a pattern of private purity and public honour in the person of the actual Sovereign, without incurring the least suspicion either of base adulation or lax morality….
It is impossible to feel any serious or general contempt for a person of Mr. Southey’s genius;–and, in reviewing his other works, we hope we have shown a proper sense of his many merits and accomplishments. But his Laureate odes are utterly and intolerably bad; and, if he had never written any thing else, must have ranked him below Colley Cibber in genius, and above him in conceit and presumption. We have no toleration for this sort of perversity, or prostitution of great gifts; and do not think it necessary to qualify the expression of opinions which we have formed with as much positiveness as deliberation.–We earnestly wish he would resign his livery laurel to Lord Thurlow, and write no more odes on Court galas. We can assure him too, most sincerely, that this wish is not dictated in any degree by envy, or any other hostile or selfish feeling. We are ourselves, it is but too well known, altogether without pretensions to that high office–and really see no great charms either in the salary or the connexion–and, for the glory of writing such verses as we have now been reviewing, we do not believe that there is a scribbler in the kingdom so vile as to think it a thing to be coveted.
ON THOMAS MOORE
[From _The Edinburgh Review_, July, 1806]
_Epistles, Odes, and other Poems_. By THOMAS MOORE, Esq. 4to. pp. 350. London, 1806.
A singular sweetness and melody of versification,–smooth, copious, and familiar diction,–with some brilliancy of fancy, and some show of classical erudition, might have raised Mr. Moore to an innocent distinction among the song-writers and occasional poets of his day: But he is indebted, we fear, for the celebrity he actually enjoys to accomplishments of a different description; and may boast, if the boast can please him, of being the most licentious of modern versifiers, and the most poetical of those who, in our times, have devoted their talents to the propagation of immorality. We regard his book, indeed, as a public nuisance; and would willingly trample it down by one short movement of contempt and indignation, had we not reason to apprehend, that it was abetted by patrons who are entitled to a more respectful remonstrance, and by admirers who may require a more extended exposition of their dangers.
There is nothing, it will be allowed, more indefensible than a cold-blooded attempt to corrupt the purity of an innocent heart; and we can scarcely conceive any being more truly despicable, than he who, without the apology of unruly passion or tumultuous desires, sits down to ransack the impure places of his memory for inflammatory images and expressions, and commits them laboriously to writing, for the purpose of insinuating pollution into the minds of unknown and unsuspecting readers.
This is almost a new crime among us. While France has to blush for so many tomes of “Poesies Erotiques,” we have little to answer for, but the coarse indecencies of Rochester and Dryden; and these, though sufficiently offensive to delicacy and good taste, can scarcely be regarded as dangerous. There is an antidote to the poison they contain, in the open and undisguised profligacy with which it is presented. If they are wicked, they have the honesty at least to profess wickedness. The mark of the beast is set visibly on their foreheads; and though they have the boldness to recommend vice, they want the effrontery to make her pass for virtue. In their grossest immoralities, too, they scarcely ever seem to be perfectly in earnest; and appear neither to wish nor to hope to make proselytes. They indulge their own vein of gross riot and debauchery; but they do not seek to corrupt the principles of their readers; and are contented to be reprobated as profligate, if they are admired at the same time for wit and originality.
The immorality of Mr. Moore is infinitely more insidious and malignant. It seems to be his aim to impose corruption upon his readers, by concealing it under the mask of refinement; to reconcile them imperceptibly to the most vile and vulgar sensuality, by blending its language with that of exalted feeling and tender emotion; and to steal impurity into their hearts, by gently perverting the most simple and generous of their affections. In the execution of this unworthy task, he labours with a perseverance at once ludicrous and detestable. He may be seen in every page running round the paltry circle of his seductions with incredible zeal and anxiety, and stimulating his jaded fancy for new images of impurity, with as much melancholy industry as ever outcast of the muses hunted for epithets or metre.
It is needless, we hope, to go deep into the inquiry, why certain compositions have been reprobated as licentious, and their authors ranked among the worst enemies of morality. The criterion by which their delinquency may be determined, is fortunately very obvious: no scene can be tolerated in description, which could not be contemplated in reality, without a gross violation of propriety: no expression can be pardoned in poetry to which delicacy could not listen in the prose of real life.
No writer can transgress those limits, and be held guiltless; but there are degrees of guiltiness, and circumstances of aggravation or apology, which ought not to be disregarded. A poet of a luxuriant imagination may give too warm a colouring to the representation of innocent endearments, or be betrayed into indelicacies in delineating the allurements of some fair seducer, while it is obviously his general intention to give attraction to the picture of virtue, and to put the reader on his guard against the assault of temptation. Mr. Moore has no such apology;–he takes care to intimate to us, in every page that the raptures which he celebrates do not spring from the excesses of an innocent love, or the extravagance of a romantic attachment; but are the unhallowed fruits of cheap and vulgar prostitution, the inspiration of casual amours, and the chorus of habitual debauchery. He is at pains to let the world know that he is still fonder of roving, than of loving; and that all the Caras and the Fannys, with whom he holds dalliance in these pages, have had each a long series of preceding lovers, as highly favoured as their present poetical paramour: that they meet without any purpose of constancy, and do not think it necessary to grace their connexion with any professions of esteem or permanent attachment. The greater part of the book is filled with serious and elaborate description of the ecstasies of such an intercourse, and with passionate exhortations to snatch the joys, which are thus abundantly poured forth from “the fertile fount of sense.”
To us, indeed, the perpetual kissing, and twining, and panting of these amorous persons, is rather ludicrous than seductive; and their eternal sobbing and whining, raises no emotion in our bosoms, but those of disgust and contempt. Even to younger men, we believe, the book will not be very dangerous: nor is it upon their account that we feel the indignation and alarm which we have already endeavoured to express. The life and conversation of our sex, we are afraid is seldom so pure as to leave them much to learn from publications of this description; and they commonly know enough of the reality, to be aware of the absurd illusions and exaggerations of such poetical voluptuaries. In them, therefore, such a composition can work neither corruption nor deception; and it will, in general, be despised and thrown aside, as a tissue of sickly and fantastical conceits, equally remote from truth and respectability. It is upon the other sex, that we conceive its effects may be most pernicious; and it is chiefly as an insult upon their delicacy, and an attack upon their purity, that we are disposed to resent its publication.
The reserve in which women are educated; the natural vivacity of their imaginations; and the warmth of their sensibility, renders them peculiarly liable to be captivated by the appearance of violent emotions, and to be misled by the affectation of tenderness or generosity. They easily receive any impression that is made under the apparent sanction of these feelings; and allow themselves to be seduced into any thing, which they can be persuaded is dictated by disinterested attachment, and sincere and excessive love. It is easy to perceive how dangerous it must be for such beings to hang over the pages of a book, in which supernatural raptures, and transcendent passion, are counterfeited in every page; in which, images of voluptuousness are artfully blended with expressions of refined sentiment, and delicate emotion; and the grossest sensuality is exhibited in conjunction with the most gentle and generous affections. They who have not learned from experience, the impossibility of such an union, are apt to be captivated by its alluring exterior. They are seduced by their own ignorance and sensibility; and become familiar with the demon, for the sake of the radiant angel to whom he has been linked by the malignant artifice of the poet.
We have been induced to enter this strong protest, and to express ourselves thus warmly against this and the former publications of this author, both from what we hear of the circulation which they have already obtained, and from our conviction that they are calculated, if not strongly denounced to the public, to produce, at this moment, peculiar and irremediable mischief. The style of composition, as we have already hinted, is almost new in this country: it is less offensive than the old fashion of obscenity; and for these reasons, perhaps, is less likely to excite the suspicion of the moralist, or to become the object of precaution to those who watch over the morals of the young and inexperienced. We certainly have known it a permitted study, where performances, infinitely less pernicious, were rigidly interdicted.
There can be no time in which the purity of the female character can fail to be of the first importance to every community; but it appears to us, that it requires at this moment to be more carefully watched over than at any other; and that the constitution of society has arrived among us to a sort of crisis, the issue of which may be powerfully influenced by our present neglect or solicitude. From the increasing diffusion of opulence, enlightened or polite society is greatly enlarged, and necessarily becomes more promiscuous and corruptible; and women are now beginning to receive a more extended education, to venture more freely and largely into the fields of literature, and to become more of intellectual and independent creatures, than they have yet been in these islands. In these circumstances, it seems to be of incalculable importance, that no attaint should be given to the delicacy and purity of their expanding minds; that their increasing knowledge should be of good chiefly, and not of evil; that they should not consider modesty as one of the prejudices from which they are now to be emancipated; nor found any part of their new influence upon the licentiousness of which Mr. Moore invites them to be partakers. The character and the morality of women exercises already a mighty influence upon the happiness and the respectability of the nation; and it is destined, we believe, to exercise a still higher one: But if they should ever cease to be the pure, the delicate, and timid creatures that they now are–if they should cease to overawe profligacy, and to win and to shame men into decency, fidelity, and love of unsullied virtue–it is easy to see that this influence, which has hitherto been exerted to strengthen and refine our society, will operate entirely to its corruption and debasement; that domestic happiness and private honour will be extinguished, and public spirit and national industry most probably annihilated along with them.
There is one other consideration which has helped to excite our apprehension on occasion of this particular performance. Many of the pieces are dedicated to persons of the first consideration in the country, both for rank and accomplishments; and the author appears to consider the greater part of them as his intimate friends, and undoubted patrons and admirers. Now, this we will confess is to us a very alarming consideration. By these channels, the book will easily pass into circulation in those classes of society, which it is of most consequence to keep free of contamination; and from which its reputation and its influence will descend with the greatest effect to the great body of the community. In this reading and opulent country, there are no fashions which diffuse themselves so fast, as those of literature and immorality: there is no palpable boundary between the _noblesse_ and the _bourgeoisie_, as in old France, by which the corruption and intelligence of the former can be prevented from spreading to the latter. All the parts of the mass, act and react upon each other with a powerful and unintermitted agency; and if the head be once infected, the corruption will spread irresistibly through the whole body. It is doubly necessary, therefore, to put the law in force against this delinquent, since he has not only indicated a disposition to do mischief, but seems unfortunately to have found an opportunity.
ON WORDSWORTH’S “THE
[From _The Edinburgh Review_, November, 1814]
_The Excursion, being a portion of the Recluse, a Poem_. By WILLIAM WORDSWORTH. 4to. pp. 447. London, 1814.
This will never do. It bears no doubt the stamp of the author’s heart and fancy; but unfortunately not half so visibly as that of his peculiar system. His former poems were intended to recommend that system, and to bespeak favour for it by their individual merit;–but this, we suspect, must be recommended by the system–and can only expect to succeed where it has been previously established. It is longer, weaker, and tamer, than any of Mr. Wordsworth’s other productions; with less boldness of originality, and less even of that extreme simplicity and lowliness of tone which wavered so prettily, in the Lyrical Ballads, between silliness and pathos. We have imitations of Cowper, and even of Milton here, engrafted on the natural drawl of the Lakers–and all diluted into harmony by that profuse and irrepressible wordiness which deluges all the blank verse of this school of poetry, and lubricates and weakens the whole structure of their style.
Though it fairly fills four hundred and twenty good quarto pages, without note, vignette, or any sort of extraneous assistance, it is stated in the title–with something of an imprudent candour–to be but “a portion” of a larger work; and in the preface, where an attempt is rather unsuccessfully made to explain the whole design, it is still more rashly disclosed, that it is but “a part of the second part of a _long_ and laborious work”–which is to consist of three parts.
What Mr. Wordsworth’s ideas of length are, we have no means of accurately judging; but we cannot help suspecting that they are liberal, to a degree that will alarm the weakness of most modern readers. As far as we can gather from the preface, the entire poem–or one of them, for we really are not sure whether there is to be one or two–is of a biographical nature; and is to contain the history of the author’s mind, and of the origin and progress of his poetical powers, up to the period when they were sufficiently matured to qualify him for the great work on which he has been so long employed. Now, the quarto before us contains an account of one of his youthful rambles in the vales of Cumberland, and occupies precisely the period of three days; so that, by the use of a very powerful _calculus_, some estimate may be formed of the probable extent of the entire biography.
This small specimen, however, and the statements with which it is prefaced, have been sufficient to set our minds at rest in one particular. The case of Mr. Wordsworth, we perceive, is now manifestly hopeless; and we give him up as altogether incurable, and beyond the power of criticism. We cannot indeed altogether omit taking precautions now and then against the spreading of the malady;–but for himself, though we shall watch the progress of his symptoms as a matter of professional curiosity and instruction, we really think it right not to harass him any longer with nauseous remedies,–but rather to throw in cordials and lenitives, and wait in patience for the natural termination of the disorder. In order to justify this desertion of our patient, however, it is proper to state why we despair of the success of a more active practice.
A man who has been for twenty years at work on such matter as is now before us, and who comes complacently forward with a whole quarto of it after all the admonitions he has received, cannot reasonably be expected to “change his hand, or check his pride,” upon the suggestion of far weightier monitors than we can pretend to be. Inveterate habit must now have given a kind of sanctity to the errors of early taste; and the very powers of which we lament the perversion, have probably become incapable of any other application. The very quantity, too, that he has written, and is at this moment working up for publication upon the old pattern, makes it almost hopeless to look for any change of it. All this is so much capital already sunk in the concern; which must be sacrificed if it be abandoned: and no man likes to give up for lost the time and talent and labour which he has embodied in any permanent production. We were not previously aware of these obstacles to Mr. Wordsworth’s conversion; and, considering the peculiarities of his former writings merely as the result of certain wanton and capricious experiments on public taste and indulgence, conceived it to be our duty to discourage their repetition by all the means in our power. We now see clearly, however, how the case stands;–and, making up our minds, though with the most sincere pain and reluctance, to consider him as finally lost to the good cause of poetry, shall endeavour to be thankful for the occasional gleams of tenderness and beauty which the natural force of his imagination and affections must still shed over all his productions,–and to which we shall ever turn with delight, in spite of the affectation and mysticism and prolixity, with which they are so abundantly contrasted.
Long habits of seclusion, and an excessive ambition of originality, can alone account for the disproportion which seems to exist between this author’s taste and his genius; or for the devotion with which he has sacrificed so many precious gifts at the shrine of those paltry idols which he has set up for himself among his lakes and his mountains. Solitary musings, amidst such scenes, might no doubt be expected to nurse up the mind to the majesty of poetical conception,–(though it is remarkable, that all the greater poets lived or had lived, in the full current of society):–But the collision of equal minds,–the admonition of prevailing impressions–seems necessary to reduce its redundancies, and repress that tendency to extravagance or puerility, into which the self-indulgence and self-admiration of genius is so apt to be betrayed, when it is allowed to wanton, without awe or restraint, in the triumph and delight of its own intoxication. That its flights should be graceful and glorious in the eyes of men, it seems almost to be necessary that they should be made in the consciousness that men’s eyes are to behold them,–and that the inward transport and vigour by which they are inspired, should be tempered by an occasional reference to what will be thought of them by those-ultimate dispensers of glory. An habitual and general knowledge of the few settled and permanent maxims, which form the canon of general taste in all large and polished societies–a certain tact, which informs us at once that many things, which we still love and are moved by in secret, must necessarily be despised as childish, or derided as absurd, in all such societies–though it will not stand in the place of genius, seems necessary to the success of its exertions; and though it will never enable any one to produce the higher beauties of art, can alone secure the talent which does produce them, from errors that must render it useless. Those who have most of the talent, however, commonly acquire this knowledge with the greatest facility;–and if Mr. Wordsworth, instead of confining himself almost entirely to the society of the dalesmen and cottagers, and little children, who form the subjects of his book, had condescended to mingle a little more with the people that were to read and judge of it, we cannot help thinking, that its texture would have been considerably improved: At least it appears to us to be absolutely impossible, that any one who had lived or mixed familiarly with men of literature and ordinary judgment in poetry (of course we exclude the coadjutors and disciples of his own school), could ever have fallen into such gross faults, or so long mistaken them for beauties. His first essays we looked upon in a good degree as poetical paradoxes,–maintained experimentally, in order to display talent, and court notoriety;–and so maintained, with no more serious belief in their truth, than is usually generated by an ingenious and animated defence of other paradoxes. But when we find, that he has been for twenty years exclusively employed upon articles of this very fabric, and that he has still enough of raw material on hand to keep him so employed for twenty years to come, we cannot refuse him the justice of believing that he is a sincere convert to his own system, and must ascribe the peculiarities of his composition, not to any transient affectation, or accidental caprice of imagination, but to a settled perversity of taste or understanding, which has been fostered, if not altogether created, by the circumstances to which we have already alluded.
The volume before us, if we were to describe it very shortly, we should characterize as a tissue of moral and devotional ravings, in which innumerable changes are rung upon a few very simple and familiar ideas: –but with such an accompaniment of long words, long sentences, and unwieldy phrases–such a hubbub of strained raptures and fantastical sublimities, that it is often extremely difficult for the most skilful and attentive student to obtain a glimpse of the author’s meaning–and altogether impossible for an ordinary reader to conjecture what he is about. Moral and religious enthusiasm, though undoubtedly poetical emotions, are at the same time but dangerous inspirers of poetry; nothing being so apt to run into interminable dulness or mellifluous extravagance, without giving the unfortunate author the slightest intimation of his danger. His laudable zeal for the efficacy of his preachments, he very naturally mistakes for the ardour of poetical inspiration;–and, while dealing out the high words and glowing phrases which are so readily supplied by themes of this description, can scarcely avoid believing that he is eminently original and impressive:– All sorts of commonplace notions and expressions are sanctified in his eyes, by the sublime ends for which they are employed; and the mystical verbiage of the methodist pulpit is repeated, till the speaker entertains no doubt that he is the elected organ of divine truth and persuasion. But if such be the common hazards of seeking inspiration from those potent fountains, it may easily be conceived what chance Mr. Wordsworth had of escaping their enchantment,–with his natural propensities to wordiness, and his unlucky habit of debasing pathos with vulgarity. The fact accordingly is, that in this production he is more obscure than a Pindaric poet of the seventeenth century; and more verbose “than even himself of yore”; while the wilfulness with which he persists in choosing his examples of intellectual dignity and tenderness exclusively from the lowest ranks of society, will be sufficiently apparent, from the circumstance of his having thought fit to make his chief prolocutor in this poetical dialogue, and chief advocate of Providence and Virtue, _an old Scotch Pedlar_–retired indeed from business–but still rambling about in his former haunts, and gossiping among his old customers, without his pack on his shoulders. The other persons of the drama are, a retired military chaplain, who has grown half an atheist and half a misanthrope–the wife of an unprosperous weaver–a servant girl with her infant–a parish pauper, and one or two other personages of equal rank and dignity.
The character of the work is decidedly didactic; and more than nine-tenths of it are occupied with a species of dialogue, or rather a series of long sermons or harangues which pass between the pedlar, the author, the old chaplain, and a worthy vicar, who entertains the whole party at dinner on the last day of their excursion. The incidents which occur in the course of it are as few and trifling as can be imagined;–and those which the different speakers narrate in the course of their discourses, are introduced rather to illustrate their arguments or opinions, than for any interest they are supposed to possess of their own.–The doctrine which the work is intended to enforce, we are by no means certain that we have discovered. In so far as we can collect, however, it seems to be neither more nor less than the old familiar one, that a firm belief in the providence of a wise and beneficent Being must be our great stay and support under all afflictions and perplexities upon earth–and that there are indications of his power and goodness in all the aspects of the visible universe, whether living or inanimate–every part of which should therefore be regarded with love and reverence, as exponents of those great attributes. We can testify, at least, that these salutary and important truths are inculcated at far greater length, and with more repetitions, than in any ten volumes of sermons that we ever perused. It is also maintained, with equal conciseness and originality, that there is frequently much good sense, as well as much enjoyment, in the humbler conditions of life; and that, in spite of great vices and abuses, there is a reasonable allowance both of happiness and goodness in society at large. If there be any deeper or more recondite doctrines in Mr. Wordsworth’s book, we must confess that they have escaped us;–and, convinced as we are of the truth and soundness of those to which we have alluded, we cannot help thinking that they might have been better enforced with less parade and prolixity. His effusions on what may be called the physiognomy of external nature, or its moral and theological expression, are eminently fantastic, obscure, and affected.–It is quite time, however, that we should give the reader a more particular account of this singular performance.
It opens with a picture of the author toiling across a bare common in a hot summer day, and reaching at last a ruined hut surrounded with tall trees, where he meets by appointment with a hale old man, with an iron-pointed staff lying beside him. Then follows a retrospective account of their first acquaintance–formed, it seems, when the author was at a village school; and his aged friend occupied “one room,–the fifth part of a house” in the neighbourhood. After this, we have the history of this reverend person at no small length. He was born, we are happy to find, in Scotland–among the hills of Athol; and his mother, after his father’s death, married the parish schoolmaster–so that he was taught his letters betimes: But then, as it is here set forth with much solemnity,
From his sixth year, the boy, of whom I speak, In summer, tended cattle on the hills.
And again, a few pages after, that there may be no risk of mistake as to a point of such essential importance–
From early childhood, even, as hath been said, From his _sixth year_, he had been sent abroad, _In summer_, to tend herds: Such was his task!
In the course of this occupation, it is next recorded, that he acquired such a taste for rural scenery and open air, that when he was sent to teach a school in a neighbouring village, he found it “a misery to him,” and determined to embrace the more romantic occupation of a Pedlar–or, as Mr. Wordsworth more musically expresses it,
A vagrant merchant bent beneath his load;
–and in the course of his peregrinations had acquired a very large acquaintance, which, after he had given up dealing, he frequently took a summer ramble to visit. The author, on coming up to this interesting personage, finds him sitting with his eyes half shut;–and, not being quite sure whether he’s asleep or awake, stands “some minutes space” in silence beside him. “At length,” says he, with his own delightful simplicity–
At length I hailed him–_seeing that his hat Was moist_ with water-drops, as if the brim Had newly scooped a running stream!–
–“‘Tis,” said I, “a burning day;
My lips are parched with thirst;–but you, I guess, Have somewhere found relief.”
Upon this, the benevolent old man points him out a well in a corner, to which the author repairs; and, after minutely describing its situation, beyond a broken wall, and between two alders that “grew in a cold damp nook,” he thus faithfully chronicles the process of his return–
My thirst I slaked–and from the cheerless spot Withdrawing, straightway to the shade returned, Where sate the old man on the cottage bench.
The Pedlar then gives an account of the last inhabitants of the deserted cottage beside them. These were, a good industrious weaver and his wife and children. They were very happy for a while; till sickness and want of work came upon them; and then the father enlisted as a soldier, and the wife pined in the lonely cottage–growing every year more careless and desponding, as her anxiety and fears for her absent husband, of whom no tidings ever reached her, accumulated. Her children died, and left her cheerless and alone; and at last she died also; and the cottage fell to decay. We must say, that there is very considerable pathos in the telling of this simple story; and that they who can get over the repugnance excited by the triteness of its incidents, and the lowness of its objects, will not fail to be struck with the author’s knowledge of the human heart, and the power he possesses of stirring up its deepest and gentlest sympathies. His prolixity, indeed, it is not so easy to get over. This little story fills about twenty-five quarto pages; and abounds, of course, with mawkish sentiment, and details of preposterous minuteness. When the tale is told, the travellers take their staffs, and end their first day’s journey, without further adventure, at a little inn.
The Second book sets them forward betimes in the morning. They pass by a Village Wake; and as they approach a more solitary part of the mountains, the old man tells the author that he is taking him to see an old friend of his, who had formerly been chaplain to a Highland regiment–had lost a beloved wife–been roused from his dejection by the first euthusiasm [Transcriber’s note: sic] of the French Revolution–had emigrated on its miscarriage to America–and returned disgusted to hide himself in the retreat to which they were now ascending. That retreat is then most tediously described–a smooth green valley in the heart of the mountain, without trees, and with only one dwelling. Just as they get sight of it from the ridge above, they see a funeral train proceeding from the solitary abode, and hurry on with some apprehension for the fate of the misanthrope–whom they find, however, in very tolerable condition at the door, and learn that the funeral was that of an aged pauper who had been boarded out by the parish in that cheap farm-house,