1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Lisle Bowles

George Gilfillan, Memoir in Bowles, Poetical Works (1855) 2:v-xviii.



The poetry of each age way be considered as vitally connected with, and as vividly reflective of, its character and progress, as either its politics or its religion. You see the nature of the soil of a garden in its tulips and roses, as much as in its pot-herbs and its towering trees. We purpose, accordingly, to compare briefly the poetry of the past and of the present centuries, as indices of some of the points of contrast between the two, and to show also how, and through what causes, the one grew into the other. This will be a fitting introduction to a consideration of the life and writings of the first of the poets of this century included in our series, the more as he was in a measure the father of modern poetry.

It is impossible to take up a volume of the poetry of the eighteenth century, such as, for instance, Churchill's, or Pope's, or Johnson's, and to compare it with some of the leading poetical works of the present, such as the poems of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron, and not to feel as if you were reading the productions of two different races of beings — so different are the style, the sentiments, the modes of thought, the imagery, the temperament, and the spirit of the poets and the poetry. It is like stepping, we will not say from the frigid, but from the temperate into the torrid zone. In the one class of authors you find the prevalence of strong sense, flanked by wit and by fancy, but without much that can be called imaginative or romantic. In the other, imagination or fancy is the regnant faculty; and if wit and sense are there too, they are there as slaves, the "Slaves of the lamp," to the imperious imaginative power. The style of the one is clear, masculine, sententious, and measured; that of the other is bold, unmeasured, diffuse, fervid, and sometimes obscure. The one style may be compared to a clear crescent; the other to a full, but partially eclipsed, moon. The sentiment of the one is chiefly the sublimation of passion: bitter contempt, noble indignation, a proud, stem patriotism, sometimes united with a sombre, but manly melancholy, are the principal feelings expressed; that of the other, although occasionally morbid, is far more varied, more profound, purer, on the whole, and more poetical. The thought of the one is acute and logical; that of the other aspires to the deep, if not to the mystical and the transcendental. The subjects of the poets of the eighteenth century are generally of a dignified cast (except in the case of satirical productions), such as The Temple of Fame, The Pleasures of Imagination, The Traveller, London, and The Vanity of Human Wishes. The subjects of the other class are as varied as their mode of treatment is often daringly peculiar. The leech-gatherer on his lonely moor, the pedlar on his humble rounds, the tinker linked by a "fellow-feeling" to the animal he beats and starves, a mad mariner, a divorced wife, a wandering roue — such characters as these have called forth the utmost stretch of the powers of our best modern poets. The images of the former race of poets are limited to what are called classical subjects — including in this term the ancient mythologies, the incidents in Grecian and Roman story, the more beautiful objects of nature, and the more popular productions of art. Those of modern poets acknowledge no boundary — from the firmament to the fungus, from Niagara to the nearest puddle, from the cold scalp of Mont Blanc to the snowball of the schoolboy — all things are free and open, to the step of their genius, which, like the moonbeam, touches and beautifies every object on which it rests. The temperament of the two races is as distinct as their sentiment and style; that of the one seeming somewhat curbed, if not cold, while that of the other is ardent always, and often enthusiastic and rapturous. Different also their spirit; the one being confined and sectarian, alike in politics, in literature, and in religion; the other, in some of their number, being liberal to latitudinarianism, and genial to a vice.

We are not at present seeking to settle the precedence of these two schools of poetry. We love and honour much in both, and think the criticism small and captious which can be blind to the peculiar merits of either — to the terseness, condensation, force of single lines, vigour of logical thought, and general correctness of the one; or to the boldness, brilliant diffusion, breadth, and variety of mood and music, of subject and of treatment, which distinguish the other. It is more specially our object at present to show how each sprang naturally and inevitably out of the different ages when they appeared.

Poetry is an age in flower; and the poetry of the nineteenth century has been a more gorgeous and more tropical flower, because warmer suns have shone on it, warmer winds blown on it, and larger rains watered its roots. Indeed, it is almost a wonder that the first half, at least, and the middle of the eighteenth century, produced so much and such good poetry. That age was, on the whole, a stagnant and uninteresting one.

There was nothing very deeply to rouse the passions and imaginations of men. There was, indeed, the usual amount of political squabbles; but when a Bolingbroke was the most eloquent and admired of parliamentary orators, what moral grandeur could be expected? There was a Jacobite faction, perpetually undermining and sometimes breaking out into open rebellion; but their enthusiasm, save in Scotland, was mingled with no poetical elements, although there certainly it produced many exquisite strains of ballad poetry. Twice or thrice the popular passions broke forth, and reared up an idol for themselves in the shape of a private man, exalted for the nonce into a hero; but it is significant to remember that the two principal of these idols were "calves" — Sacheverel, namely, and Jack Wilkes. The wars in that age were almost entirely destitute of imaginative interest; those of Marlborough, such as Blenheim and Ramilies, were just large games of chess, played on a blood-red board — who now ever thinks or talks about the battles of Fontenoy or Minden? — some tolerable sea-fights, indeed, there were; on the heights of Abraham a brave man expired in the arms of victory, and a glory still lingers on the field of Prestonpans and on the bloody plains of Culloden; but there was no Trafalgar, no Waterloo, and no Inkermann. The manners of the age were not only dissolute, but grossly and brutally so. In England, there was no Burns to cast a gleam of poetry even on the orgies of dissipation; all was as coarse as it was corrupt; it was a drunken dance of naked satyrs: and disgust at this state of things, we believe, principally made Burke, contrasting the Continent with England, to utter the paradox, that vice, by losing all its grossness, lost half its evil. Foreigners were then, as they are still, more depraved in morals and filthier in personal habits than we; but they had, and have, a grace, a politeness, a reticence, and an case, which gilded, if they did not lessen, the abominations. The religion of the country was reduced to a very low point of depression; the churches were filled with drowsy divines, drowsily reading what they never wrote, to yet drowsier congregations; many of the upper classes, and of the literary men, were avowed infidels; till the rise of Methodism, religious enthusiasm in any class did not exist — even in Scotland the load of patronage had nearly extinguished the old fires of Covenanting zeal — the state of the lower classes was deplorable, so far, at least, as mental culture and morality were concerned; cock-fighting, grinning through collars, bull-baiting, and hard drinking, were their main amusements; the hallowing and spiritualising influences of the Sabbath-day were scarcely known; and the upper ranks had no feeling that they were in some measure responsible for the ignorance and the vice of the lower, and were bound to circulate education and religion amidst their masses; indeed, how could they be expected, since they themselves had little education and less religion to circulate? In science, philosophy, and general literature, there prevailed a partial syncope and pause. Newton was dead, and had left no successor; Locke was dead, and had left no successor. The wits of Queen Anne's reign, Swift, Pope, Arbuthnot, Steele, and Addison, were dropping off one by one, and for a season none arose adequate to supply their place. It had altogether become an age of mediocrity; neither an age of stern conflict, like that of the Puritans, nor even a fiercely lawless and riotous age, like that of Charles the Second, nor a transition age, like that of the Revolution, but an age of a negative and slumbrous character; its only positive qualities were a generally diffused laxity of principle and corruption of practice; but its vices, as well as its virtues, were small; it had not virtue to be greatly good, nor daring to be greatly wicked.

All this told on its poetry; and our wonder, we repeat, is, that it did not tell more. That it did not, was probably owing to the continued prevalence of the power of classical literature. That, increased by the influence of the universities and the great schools, and by the translations made of its masterpieces by Dryden and Pope, contributed to produce and maintain purity of taste, in the midst of general depravation of manners, and to touch many opening minds with the chaste and manly inspiration of a long past age. Hence the poetry of the first half of the eighteenth century, while inferior in force and richness to that of the end of the seventeenth, is superior in good taste, and is much freer from impurities. To this the imitation of French models, too, contributed. Still we see the traces of the period very distinctly marked in its works of art and in its poetry. The paintings of Hogarth, next to the infinite richness of the painter's invention, and the accuracy of his observation and touch, testify to the corruption of these times. They are everlasting libels — as true, however, as they are libellous — on the age of the first two Georges; and we are astonished how such an age produced such a genius, is well as grieved to see how such a genius had no better materials to work on than were furnished by such an age. It is much the same with the novels of Smollett and Fielding, and with parts of the poetry of Churchill, Lloyd, and others. The formal wars of that day, too, were certain to produce formal poetry, and Blenheim was fitly celebrated in Addison's Campaign. The sceptical philosophy then prevalent was faithfully mirrored in Pope's Essay on Man, which, exquisite as a work of art, is, in thought, a system of naturalism set to music; and, while its art is the poet's own, its doctrine comes from the "fell genius " of St. John (Bolingbroke). Up to Thomson's fine Ode on the Death of Sir Isaac Newton, and the Night Thoughts, the great discoveries of astronomy obtained no poetical recognition. Religious poetry, properly speaking, there was none; for the hymns of Watts, although full of piety, can scarcely be called poems; and the most popular poetry of the time was either founded on the Latin, or written in imitation of Pope. Johnson's London, and Vanity of Human Wishes are instances of the former; and of the latter, specimens too numerous to mention abounded.

Thus it continued till about the middle of the century, when there began to appear symptoms of a change. First of all; a "fine fat fellow" from Scotland, who had derived inspiration from the breezes of the Tweed and the Jed, wrote that noble strain, The Seasons, with its daguerreotypic painting of nature, and its generous, healthy enthusiasm, and The Castle of Indolence, with its exquisite sketches of character and scenery, and its rich reproduction of an antique style of poetry. Thomson's voice did not, indeed, produce a revolution in taste, but it obtained an audience for a species of writing entirely different from what then prevailed. Young, next, in a bolder spirit, having broken the trammels of Pope, which had confined him, soared up through Night and all its worlds, and brought down genuine inspiration on his adventurous wing. Dr. Johnson, although considerably hampered in his verse by undue admiration of the mechanical poets, allowed himself greater liberty in his prose, which glowed with a deep, if somewhat turbid life, and rolled on in a strong and solemn current, which often seemed that of high imagination. Collins, smitten with a true "gadfly," born as one out of due time, and, alas! "blasted with the celestial fire," he brought, anticipated, in part, some of the miraculous effects of more modern poetry. Gray, Mason, and Beattie, three men of unequal name, all wrote in a different style from Addison, Swift, and Pope, and two of them displayed genuine, if not very powerful, genius. Then came Percy, with his Reliques of Ancient Poetry, which showed what wonders our rude forefathers had wrought by the force of simple nature; and to the same end contributed Ossian's Poems, which, whatever their defects, awakened and startled the literary world, here, in France, and in Germany, by a panoramic view of that "land of mountain and of flood," which was yet to attract so many visitors, and to inspire so many bards. The impulse lent to our prose style by Johnson was followed up by Junius and by Burke, both of whom shot into the discussions of politics and of passing events much of the spirit and the power of poetry. Burke especially, even before the French Revolution effectually roused the world, had given specimens of fervid prose, combining with matter of fact and the most compact wisdom, the graces, the spirit, the imagery, and the language of the highest imagination. Cowper, too, had come, setting religion to rhythm; and, although "veiling all the lightnings of his song in sorrow," yet circulating the power of his genius, even more extensively than the contagion of his grief. Burns, in Scotland, had exhibited his vein of ardent native genius. And lastly, the French Revolution lifted up its volcano voice, and said to the world of literature and song, as well as to the world at large, "Sleep no more."

From this date the character of poetry was changed, and began to assume that antagonistic attitude to the school of Dryden and Pope which we described in our commencing remarks, and which yet continues. Britain got engaged in a Titanic warfare, an earthshaking contest — a war of opinion, not of treaties — of peoples, not of kings; and instead of "Campaigns," our poets indited Odes to France, to the Departing Year, hymns to Carnage, God's Daughter, and Visions of Don Roderick. Our religion became more intense and earnest, and this produced, on the one hand, the fine religious verses of a Montgomery, the poetical prose of a Foster and a Hall, and the rapt effusions of a Coleridge and Wordsworth; and, on the other hand, told even on our scepticism, which became more impassioned too, and wielded against religion a bar of burning iron, like Queen Mab, instead of a piece of polished wood, like the Essay on Man. Our morality improved, in outward decorum, at least, and the last remains of the indecency of former times were swept away — to re-appear, indeed, afterwards partially in Don Juan. Poetry, too, after coquetting for a little, not very gracefully, with Science in Darwin's Botanic Garden, and Temple of Nature, aspired to the hand of Philosophy; and the Lake poets and others not merely found a poetic worship in nature, but set to song many of the wondrous speculations of modern psychology. A taste for ancient, simple poetic writers spread widely, and produced Scott's brilliant imitations of ballad poetry, and Wordsworth's early lyrical strains. Popular principles began to prevail, and knowledge to circulate among the lower classes; and they learned not only to read poems with relish, but their it "poor dumb mouths" ever and anon were opened to utter a stern and vigorous poetry of their own. Along with these and other beneficial changes, there were, indeed, much extravagance and exaggeration introduced. With the formality and stiffness, much of the point, pith, and correctness of the old school was lost — a good deal of false enthusiasm and pretence, mingled with the real inspiration; jackdaws and mocking-birds, as well as doves and eagles, abounded. But, on the whole, we question if any age of the world has equalled the early part of the nineteenth century, in the quantity, or in the quality, in the power, depth, brilliance, or variety of its poetry.

WILLIAM LISLE BOWLES — whom we have ventured to call the father of modern poetry, since not only was he first in the field, but since his sonnets inspired the more powerful muse of Coleridge — was descended from an ancient and respectable family in Wiltshire. His grandfather and father were both clergymen in the Church of England. The poet was born in King's Sutton, and baptized there oil the 25th of September 1762. In the year 1776 he was placed on the Wykeham foundation at Winchester. His master was Dr. Joseph Warton, who, seeing genius disguised under the veil of his pupil's boyish timidity, encouraged him in his efforts, was warmly loved by Bowles in return, and transmitted to him his very moderate estimate of the poetry and character of Pope. Bowles has testified his gratitude to his teacher in his very pleasing Monody on the Death of Dr. Warton. During the last year he passed at Winchester, Bowles was captain of the school. In the year 1781, he was elected a scholar of Trinity College, Oxford, having selected this college, because the brother of his old master, Thomas Warton, was residing there. In 1783, he gained the Chancellor's prize for Latin verse — Calpe Obessa; or, The Siege of Gibraltar, being the subject of the poem. At college he got no fellowship, nor did he procure his degree till 1792. At an early age, he is said to have been unsuccessful in his suit to a Miss Romilly, a niece of Sir Samuel Romilly; and this rejection it was which first stung him into rhyme and rambling; for, in order to deaden his feelings, he traversed the north of England, Scotland, and parts of the Continent. His first production consisted of fourteen sonnets, published in 1789, and was followed the same year by Verses to John Howard. In 1790, he reprinted these and various other pieces written in the interval, and in 1798 they were reproduced with illustrations. They became so popular, that by the year 1805 they had reached a ninth edition.

Almost every year from 1798 till the end of his life, Mr. Bowles was adding to his works new poems of various merit. In 1798, appeared his Coombe Ellen, and St. Michael's Mount; in 1799, The Battle of the Nile; in 1801, The Sorrows of Switzerland; in 1803, The Picture; in 1805, the Spirit of Discovery; in 1806, Bowden Hill; in 1815, The Missionary of the Andes; in 1822, The Grave of the Last Saxon; in 1823, Ellen Gray; in 1828, Days Departed; in 1833, St. John in Patmos; and in 1837, a volume entitled Scenes and Shadows of Days Departed, a Narrative; besides The Village Verse-book, a very popular selection of simple poetry.

The events of this gentleman's private and professional life were of no particular interest. Having entered holy orders, he resided for many years as curate in Donhead St. Andrew, in Wilts, where he remained till 1804, when he was appointed vicar of Bremhill — a situation which he continued to fill till the end of his long life. In 1792, he was presented to the vicarage of Checklade, in Wiltshire, which he resigned, after an incumbency of five years, on receiving another presentation to the rectory of Dumbleton, Gloucestershire. This living he retained till his death, although he never resided at either Dumbleton or Checklade. In 1804, through Archbishop Moore, he was made vicar of Bremhill, and, the same year, prebend of Stratford in the cathedral church of Salisbury. In 1828, he was elected canon-residentiary. He had, in 1818, been appointed chaplain to the Prince Regent, He resided constantly at Bremhill for twenty-five years. After he was elected canon, however, he abode partly, and in the latter years of his life principally, in the town of Salisbury. In 1797, he married Magdalene, daughter of the Rev. Charles Wake, D.D., prebendary of Westminster, and grand-daughter of Archbishop Wake. She died some years before her husband, and left no family. Bowles himself expired at Salisbury, after a gradual decay of the vital powers, April 7, 1850, aged eighty-eight years. His life is about to be written at large by his kinsman, Dr. J. Bowles, assisted by Mr. Alaric Watts, to whom the publisher is indebted for the means of supplying a complete copyright edition of the poet's works.

Bowles was a diligent pastor, an eloquent preacher, an active justice, and in every way an estimable man. Even Byron, who met him at Mr. Rogers', in London, speaks of him as a "pleasant, gentlemanly man — a good fellow for a parson." Moore, in his Diary, speaks with delight of his mixture of talent and simplicity. In his introduction to Scenes and Shadows, Bowles gives some interesting particulars of his early life. In Blackwood, for August 1828, there is a very entertaining account of Bremhill Parsonage.

As an author, he appears in three aspects — as a writer on typography [sic], as an editor and controversialist, and as a poet. In 1828, he produced a volume entitled The Parochial History of Bremhill, and shortly afterwards, his History of Lacock Abbey, containing much interesting antiquarian lore. To this succeeded a still more ingenious and recondite work, entitled Hermes Britannicus, besides some less important writings of a similar kind. His "Life of Bishop Ken," which appeared in 1830 and 1831, might be considered as belonging to the same category of learned antiquarian lucubrations.

In 1807, he published an edition of Pope, in ten volumes, for which he received 300. The life prefixed to this edition led to the celebrated controversy between Bowles, on the one hand, and Campbell, Byron, Roscoe, Octavius Gilchrist, and the Quarterly Review, on the other. In our life of Pope, we hope to devote a few pages to the principal questions which were mooted in this controversy. We may simply say, at present, that we think Bowles was, in the main, right, although he laid himself open to retort at many points, and displayed an animus against Pope, both as a man and a Poet, which he in vain sought to disclaim, and which somewhat detracted from the value of his criticisms. He gained, however, the three objects at which he aimed: — he proved that Pope was only at the head of the second rank of poets — that, as a man, he was guilty of many meannesses, and had a prurient imagination and pen — and that the objects of artificial life are, per se, less fitted for the purposes of poetry than those of nature, and than the passions of the human heart. In this controversy, as well as in some after-skirmishes, — in his letters to Lord Brougham, On the Position and Incomes of the Cathedral Clergy, — in a letter to Sir James Mackintosh, on the Increase of Crime, — and in a sharp fight with the Rev. Edward Duke, F.S.A., on the Antiquities of Wiltshire — Bowles displayed amazing PLUCK, and no small controversial acuteness and dexterity. Like another Ajax, he took enemy after enemy on his single shield, and by his pertinacity and perseverance, he succeeded in beating them all. He stood at first alone, and had very formidable opponents. But he bated not one jot of heart or hope; and, by and by, Southey, Blackwood's Magazine, and others, came to his aid, and, finally, William Hazlitt saw, with his inevitable eye, the real merits of the case, and (substantially inclining to the Bowles side) settled, by a paper in the London Magazine, the question for ever. As a controversialist, Bowles is rather noisy, flippant, and fierce; and his reply to Byron, while superior to the noble bard's letter in argument, is far inferior in easy and trenchant vigour of style. His writings on the Pope controversy consist of A Letter to Thomas Campbell, Two Letters to Lord Byron, A Final Appeal to the Public relative to Pope, and (more last words!), Lessons in Criticism to William Roscoe, and Farther Lessons to a Quarterly Reviewer. All are exceedingly readable and clever.

It is curious contrasting the spirit of Bowles' prose — his severity — his pugnacity — his irritability, with the mild qualities of his poetry. The leading element in all his poetical works is sentiment, — warm, mellow, tender, and often melancholy sentiment. He has no profound thought — no powerful pictures of passion — no creative imagination — but over all his poetry lies a sweet autumnal moonlight of pensive and gentle feeling. In his larger poems, he is often diffuse and verbose, and you see more effort than energy. But in his smaller, and especially in his sonnets, and his pieces descriptive of nature, Bowles is always true to his own heart, and therefore always successful. How delightful such sonnets as his Morning Bells, Absence, Bereavement, and his poems entitled, Monody at Matlock, Coombe-Ellen, On Hearing the "Messiah," etc.! We trust that many, after reading these and the others (some of which were never before published) contained in our volumes, will be ready to express the gratitude of their hearts through the medium of the following beautiful sonnet:

SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE TO WILLIAM LISLE BOWLES.
My heart has thanked thee, Bowles! for those soft strains,
Whose sadness soothes me like the murmuring
Of wild bees in the sunny showers of spring!
For hence, not callous to the mourner's pains,
Through youth's gay prime and thornless paths I went:
And when the mightier throes of mind began,
And drove me forth a thought-bewildered man,
Their mild and manliest melancholy lent
A mingled charm, such as the pang consigned
To slumber, though the big tear it renewed;
Bidding a strange mysterious pleasure brood
Over the wavy and tumultuous. mind,
As the Great Spirit erst with plastic sweep
Moved on the darkness of the unformed deep.

His larger poems are perhaps more distinguished by the ambition of their themes than by the success of their treatment. His particular theory about the superiority of the works of nature as poetical subjects perhaps led him to a too uniform selection of its grander features, while undoubtedly his genius fitted him better for depicting its softer and smaller objects. He excels far more in interpreting the language of the bells, now of Ostend, and now of Oxford — in describing the dingles of Coombe Ellen — in echoing the fall of the river Avon, heard in his sick-chamber at Bath — or in catching on his mind-mirror the Distant View of England from the Sea — than in coping with the dark recesses of the American forest, following the daring Gama round his Cape of Storms, standing with Noah on the brow of the tremendous mountain Caff, the hill of demons and griffins, and seeing the globe at his feet, or in walking beside the Seer of all time, in that "isle which is called Patmos," "Placed far amid the melancholy main." He is more at home in the beautiful than in the sublime — More a Warton than a Milton — and may be rather likened to a bee murmuring her dim music in the bells of flowers, than to an eagle dallying with the tempest, and binding distant oceans and chains of mountains together by the living link of his swift and strong pinion. Yet his Spirit of Discovery contains some bold fancy. Take this, for instance:

Andes, sweeping the horizon's tract,
Mightiest of mountains! whose eternal snows
Feel not the nearer sun; whose umbrage chills
The murmuring ocean; whose volcanic fires
A thousand nations view, hung, like the moon,
High in the middle waste of heaven.

The Missionary (of which Byron writes in some playful verses to Murray, "I've read the Missionary, | Pretty! Very!") contains much vivid description and interesting narrative; and St. John in Patmos, if scarcely up to the mark of the transcendent theme, has a good deal of picturesque and striking poetry. Perhaps the most interesting of all his minor poems is that entitled Childe Harold's Last Pilgrimage, quoted, we remember, in Moore's Life of Byron. As proceeding from one whom the angry and unhappy Childe had often insulted in public and laughed at in private, it was as graceful in spirit as it is elegant in composition. "Revenge," it has been said, "is a feast for the gods;" and the saying is true if meant of that species of revenge which gains its end by forgiveness. An act so noble and generous as the writing of this, is calculated to set the memory of Bowles still higher than all his poetry.