1925 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Russell

Eric Partridge, Introduction to Poems of Cuthbert Shaw and Thomas Russell (1925) 10-12, 28-29.



Russell, though never reprinted separately, has been fairly well treated by the intellectual public. Southey once called him "the best English sonnet-writer;" Bishop Mant, in so many words, said that there were no better sonnets in the English language than Russell's; in 1806 Landor, in the foreword to Simonidea, described the Philoctetes sonnet as "a poem ... which would authorise him to join the shades of Sophocles and Euripides," praise shared by Wordsworth, who later transferred four lines from Russell into his own sonnet Iona (upon landing). Southey in the Vision of Judgment set Russell (along with BampfyIde, Chatterton, and several others) among the "Youths whom the Muses marked for themselves at birth, and with dews of Castala sprinkled." His work was known to Coleridge.

Capel Lofft included To Valclusa in Laura: an Anthology of Sonnets in 1814; one of his sonnets may well have suggested an exquisite passage in Byron's "O snatch'd away in beauty's bloom;" in 1827, concerning the last quarter of the eighteenth century, a critic belonging to a weighty review remarked: "There are many writers of that age from whose poems a sweet anthology might be culled, but from the remains of Russell ... not a line can be spared;" Alexander Dyce inserted four pieces in Specimens of English Sonnets (1833) and spoke very highly of the Lemnos, or Philoctetes sonnet; in the Memoir of H. F. Cary, published in 1847, we find on Russell a long passage that won from The Gentleman's Magazine the recognition that Cary's estimate was "altogether a very just tribute of well deserved praise." He seems then to have been forgotten for some years, until in the eighteen-eighties D. M. Main was the first of four sonnet-anthologists to put several of his pieces in their publications. Main thought that Russell's "decline and fall" during those thirty or so years resulted naturally from the exaggerated praise of Southey, Landor, and Wordsworth. That may be true; certainly no one since then has praised him quite so highly. Courthope did not mention him, the Cambridge History referred to him only bibliographically, Mr. Seccombe and Sir Edmund Gosse were eminently fair and, without exaggeration, complimentary, the former stating that Russell "gave promise of an exquisite talent," the latter considering him superior to Bowles and declaring that the Lemnos is "doubtless the finest English sonnet of the century." A contemporary delver in eighteenth-century fields, Mr. Iolo Williams, gives in Shorter Poems of the XVIIIth Century (1923) three of Russell's poems, none of Shaw's; but Mr. Squire's allusion to Shaw in the introduction that he wrote for Mr. Williams' Byways round Helicon (1922) set the present editor on the tracks of that unjustly neglected poet....

If Shaw died comparatively, Thomas Russell died positively, young, for, born in 1762, he passed away, aged just twenty-six, in 1788. His poems were published the following year by W. Howley, who, too modest to give his name, had been at Winchester and Oxford an admiring junior of Russell, and many years later became Archbishop of Canterbury.

The dates of Russell's career are definite and easily verifiable, his inner life remains a matter of conjecture. He was baptized at Beaminster on the 12th of October,1762, and at an early age he entered Winchester, as a worthy member of that group of pupils which, encouraged by Joseph Warton, the headmaster, earned for their Alma Mater the names "Cage of Singing Birds" and "School of Poets." There he gained two gold medals, one in 1778 for Latin verse, the second in 1779 for Latin essay; and, though he won no prizes, he had a distinguished career at Oxford, which he entered in 1780, to take his B.A. in 1784 and to become a Fellow of New College. He was ordained a deacon in 1785 and a priest the following year; according to one biographer, he was presented the rectory of West Clandon, in Surrey, less than two months before his death on the 31st of July, 1788. He died from consumption at the Hotwells, Bristol, as Howley tells us, and Bowles, referring to this resort, sings:

Hither he came, a wan and weary guest,
A softening balm for many a wound to crave;
And woo'd the sunshine to his aching breast,
Which now seems smiling on his verdant grave,

words implying another cause for his death; a cause referred to in the lines:

Some musing youth in silence there may bend,
Untimely stricken by sharp Sorrow's dart;
For friendship formed, yet left without a friend,
And bearing still the arrow at his heart,

and "such was lamented Russell's early doom." Bowles was not alone in ascribing the poet's death either wholly or in part to a broken heart; Robert Landor states this cause, which was treated in much greater detail by one of Russell's University friends. This friend, who thought highly of the author of the Sonnets, wrote thus explicitly: "Can we be surprised if a young ambitious mind, like that of Russell, was deluded from the rugged paths of study, by the fascination of elegant society and the golden dream of a wealthy patron? If in some instances he courted too assiduously the company of particular circles, it ought to be observed that one so able to communicate as well as receive was always welcome, and that few men came into company better able to please or to instruct; but . . . Russell, with all his talents, endearing qualities, and correctness of taste, was 'jostled' out of his friend's memory, by horse-jockies, valets and gamblers, before my Lord reached Dover, on his way to the Continent.... After much anxiety and much trouble, this amiable man died of a broken heart." That extract, if taken with the evidence offered by the second poem To Delia, and by the Farewell, points to the intriguing possibility that, through his aristocratic Oxford friends, Russell met a delightful girl whose station, combined with the difficulty of access to her company after his noble friend (perhaps her brother) had gone, rendered her the object of his despondent sighs; and that something more than disappointed love which lies behind the melancholy and despair that he sometimes expresses in his sonnets and poems is the bitterness and discouragement that usually result from social neglect. Be that as it may, it is pleasing to know that at the church of Poorstock (in Dorset) were inscribed, "on a mural monument of white marble," these words:

"Near this place, in the same earth with his lamented mother, are deposited the remains of the Rev. Thomas Russell, A.B. late Fellow of New College, in Oxford, who died the 31st day of July, 1788, aged 26 years.

Could Genius move Death's tyrant fang to spare,
Or Learning smooth the angry brow of Fate,
Tearless we still had prais'd thy talents rare,
Thy gentle manners, and thy soul elate.

Here sleep thy dust with hers, for near thee lies
An early victim too to Death's cold reign;
Torn in dire haste from Nature's fondest ties,
Whom parent, husband, children wept in vain.

But err we not — since all of bliss below
Short periods close, and narrow bounds confine.
Ah! why deplore we then their lot who go
To joys extatic (such we trust are thine),
To drink of pleasures as they ever flow
Pure and exhaustless from their fount divine?"

In the month following his death, The Gentleman's Magazine honoured Russell with a cordial obituary, which should be quoted in part: "He was eminently conspicuous for his great learning and abilities. Besides an accurate knowledge of the learned languages he understood almost every language now spoken in Europe. He was the author of two letters in this Magazine ... on the poetry of Moscu Jordi, and the Provencal Language, in which he displayed no small fund of critical acumen.... His happy talents for conversation, and his polite and agreeable manners, procured him a very numerous acquaintance, by whom his loss will be sensibly felt and long regretted." One of the earliest notices on his poetry appeared in The Monthly Review, and ran as follows: "These elegant trifles are the production of a muse evidently blessed with genius and taste; and the plaintive language which breaks forth in most of them proves that the author ... was 'a man of many sorrows.' In this collection are several translations from the Greek, Italian, and Portuguese; indeed the original pieces are strongly tinctured with the poetry of the Italian school.... After perusing these poems, we venture to pronounce that, with few exceptions, they possess the elegant softness and harmonious periods of Gray...." And The Critical Review delivered favourable judgment: "These poetical pieces ... evince the author to have been endowed with genius and taste; which, with his classical knowledge, and extensive acquaintance with the best writers in foreign languages, must have rendered him an ornament to literature; but he died of a consumption, in the twenty-sixth year of his age."

Some of the early estimates published outside of periodicals have their interest. Howley did not criticise his school friend; but Gabell, in the Greek verses on the death of Dr. Joseph Warton in 1800, mentioned only three Winchester pupils — Bowles, Howley, and Russell. The author of the memoir in The Lounger's Common-Place Book passed no critique on the Sonnets and Miscellaneous Poems. In Park's British Poets was printed an Encomium on Russell. On the death of Mr. Russell. July, 1788:

And cannot, Russell, taste and genius save
From fates too cruel, and an early tomb?
Ah, no! with blind unpitying rage they doom
The dull, the wise, th' ignoble and the brave.
All in those realms the last fond duty crave
Where no glad mornings break the cheerless gloom,
Where glows the bosom with no vernal bloom,
In the lone darkness of the silent grave.
Thy course is finish'd; all the world's vain cares
Are but a blank to thee, whose bosom knows
Joy, sorrow, hope, regret, or fear, no more!
Yet still the form with equal splendour glows,
And still mankind a smile as cheerful wears,
As that thy gay good humour wak'd before.

Rather later, Davenport wrote appreciatively: "Beauty and propriety of thought, elegance of diction, and melody of verse, give Russell a title to the place which he has obtained among the British poets." But the best account of his work made before 1850 is assuredly that rendered by H. F. Cary, the famous translator, who well defines the general historical position, without indicating the sonnet-significance (for he was a noteworthy renovator of that form), of our poet. "Russell, as a poet, deserves to be placed among the foremost of those who, without originality of genius, have possessed an exquisite taste and discernment of what is best in others, together with the power of reflecting it in new and varied forms. His fancy had fed itself on the choicest stores of poetry, and his ear was tuned to the harmonies of Spenser, Milton, and Dryden; and fragments of their sounds he gives us back as from an echo, but so combined as to make a sweet music of his own. An instance of this may be taken from his sonnet on Philoctetes: 'On this lone isle, whose rugged rocks affright. . .' The whole of this is exquisite. Nothing can be more like Milton than the close of it. When the first seats are taken by the great masters of the poetical art, we shall often be more gratified by those who are contented to place themselves and sing at their feet, than by others whose only ambition is to have a chair of their own. If no one has been made great, many have at least been made pleasing, by skilful imitation.... Assuredly many a modern poet may be well satisfied with the praise of having provided a slight though elegant entertainment from the table of our elder bards. Few have done this so happily as Russell. If we except Collins and Gray and Warton, it would be difficult to name one in that school of lyrical writing that sprang up in the latter part of the last century by whom he has been equalled." Then Cary adds: "The name of Russell is still mentioned by his relatives and friends with such tenderness and regret as could be excited only by the liveliest recollections of virtues and abilities cut off in the full bloom of an exceeding promise. His knowledge of literature ... is described as having been extensive and various; his wit in conversation prompt and lively, but also chastened by a nice sense of decorum, and his manners so ingratiating as to have conciliated the notice and intimacy of those whose station was much superior to his own. With these endowments, and with those means of making them available, it is reasonable to suppose that, if he had lived, he would have distinguished himself in public life. He might, it is probable, have risen to the highest honours his profession had to bestow. As it is, he has left behind him that which is yet more valuable in the remembrance, the character of an amiable man and an ingenious writer. The little that remains of him entitles him to rank among the most pleasing of our minor lyrical poets."

The foregoing criticisms make it unnecessary to discuss further the general characteristics of Russell's poetry, but something might be added with regard to his form. As Sir Edmund Gosse has remarked: "It was a happy instinct to turn once more to foreign forms of poetic utterance, and a certain credit attaches to those who now began to cultivate the sonnet. Two slender collections, the one by Thomas Russell, and the other by William Lisle Bowles, both of which appeared in 1789, exhibited the results of the study of Petrarch." His translations from foreign poetry, some of which are very free, influence not only his technique but his phrasing; for instance, the Petrarchan line, "Praying, if prayer may sins like mine release," echoes in the line, "Oft too in songs, if songs might ease his pain," while "Winged its free passage to the realms of light" in Camoens becomes "Shall gild their passage to eternal rest" in one of the original sonnets. Reminiscences of English poets abound, but occasionally we find an adumbration; respective examples are the distinct resemblance between the openings of Russell's To Silence and of one of Collins' poems, and that between Russell's words, "pleasure sickens, till it turns to pain," and Shelley's "laughter with sorrow fraught." Intrinsically in his own work, our poet has a weakness for repetition of words, and while he sometimes makes the same word reappear at the commencement of several consecutive lines, as especially in To Cervantes and the first To Delia, he shows a marked fondness for "nor ... nor" instead of "neither ... nor," and for the following words: "Bloom" as noun and verb, "delight" as noun, "dimpling wave," "gale," "ghost," "hapless," "melancholy," "sigh" as noun and verb, "sparkling," "various," "verdant," and "vernal." Not that his vocabulary is meagre; his Cervantes illustrates his power of varied phrasing.

In brief, he very pleasingly practises the ideal of "Truth with Fancy, Taste with Sense allied."

The text of Russell's Sonnets and Miscellaneous Poems requires only a brief mention. In To the Reader, Howley in 1789 cautiously remarked: "Whether the pieces contained in this collection were originally intended for publication, or not, is uncertain, but it is hoped that they will do no discredit to the memory of the Author, and that some allowance will be made for any imperfections which may occur, when it is considered that he was prevented from correcting them by an untimely death." The volume attracted considerable attention, and several periodicals reprinted certain poems; we may instance The European Magazine of July, 1789, and The Annual Register. Russell's work reappeared in the following collections: Park's (1808), Sanford's (1819), Walsh's (1822), and Whittingham's (i.e., the Chiswick) (1822). It is interesting to note that the writer in The Lounger's Common-Place Book said of the Sonnets and Miscellaneous Poems that the editor had omitted several of the author's youthful pieces, "which would have done poor Russell no discredit." And Thomas Seccombe, in the article in the Dictionary of National Biography, spoke of poetical fragments in manuscript. Thinking that there might be some remains of value, I took the liberty of writing to the Russells, but, after careful search, they found no such MSS. To the accepted corpus of his work, however, should be added those lines which, written on the death of a friend, begin:

To a friend so sincere, to a comrade so gay,

Who brought cares on himself; to drive our cares away;

lines that I came on in the pages of The Gentleman's Magazine.

Shaw and Russell had, then, no easy time; both died at an early age, the former at thirty-three, the latter at twenty-six; both were men of sorrows, although they could be gay upon occasion; while the earlier poet underwent much physical distress, the later knew only that which terminated in his death, but the adult inner life of both was troubled and, for the greater part, embittered. Their work has a definite emotional tone, more frankly conveyed in Shaw than in Russell. The great difference between their poems results mainly from the difference of their environment and livelihood; Shaw had always to struggle in order to live, Russell led a rather cloistered, sheltered life; and as the Sonnets are much more highly polished than The Race, the Monody, and the Evening Address, so the latter display far greater originality; what Russell possesses in taste, Shaw counterbalances with vigour. There is, however, a feature in both their lives that probably exercised a tremendous influence on their character and on their poetry: Russell lost his mother when he was very young, and so he was deprived of just that guide and comfort which he needed, and the death of Shaw's wife and child left the stricken poet, robbed of all he held most precious, to sink back into the dissipation from which she had drawn him.