1883 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 4-7.



There's Tom Campbell in person, the poet of Hope,
Brimful of good liquor, as gay as the pope;
His shirt collar's open, his wig is awry,
There's his stock on the ground, there's a cock in his eye.
Half gone his last tumbler — clean gone his last joke,
And his pipe, like his college, is ending in smoke.
What he's saying who knows, but perhaps it may be
Something tender and soft of a bouncing ladye.

—So for Maginn, who cites these rollicking verses as coming from "a friend." At this point, says he, "the song becomes scurrilous and abusive," he suppresses, therefore, "the culpable verses," — to my own huge regret, at least, I must confess, — and proceeds to the conclusion, "which is panegyrical:"—

Well, though you are yoked to a dull Magazine,
Tom, I cannot forget it, what once you have been;
Though you wrote of Lord Byron an asinine letter;
Though your dinners are bad, and your talk is no better;
Yet the Song of the Baltic — Lochiel's proud lay—
The Seamen of England — and Linden's red day—
Must make up for the nonsense you write and you speak
Did you tack it, and write in seven days in the week! . . .

The lines which I have cited seem to leave little in the way of criticism. Still, among the pieces which posterity will not willingly let die, must be included that exquisitely perfect gem, The Soldier's Dream; the fine ode, recited by Mr. Young at the farewell dinner to J. P. Kemble, in 1817; the passionate and plaintive O'Connor's Child; — the "diamond of his casket of gems," as "Delta" Moir has it; Reullura; The Last Man, with its sublime, if faulty, conception (Charles Swain has written a worthy pendant, The First Man, and we must not forget The Last Man of Thomas Hood), the touching story of Gertrude, with its Arcadian grace; the Claude-like exordium of The Pleasures of Hope, which, with its many fine episodes, will float the poem down the surface of the stream of Time.

Criticism, — the ultimate judgment of the world — is conversant with merit in the abstract, and has no consideration for the accidents, — thus always injudicious to plead, as self excusatory, — of age, sex, or worldly position. But individuals and contemporaries may be permitted to remember that The Pleasures of Hope appeared first in 1799, when its author was only twenty-two years of age, and be led to consider it accordingly, what it undoubtedly is, a very remarkable instance, in such a case, of successful mastery over the form and spirit of poetical expression. It is true that marks of juvenility are everywhere apparent; that the diction is often redundant, and sense not always commensurate with sound. Still, it is a poem of sustained rhythmical march; of sentiments expressive of every note in the gamut of feeling; and of episodes, whether from history, fiction or domestic life, full of beauty, force, pathos and natural truth. In the words of Moir, "the heart is lapped in Elysium, the rugged is softened down, and the repulsive hid from view; Nature is mantled in the enchanting hues of the poet's imagination, and life seems but a tender tale set to music." Perhaps there is no didactic poem in our language so well known and loved as this, if not as a whole, by its component parts. There is hardly a doubt that it will continue to be so, in spite of new "schools" of poetry, and poetical criticism; and that it will retain its place, as a classic, in our literature, nobly closing that bright era of which Dryden and Pope heralded the morn, and which closed when the star of Wordsworth's genius appeared above the political horizon, to announce a new dayspring of poetry and beauty.

There is a translation into French by Albert Montemont, Paris, 1824.

This is not the place for an elaborate criticism of the Spenserian Gertrude of Wyoming, exquisitely beautiful and pathetic as much of it is; of Theodric, which is pure, if wanting in force and spirit; or of the Massacre of Glencoe. Neither does the prose of Campbell, most of which was task-work, demand much notice; as the production of such a poet, it could hardly be otherwise than tasteful and felicitous, though it is too often florid and affected. Little of it is now remembered; and the greater part, — the Life of Mrs. Siddons for instance, which is perfect rubbish, full of errors, and probably the work of some vicarious drudge, — is not worth remembrance. Here, however, exception must be made to his brilliant and judicious criticisms on English poetry and poets, for a portable annotated edition of which, without the Specimens, we are indebted to the late and lost Peter Cunningham.

It is one of the crimes of Horace Walpole that he said, with reference to Chatterton, that "singing birds should not be too well fed." Be this as it may, few poets have been more liberally remunerated than Campbell. From first to last, he appears to have received nearly 1000 for The Pleasures of Hope, making about fifteen shillings a line; than which Byron himself got no more, — receiving 2500 for Manfred, the Prisoner of Chillon, and the third canto of Childe Harold.

Campbell was slow and fastidious in composition; we smell the lamp, and hear the limae labor, — yet his local colour and incident are often faulty. Thus he places tigers on the banks of Lake Erie, hyaenas in South America, and associates the "village curfew," as it still may be heard at Bodmin and Penrith in our own "land of the grey old past," with the haunts of the red Indian.

Perhaps he has written nothing truly finer, or more Horatian, than Hohenlinden, of which Father Prout has left us such a capital version; yet this exquisite lyric was rejected as a contribution to the to the Greenock Advertiser, with the intimation that it did not "come up the editor's standard," and that poetry was evidently not the forte of the contributor! We must not, however, forget, as we criticize the critic, that Campbell himself would never admit the merit of the piece. We learn the fact from Cyrus Redding, who edited his poetical works, and who adds, — of such little worth is an author's judgment as to the comparative merit of his own productions, — that the poet positively forbade The Dirge of Wallace, one of the finest of his minor pieces, to be included in the collection (ii. 354.)

Campbell was a great lover of the "weed," and here we have him enjoying the — "Innocuos calices et amicam vatibus herbam," as old Raphael Thorius has it, after the editorial worries and labours of the day. Beattie, his biographer, describes his lumbered room, "tobacco pipes mingled with the literary wares," etc. He was, indeed, like Tom Warton and Vinny Bourne, careless in his manners, and unobservant of the superstitions of the table. Lady Morgan relates that when dining with Lord Aberdeen, Manners Sutton, and the Duchess of Gordon, the bard — horrible dictu, — put his knife in the salt-cellar to help himself to the condiment!

Shortly before his death, he read that grand piece, The Thanatopsis of Bryant, at the opening of the Exhibition in Suffolk Place, and fairly broke down with emotion when he came to the lines,

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan that moves
To the pale realms of shade, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of Death,
Thou go not like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, etc.,

—saying that "nothing finer had ever been written." He was born July 27, 1777, and died at Boulogne, June 15, 1844, aged 67. He lies in Westminster Abbey, next to Southey's monument, where is an admirable statue of the poet by W. Calder Marshall, R.A., of which there is an engraving by W. H. Mote.

His Life and Letters, by William Beattie, M.D., one of his executors was published by Moxon, the "poet's publisher," in 3 vols. 8vo, 1849; there are also the Memoirs of the poet by his old friend and literary subordinate in the conduct of the New Monthly Magazine, Cyrus Redding, 1860, 2 vols., 8vo.; and two papers entitled Mornings with Thomas Campbell, in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, Feb. 8 and 15, 1845.

Campbell enjoyed a pension of 184 per annum, given to him by the Government as far back as 1806.