1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Walter Scott, "Living Poets" in Edinburgh Annual Register for 1808 (1810) 2:420-21.



Mr. Thomas CAMPBELL met with early popularity. The Pleasures of Hope, a work written in youth, was justly hailed as one of the brightest dawnings which had ever attended the rise of a literary character. The faults, too, were evidently those of a young man, such as it might be hoped time and study would do away. A want of compactness in its parts, here and there a tinselly expression, intimated a fancy not yet tamed; the occurrence of passages, which necessarily reminded us of Goldsmith, of Johnson, or of Rogers; — these were his faults, and they were light in the balance, weighed against the beauty of his moral precept, the unaffected dignity of his sentiment, the flowing ease of his versification, and an expression which swelled, softened, or sunk like the murmurs of an Aeolian harp, as the subject rose or fell. — His reputation, therefore, rose high, and with justice, while it was rather increased than diminished by the various minor pieces which appeared in periodical or detached publications, previous to a quarto edition of the Pleasures of Hope, in 1803, to which were subjoined, the sublime poems, of Lochiel and Hohenlinden. These productions carried to the height Mr. Campbell's fame, for they evinced that he possessed power and spirit for the "paullo majora" of poet, and that the Epic Muse might, with confidence, claim him as her own. It was, perhaps, partly owing to the over-stretched state of public expectation, that Gertrude of Wyoming has not hitherto met a reception from the public, worthy of the poet's name, or of the merits of the poem. It was ingeniously urged by a friendly critic, that the interest was of that elegant, unobtrusive, and refined nature which was not adapted to attract general admiration. But, alas! when we say a poem is too grand, or too refined, to be popular, we only weigh the solitary opinion of the critic against that of the world at large. The truth seems to be, that a story, in itself extremely imperfect, was rendered less intelligible by the manner in which it was told, and by a structure of versification, which, unless managed with uncommon address, is liable to lead to the alternate extremes of obscurity and redundance. We are satisfied it is to this cause, chiefly, that the failure of Gertrude, so far as its not instantly attaining extensive popularity is a failure, must be attributed. The readers of poetry, generally speaking, are not very nice about the subject, and like just as well to be melted with a tale of private distress, as to be roused with a lay of war. But then the impression must be made at the first perusal: they will not consent to wait till the bellows are employed to blow the flame. Like the public at every former period, they are complete egotists: it is amusement which they demand, and if they do not instantly find what they seek, they will not think it worth winning at the labour of a re-perusal. In this view, the inverted and complicated construction of the stanzas in Gertrude of Wyoming has been a great impediment to its popularity, which neither the pathos of some passages, nor the exquisite elegance, and poetical spirit which pervades the whole, have been able to counterbalance. It is whispered Mr. Campbell is at present labouring upon a large poem of an epic nature. We heartily rejoice to hear it. He is in the prime of life, — in that state of literary retirement most favourable to composition, — enjoying ready access to the best judges, and, at the same time, the power of securing the command of his own time. Much may be hoped from such talents and such opportunities. There is much to be maintained, perhaps something to be recovered. Yet a numerous class, comprehending many of the critics of more strict and severe tone, place Mr. Campbell first among our living poets; with what justice we do not attempt to say, but an opinion so supported wears a face at least of probability.