1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elizabeth Bentley

Anonymous, Preface, in Elizabeth Bentley, Poems (1821) xvii-xxiv.



The numerous Subscribers to this little Volume will perhaps expect to find it introduced by some account of the writer whom their kindness has befriended. It is therefore thought advisable to reprint from her former publication the simple narrative which she then addressed to a benevolent and lamented patron [letter to Rev. John Walker, omitted]. To this modest recital little remains to be added, even after the lapse of thirty years. That little, however, is creditable to the subject of it. The profits of the publication alluded to (trifling indeed in amount, though derived from the contributions of almost two thousand subscribers) enabled her for many years, in conjunction with the income arising from a small school, to support the declining age of her mother. Since the death of that parent, her duties have been narrowed, but they have been faithfully performed. Her leisure hours have been naturally devoted to her early and favourite pursuit. Her verses on temporary subjects have frequently contributed to fill the columns of the Norfolk Chronicle, and she has in numerous instances performed the melancholy but grateful office of recording the virtues of her deceased friends. Yet, though public favour crowned her first attempts, the modesty of her disposition has never (till urged to it on the present occasion) permitted her to renew her claims upon it. Once, and once only, did she venture to send to the press, in a separate publication, a small collection of Verses for the use of Children; but it was printed without the aid of subscriptions, and sold at the humble price of a shilling.

Of the compositions now submitted to public indulgence, it may be expected that something should be here said, however briefly. The first, and the most important observation that can be made upon them, is, that they are, in the strict sense of the word, genuine. Though slight inaccuracies of expression have been occasionally, but sparingly, pointed out, not a phrase — not a word — has ever been proposed by way of substitute. The correction has always been left to the Author. In fact, so scrupulous has been the desire to present these Poems ungarbled and untouched, that, fewer alterations have been recommended than the reader perhaps may judge to have been necessary; — certainly fewer than would have been suggested in the ordinary case of an author submitting his compositions to the judgment of a friend. Such as they are, they belong exclusively, the blame as well as the credit, to the person whose name is prefixed to them.

It cannot be necessary or proper to forestal the reader's judgment by any detailed criticisms. Still a word or two may be offered for seeming, perhaps for real defects, but which will probably he chiefly so deemed by the numerous admirers of our living poets. In an age that will ever be memorable for more important changes, it is not surprising that our national taste in Poetry should have undergone some alteration. By the favourite writers of the day, our metrical vocabulary has been at least profusely extended, if not always enriched. Phrases of quaint antiquity or provincial homeliness have been combined and contrasted with others of modern or foreign innovation. Even the technical terms of abstruse science have been allowed to mingle with the lispings of the nursery. Nor is it to language alone that this change has been confined. It has been equally apparent in novelties of character and sentiment, of situation and even of morals. To the admirers of this bolder style of poetry (in which it is fair to allow that if much be lost in point of correct taste something is gained on the side of freedom and variety) the verses of Elizabeth Bentley may appear constrained and monotonous. But before it existed, she had learned her humble art from other masters. The minor poems of Milton, the graver compositions of Pope, the moral allegories and descriptive pieces of Thomson and Collins, of Gray and Goldsmith, had supplied her with those models which she felt most desirous to imitate. Her admiration of her beloved poets, has sometimes perhaps betrayed her into resemblances, which might be thought more than accidental by all but those who have attempted verse, and who know how difficult it is to avoid echoing those favourite melodies which are ever dwelling on the ear and memory. But the performances of our Author have nevertheless a distinct character of their own, though nothing can be more simple than their construction or design. A Morning's walk or an Evening's meditation first opens to her view the beauties of nature, and then elevates her mind to the contemplation of "Nature's God." The reflections thus awakened are as unforced as the transition is natural. As her morality is simple, so is her piety unstrained.

There is one class of Poems, for the insertion of which an apology is due from the writer of this Preface. The Author herself, from a sense of their general inferiority in merit, intended to suppress nearly all the verses inscribed to the memory of private individuals; but this design was over-ruled by an opinion that to a numerous class of readers they could not be wholly unacceptable. The friends at least of the persons commemorated may be gratified; and even where no such personal feeling can be excited, a local one may be substituted. Connected by birth with a particular spot, we take what may be called a topographical interest in reviving our recollections of names which we have not only heard in our youth, but which we may have also been taught to esteem and respect. Strangers too, without the aid of such associations, may derive amusement from the exercise of a curiosity similar to that by which the traveller finds himself irresistibly impelled to explore the "uncouth Rhymes and shapeless Sculptures" of a village church-yard. The feelings which can be thus casually excited will not disdain the heartfelt tributes of Elizabeth Bentley to the memory of her departed friends; and whatever opinion may be formed of the talents of this "honest Chronicler," there are many perhaps who

After their death would wish no other Herald,
No other speaker of their living actions
To keep their honour from corruption.

It would be ill executing the office which has devolved on the writer of this Preface, if he were to close it without attempting to express the grateful feelings of Elizabeth Bentley towards the friends who have promoted this little undertaking; the completion of which has been delayed by causes for which neither herself nor her Publishers could be responsible. To some of her numerous Subscribers to whom she is personally unknown, she is under great and peculiar obligations; to others, she owes a debt of thankfulness which has been long, very long accumulating; and to all she earnestly desires to convey acknowledgments of their kindness, blended with prayers for their prosperity.