1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Lisle Bowles

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 226.



WILLIAM LISLE BOWLES, of an ancient family in the county of Wilts, was born in the village of King's-Sutton, Northamptonshire — a parish of which his father was vicar — on the 24th of September, 1762. His mother was the daughter of Dr. Richard Grey, chaplain to Nathaniel Crew, Bishop of Durham. The Poet received his early education at Winchester school; and he rose to be the senior boy. He was entered at Trinity College, Oxford, where he obtained the Chancellor's prize for a Latin poem, and where, in 1792, he took his degree. On quitting the University, he entered into holy orders, and was appointed to a curacy in Wiltshire: soon afterwards he was preferred to a living in Gloucestershire; in 1803, he became a prebend of Salisbury; and, Archbishop Moore presented him with the rectory of Bremhill, Wilts, where he has since constantly resided, — only now and then visiting the metropolis, — enjoying the country, and its peculiar sources of profitable delight, performing with zeal and industry his parochial duties, and beloved by all who dwell within or approach the happy neighbourhood of his residence.

The sonnets of Bowles, his first publication, appeared in 1793. They were received with considerable applause; and the writer, if he had obtained no other reward for his labours, would have found ample recompense in the fact, that they contributed to form the taste, and call forth the genius, of Coleridge, whom they "delighted and inspired." The author of Christabel speaks of himself as having been withdrawn from several perilous errors "by the genial influence of a style of poetry, so tender, and yet so manly, — so natural and real, and yet so dignified and harmonious, as the sonnets of Mr. Bowles." He was not, however, satisfied with expressing, in prose, his sense of obligation, but in poetry poured out his gratitude to his first master in minstrel-lore:—

My heart has thank'd thee, Bowles, for those soft strains,
Whose sadness soothes me, like the murmuring
Of wild bees in the sunny showers of spring.

In 1805, he published the Spirit of Discovery by Sea: it is the longest of his productions, and is generally considered his best. The most recent of his works is the Little Villagers' Verse Book, a collection of hymns that will scarcely suffer by comparison with those of Dr. Watts; and which are admirably calculated to answer the benevolent purpose for which they are designed.

Mr. Bowles some years ago attracted considerable attention by his controversy with Byron, on the subject of the writings of Pope. In prefacing an edition of the works of Pope, he advanced certain opinions which went to show that he considered him "no Poet;" and that, according to the "invariable principles" of poetry, the century of fame which had been accorded to the Essay on Man, was unmerited. Campbell opened the defence; and Byron stepped forward as a warm, and somewhat angry, advocate. A sort of literary warfare followed; and a host of pamphlets on both sides were rapidly issued. As in all such cases, the question remains precisely where it did. Bowles, however, though he failed in obtaining a victory, and. made, we imagine, few converts to his "invariable principles," manifested during the contest so much judgment and ability, that his reputation as a critic was considerably enhanced.

The poetry of Bowles has not attained a high degree of popularity. He is appreciated more for the purity of his sentiments, than for any loftiness of thought, or richness of fancy. He has never dealt with themes that "stir men's minds;" but has satisfied himself with inculcating lessons of sound morality, and has considered that to lead the heart to virtue is the chiefest duty of the Muse. His style is, as Coleridge described it nearly fifty years ago, "tender, yet manly;" and he has, undoubtedly, brought the accessories of harmonious versification and graceful language to the aid of "right thinking," and sound judgment. His poems seldom startle or astonish the reader: he does not labour to probe the heart, and depict the more violent passions of human-kind; but he keeps an "even tenor," and never disappoints or dissatisfies by attempting a higher flight than that which he may safely venture. The main point of his argument against pope will best exhibit his own character. He considers that from objects sublime or beautiful in themselves, genius will produce more admirable creations than it can from those which are comparatively poor and insignificant: the topics upon which Mr. Bowles has employed his pen are such, only, as are naturally excellent.