1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 206.



THOMAS CAMPBELL was born in Glasgow, in the year 1777. He was educated at the University of that city; into which he entered at twelve years of age, and where he rapidly obtained distinction. From Glasgow, he removed to the Scottish Metropolis, and cultivated acquaintance with the many celebrated men who, at that period, resided there, and who perceived a kindred spirit in the youthful Poet. Here he published the Pleasures of Hope, — a poem which at once achieved the fame that time has not diminished, and which must endure with the language in which it is written. Upwards of twenty years elapsed before Mr. Campbell again essayed a continued work; but during the interval, he produced those immortal odes, The Battle of the Baltic, Ye Mariners of England, and Hohenlinden, — the field of which, during the battle, he is said to have overlooked from the walls of a neighbouring convent. In [1809], he published Gertrude of Wyoming, — a poem sufficient to maintain the high reputation he had acquired, and which, indeed, is by many preferred to the Pleasures of Hope. In 1824, appeared Theodric, a domestic tale; and these, with the exceptions of his MINOR poems — the term can have reference only to their length — comprise the whole of his contributions to English poetry. In the year 1820, Mr. Campbell undertook the Editorship of the New Monthly Magazine, which he relinquished in 1830; and in the conduct of which Mr. S. C. Hall had the honour to succeed him. Soon afterwards Mr. Campbell undertook a voyage to Algiers, the results of which he has recently communicated to the public. During three successive years, he was elected Lord Rector of the University in which he received his education, — a distinction the more marked, inasmuch as his competitors were Sir Walter Scott, and Mr. Canning. To Mr. Campbell we are mainly indebted for the establishment of the London University: the plan for its formation originated with him, and was by him matured; although he left its completion in the hands of his more active or more influential contemporaries.

Mr. Campbell is rather below than above the middle stature. The expression of his countenance indicates the sensitiveness of his mind. His eye is large, and of a deep blue; his manners are peculiarly bland and insinuating: in general society he is exceedingly cheerful, and his conversation abounds in pointed humour. His general appearance is, however, considered to lend force to the supposition, that he dislikes labour; and is rarely roused to more than momentary exertion. At College, he rose to high repute as a scholar; and he has since taken some steps to maintain the character he acquired; his lectures on Greek poetry have been published. It has been a subject of regret, that Mr. Campbell has written so little. But those who so express themselves forget that it is far more to their advantage to have a few finished models, than a mass of crude and incomplete formations; and that it is only by long labour in execution, and still longer labour in preparatory thought and arrangement, that perfection can be produced. There is not one of the fine Odes of Campbell that would be sacrificed for a volume: it may be even questioned which the world would most willingly permit to perish, — The Pleasures of Hope, or; Ye Mariners of England. The whole of his works have been recently collected, and published in two volumes; and, we understand, a new edition, splendidly illustrated by Turner, R.A. is in preparation.

The poetry of Campbell is universally felt, and therefore universally appreciated. His appeals are made to those sensations which are common to mankind. While his poetry can bear the test of the severest criticism, it is intelligible to the simplest understanding. As little occurs to dissatisfy the mind as the ear. His conceptions are natural and true; and the language in which he clothes them is graceful and becoming. If he has laboured hard — as it is said he always does — to render his verse easy and harmonious, he never leads the reader to suspect that his care to produce harmony has weakened his original thought. He affords no evidence of fastidiousness in the choice of words; yet they always seem the fittest for his purpose, and are never forced into a service they are not calculated to perform. He combines the qualities so rarely met together — strength and smoothness — yet his vigour is never coarse, and his delicacy never effeminate. His subjects have been all skilfully chosen; — he has sought for themes only where a pure mind seeks them; and turned from the grosser passions, the meaner desires and the vulgar sentiments of man, as things unfitted for verse, and unworthy of illustration. The Poet has had his reward. His poems will perish only with the memories of mankind.