1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bryan Waller Procter

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 216.



BRYAN WALLER PROCTER was born in London: he received his education at Harrow; and on his removal from the school was articled to a solicitor, of the name of Atherton, at Calne, in Wiltshire, — one of the most uninteresting towns in the kingdom, yet celebrated as having been the residence of Moore, Crabbe, Coleridge, Bowles, and Procter. Mr. Procter continued here about four years, acquiring a knowledge of the profession for which he was intended, and proceeded to the metropolis, where he became the pupil of an eminent conveyancer; and where he applied himself diligently to a pursuit as opposed to that to which his genius inclined him, as can be well imagined. He has since been called to the bar.

Mr. Procter is below the middle size; his countenance is not characteristic of energy, but its expression is peculiarly gentle, and his manners are kindly and conciliating to a degree. There is no living Poet more universally respected and esteemed: he is said to be exceedingly sensitive, and he is evidently averse to force his way to that professional distinction, which the extent of his acquirements might readily achieve for him. Of late, however, he has written but little poetry; and, it is understood, has devoted himself so assiduously to acquire legal knowledge, that, as a chamber counsel, his skill is largely appreciated, and his practice extensive. We trust, he will not long remain known only to the "attorneys;" among his contemporaries he may find at least one instance of fame achieved in the opposite paths of Law and Poetry.

BARRY CORNWALL — for under that name he obtained his fame as a Poet, and he has hitherto published under no other — first appeared before the world in the year 1815. His Dramatic Scenes at once established a reputation, which he has since sustained by the publication of The Sicilian Story, Marcian Colonna, the Flood of Thessaly, the tragedy of Mirandola, and various Miscellaneous Poems; and, although we believe he has not yet issued any work in prose, he has afforded proof, in various periodical works, of his large capacity in this department of literature.

Mr. Procter, in an advertisement to his Dramatic Scenes, states that his leading intention was to "try the effect of a more natural style than that which had for a long time prevailed in our dramatic literature." The experiment was successful: he is the undoubted restorer of those quick and natural turns of impulsive dialogue, to which the drama had been a stranger since the times of Beaumont and Fletcher. He cannot be said to equal in energy the older writers, who have been his models, but at times he approaches them very nearly, in deep feeling, in true pathos, and in fine and delicate delineations of human character. One great advantage, also, he possesses in common with them, — earnestness; the reader is made to sympathise deeply with the persons whose sufferings the author depicts: it is singular that nearly all the topics which the Poet has selected for illustration, should have been based upon melancholy; and that he appears always more inclined to the treatment of topics which leave a sadness upon the minds of his readers.

The latest publication of Barry Cornwall is a volume of songs, collected chiefly from the various works in which they had previously appeared. As a song writer, also, he frequently hits those apparently vague, but really subtle, analogies in the feeling of the beautiful which characterise the Old Poets; but if he occasionally rivals them in grace, fancy, and sweetness, he now and then falls into the common error of considering as perfections their artificialities, and their conceits; "preferring the quaint to the natural, and often losing truth in searching after originality." The lyrics of Barry Cornwall are, therefore, however exquisite as small poems, unlikely to make their way among the multitude; and, with few exceptions, have not been received as national songs. We have seen writers far inferior enjoying a much wider popularity: compositions of comparatively little merit have been made familiar as household words, because they treat of matters common to all, in language understood by all, while the admirers of Barry Cornwall have been limited to those who have a refined taste, and a delicate appreciation of what is truly excellent. Our extracts will sufficiently prove the fine and masterly power of the Poet. A sound mind, a rich fancy, a rare and exquisite skill in dealing with words, and a pure style of versification, is evident in them all. Mr. Procter has, however, kept the promise of his genius. Among the Poets of Great Britain he holds a very foremost rank; if, now that his judgment is matured, he would again essay dramatic composition, he might occupy a station still higher, — and take his undisputed seat beside the glorious creators of a gone-by age, whose fame is imperishable.