1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

V. A., "Thomas Campbell, a Biographical and Literary Sketch" Living Poets of England: Specimens of the Living British Poets (1827) 1:95-98.



Mr. CAMPBELL is a native of Glasgow, in which city he was born in 1777. He received the first part of his education in the Grammar School there, and it was completed at the University of the same city. Here he very soon distinguished himself by his classical acquirements, and in the first year of his matriculation, gained a bursary on Bishop Leighton's foundation, by carrying off the victory in an arduous contest with the first man of the University, and who was twice his own age. His Greek translations, which are so pure and elegant that it is difficult to believe them the productions of a young scholar, placed him at the height of Academical honours, and the Professor, in delivering to him the prize for a translation from Aeschylus, declared it to be the best performance of the kind ever produced in that University.

On quitting Glasgow, Mr. Campbell, after a short residence in Argyleshire, repaired to Edinburgh, where his reputation and talents recommended him to the notice of several literary men, whose countenance was of great service to him. He soon afterwards published his Pleasures of Hope, which he had written at the age of twenty, and which was printed before he was twenty-one.

Mr. Campbell, in the year 1800, made a tour to the Continent, and visited several parts of Germany, where he formed an acquaintance with some of the most eminent literary men of that nation, among whom the venerable Klopstock excited his warmest regard. On his return he visited London, where he remained until 1803, when he married, and settled at Sydenham, at which place he has ever since remained.

In 1809 he published Gertrude of Wyoming, and other Poems. Mr. Campbell is also said to be the author of a History of The Reign of his late Majesty, in 4 vol. in 8vo. but we believe he has never acknowledged this production. He holds the office of Professor of Poetry to the Royal Institution, where his lectures have long been the most important and enlightened of those delivered through that establishment.

In 1820 he published Specimens of the Poets of Great Britain, in 7 vol., with an Essay on English Poetry, which occupies the first volume. The selection is performed with the utmost judgment and good taste, and forms what was long a desideratum in our literature, a compressed and accurate collection of the beauties of the English poets. The Essay which is prefixed, is, as a classical production, and for the profound knowledge it displays of the subject, perfectly unrivalled.

It has been objected by those persons who write their trash with rapidity, that Mr. Campbell is a laborious writer; and this is urged against his claim to Genius. He knows full well, that writing, whether poetry or prose, to be good must be correct, and as he has a reputation to lose, he bestows such pains on his verses as his own honour and their excellence deserve. The charge of his being a fastidious critic of his own compositions is most true. His next neighbour at Sydenham, (a quiet, unpoetical citizen,) said that Mr. Campbell was a good sort of man, and a peaceable person enough, but he had a most provoking habit of tearing up pieces of paper on which he had written, and scattering them out of his study window; they were borne by the wind upon the cabbages and gooseberry hushes of the adjoining garden, so that it looked, in the dogdays, as if a theatrical snow storm had burst over it.

Mr. Campbell has, within the last twelve months, undertaken the task of editing the New Monthly Magazine, which he has enriched by the contribution of his lectures on poetry.

The Pleasures of Hope, says a French author to whom we are indebted for many notices in this work, the Pleasures of Hope, is a didactic poem, like the Pleasures of Memory; but the future lyrical poet is detected there, in the vagueness of the plot, the greater licence of the transitions, and a more frequent boldness of thought and image; in a more rapid march of the style, and especially in its eloquent apostrophes, like those to Kosciusko and Liberty, which terminate the first canto. Compared with Rogers's poem, that of Campbell satisfies the judgment less; notwithstanding it has some more striking passages, it leaves fewer impressions on the mind; the poet stands in need of all the brilliancy of his style to give us satisfaction. This arises from the defectiveness of the subject for the Pleasures of Memory may be sketched within the limits of a poem, but what limits can be set to those of Hope, which not only embrace terrestrial things, but quit their limits, create new worlds, new divinities, and paradise, etc.? etc.? Campbell's poem more effectually evades analysis than that of Rogers.

Campbell for several years seemed to content himself with the success of his first poem; some short lyrical compositions alone appeared at long intervals, to re-awaken the attention which the Pleasures of Rope had excited a larger work of the author's had been long promised in the bookseller's advertisements, when Gertrude of Wyoming, an episode of the revolutions of Pennsylvania, made its appearance. The versification and the details of this poem, demonstrated that the talent of Mr. Campbell had matured itself; but if the fable be analysed, one is tempted to infer, that every thing has been sacrificed to a desire of disarming criticism by the unremitted elegance of the style, which possesses all the harmony peculiar to that of Goldsmith, and the rigour of Johnson, joined to that brilliancy which recalls the imaginative splendour of Spencer. The action is as much neglected as the style is polished; each idea is complete, but appears isolated; a defect rendered more obvious by the rhyme of the stanza of nine lines which the poet has adopted; it might be called a long series of sonnets. This construction is also the same which Byron has chosen for his Childe Harold, but in Childe Harold, there is no unity of action, all is descriptive. Gertrude is an almost pastoral subject, which perhaps required more ease and simplicity. Such, however, as it is, Campbell's poem exhibits admirable contrasts. The grand scenes of American landscape are happily contrasted with the patriarchal life of the colonists; the majestic sketch of the old Oneyda, and his savage eloquence, are in harmony with the mountains, the ancient forests, and the lakes of his native soil. He is worthy of taking his place by the side of Chactas. His character is less developed than that of Atala's lover; but his physiognomy possesses something more frank and local, because, like Chactas, he has not been half civilized by contact with the inhabitants of Europe. The infancy and love of Waldgrave and Gertrude unfavourably recal the exquisite groupe of Paul and Virginia; but Campbell has made no more than a sketch of that which composes so dramatic a picture in Bernardin de St. Pierre.

Wyoming, where Campbell has laid the scene of his poem, is a village, on the banks of the Susquehanna, which was ravaged and burnt in 1778, by the Indians of the anti-republican party.

His opening, which describes the locality of the scene, has all the charm of the invocation in the Deserted Village: but the style of Campbell is more original than that of Goldsmith, because it is imbued with those local colours which have contributed to the success of Paul and Virginia and Atala.

The lyrical song which concludes Gertrude of Wyoming, naturally leads us to refer to Lochiel, which is a prediction of the defeat of Culloden, by a mountain seer, and the ballad of O'Connor's Daughter, which Thomas Moore, unintentionally imitating some verses of Mr. Rogers, calls a tear of the Irish muse, crystallized by genius.

Alternately sparkling with grace and elegance, or nobly energetic, the minor poems of Campbell would alone be sufficient to establish his reputation, if he had not written Gertrude.

As a prose writer, he is not less brilliant, and has published a summary of English literature, replete with original ideas. In his poems he has advocated the cause of liberty, and still later, the cause of Grecian freedom.

The poem of Theodoric, is less correct than Gertrude and the Pleasures of Hope; and the interest of it is of a less vivid description. Among the fugitive pieces which accompany Theodoric, there is one entitled "The Last Man," which bears great analogy to the "Darkness" of Byron. Mr. Campbell, himself, claims the having suggested the idea of Darkness to the noble poet.

The "Darkness" of Lord Byron is a vision of despair; it is one of those pictures, which terrify even when reflected in the mirror of poetry. Nothing can he more terrific than the image of two enemies seated beside an expiring flame, the last flash of which reveals them to each other, and embitters their death with a feeling of hatred. But in Campbell's poem, how sublime is that conception of immortality which sustains the faith of the last man amidst the wreck of matter!