1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:369-71.



The most purely correct and classical poet of this period, possessing also true lyrical fire and grandeur, is THOMAS CAMPBELL, born in the city of Glasgow July 27, 1777. Mr. Campbell's father had been an extensive merchant, but was in advanced years (sixty-seven) at the time of the poet's birth. The latter was the Benjamin of the family, the youngest of ten children, and was educated with great care. At the age of thirteen he was placed at the university of Glasgow, where he remained six years. In the first session of his college life he gained a bursary for his proficiency in Latin. He afterwards received a prize for the beet translation of the Clouds of Aristophanes, and in awarding it, Professor Young pronounced the poet's translation to be the best exercise which had ever been given in by any student of the university. His knowledge of Greek literature was further extended by several months' close study in Germany under Professor Heyne; but this was not till the poet's twenty-second year. On leaving the university, Campbell resided a twelvemonth in Argyleshire. His father was the youngest son of a Highland laird — Campbell of Kernan — and the wild magnificent scenery of the West Highlands was thus associated in his imagination with recollections of his feudal ancestors. His poem on visiting a scene in Argyleshire will occur to our readers: it opens as follows:—

At the silence of twilight's contemplative hour,
I have mused in a sorrowful mood,
On the wind-shaken weeds that embosom the bower
Where the home of soy forefathers stood
All ruined and wild is their roofless abode,
And lonely the dark raven's sheltering tree;
And travelled by few is the grass-covered road,
Where the bunter of deer and the warrior trade
To his hills that encircle the sea.

A favourite rock or crag, the scene of his musings, is pointed out in the Island of Mull as the "Poet's Seat." While living in the Highlands, Mr. Campbell wrote his poem entitled Love and Madness (an elegy on the unfortunate Miss Broderick), and several other poems now neglected by their author. The local celebrity arising from these early fruits of his poetical genius, induced Mr. Campbell to lay aside the study of the law, which he seriously contemplated, and he repaired to Edinburgh. There be became acquainted with James Grahame, author of the "Sabbath," with Professor Dugald Stewart, Jeffrey, Brougham, &c. In April 1799 he published the Pleasures of Hope, dedicated to Dr. Anderson, the steady and generous friend of literature. The volume went through four editions in a twelvemonth. At the same age Pope had published his Essay on Criticism, also a marvellous work for a youth; but the production of Campbell is more essentially poetical, and not less correct or harmonious in its numbers. It captivated all readers by its varying and exquisite melody, its polished diction, and the vein of generous and lofty sentiment which seemed to embalm and sanctify, the entire poem. The touching and beautiful episodes with which it abounds constituted also a source of deep interest; and in picturing the horrors of war, and the infamous partition of Poland, the poet kindled up into a strain of noble indignant zeal and prophet-like inspiration.

Oh, bloodiest picture in the book of time!
Sarmatia fell, unwept, without a crime;
Found not a generous friend, a pitying foe,
Strength in her arms, nor mercy in her wo!
Dropped from her nerveless grasp the shattered spear,
Closed her bright eye, and curbed her high career:
Hope for a season bade this wend farewell,
And freedom shrieked as Kosciusko fell!

The sun went down, nor ceased the carnage there;
Tumultuous murder shook the midnight air—
On Prague's proud arch the fires of ruin, glow,
His bleed-dyed waters murmuring far below.
The storm prevails, the rampart yields a way,
Bursts the wild cry of horror and dismay!
Hark! as the smouldering piles with thunder fall,
A thousand shrieks for hopeless mercy call!
Earth shook, red meteors flashed along the sky,
And conscious nature shuddered at the cry!

These energetic apostrophes are contrasted with sketches of domestic tenderness and beauty , finished with the most perfect taste in picturesque and with highly musical expression. Traces of juvenility may no doubt be found in the Pleasures of Hope — a want of connection between the different parts of the poem, some florid lines and imperfect metaphors; but such a series of beautiful and dazzling pictures, so pore and elevated a tone of moral feeling, and such terse, vigorous, and polished versification, were never perhaps before found united in a poem written at the age of twenty-one. Shortly after its publication Mr. Campbell visited the continent. He went to Bavaria, then the seat of war, and from the monastery of St. Jacob witnessed the battle of Hohenlinden, in which (December 3, 1800) the French under Moreau gained a victory over this Austrians. In a letter written at this time, he says, "The sight of Ingoldstat in ruins, and Hohenlinden covered with fire, seven miles in circumference, were spectacles never to be forgotten." He has made the memory of Hohenlinden immortal, for his stanzas on that conflict form one of the grandest battle-pieces that ever was drawn. In a few verses, flowing like a choral melody, the poet brings before us the silent midnight scene of engagement wrapt in the snows of winter, the sudden arming for the battle, the press and shout of charging squadrons, the flashing of artillery, and the too certain and dreadful death which fails upon the crowded ranks of the combatants.

Few, few shall part where many meet!
The snow shall be their winding-sheet;
And every turf beneath their feet
Shall be a soldier's sepulchre!

The poet intended to pass into Italy — a pilgrim at the shrine of classic genius; but owing to the existing hostilities, he could not proceed, and was stopped both on his way to Vienna, and by the route of the Tyrol. He returned to Hamburg in 1801, and resided there some weeks, composing his "Exile of Erin," and "Ye Mariners of England." The former was suggested by an incident like that which befell Smollett at Boulogne, namely, meeting with a party of exiles who retained a strong love of their native country, and a mournful remembrance of its wrongs and sufferings. So jealous was the British government of that day, that the poet was suspected of being a spy; and on his arrival in Edinburgh, was subjected to an examination by the authorities! He lived in Edinburgh, enjoying its literary society for upwards of a year, and there wrote his "Lochiel's Warning." This poem being read in manuscript to Sir Walter Scott, he requested a perusal of it himself, and then repeated the whole from memory — a striking instance of the great minstrel's powers of recollection. In 1803 Mr. Campbell repaired to London, and devoted himself to literature as a profession. He resided for some time in the house of his friend, Mr. Telford, the celebrated engineer. Telford continued his regard for the poet throughout a long life, and remembered him in his will by a legacy of £500.

Mr. Campbell wrote several papers for the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia (of which Telford had some share), including poetical biographies, an account of the drama, and an elaborate historical notice of Great Britain. He also compiled Annals of Great Britain, from the Accession of George III. to the Peace of Amiens, in three volumes. Such compilations can only be considered in the light of mental drudgery; but Campbell, like Goldsmith, could impart grace and interest to task-work. In 1806, through the influence of Mr. Fox, the government granted a pension to the poet — a well-merited tribute to the author of those national strains, "Ye Mariners of England," and the "Battle of the Baltic." In 1809 was published his second great poem, Gertrude of Wyoming, a Pennsylvanian Tale. The subsequent literary labours of Mr. Campbell have only, as regards his poetical fame, been subordinate efforts. The best of them were contributed to the New Monthly Magazine, which he edited for ten years (from 1820 to 1830); and one of these minor poems, the "Last Man," may be ranked among his greatest conceptions: it is like a sketch by Michael Angelo or Rembrandt. Previous to this time the poet had visited Paris in company with Mrs. Siddons and John Kemble, and enjoyed the sculptured forms and other works of art in the Louvre with such intensity, that they seemed to give his mind a new sense of the harmony of art — a new visual power of enjoying beauty. "Every step of approach," he says, "to the presence of the Apollo Belvidere, added to my sensations, and all recollections of his name in classic poetry swarmed on my mind as spontaneously as the associations that are conjured up by the sweetest music." In 1818 he again visited Germany, and on his return the following year, he published his Specimens of the British Poets, with biographical and critical notices, in seven volumes. The justness and beauty of his critical dissertations have been universally admitted; some of them are perfect models of chaste yet animated criticism. In 1820 Mr. Campbell delivered a course of lectures on poetry at the Surrey institution; in 1824 he published Theodric, and other Poems; and, though busy in establishing the London university, he was, in 1827, honoured with the graceful compliment of being elected lord rector of the university of his native city. This distinction was continued and heightened by his re-election the two following years. He afterwards (with a revival of his early love of wandering) made a voyage to Algiers, of which he published an account in the New Monthly Magazine, since collected and printed in two volumes. In 1842 he published the Pilgrim of Glencoe, and other Poems. He has issued various editions of his poetical works, some of them illustrated by Turner and Harvey; and they continue to delight new generations of readers, by whom the poet is regarded with the veneration due to an established and popular English classic.

The genius and taste of Campbell resemble those of Gray. He displays the same delicacy and purity of sentiment, the same vivid perception of beauty and ideal loveliness, equal picturesqueness and elevation of imagery, and the same lyrical and concentrated power of expression. The diction of both is elaborately choice and select. Campbell has greater sweetness and gentleness of pathos, springing from deep moral feeling, and a refined sensitiveness of nature. Neither can be termed boldly original or inventive, but they both possess sublimity — Gray in his two magnificent odes, and Campbell in various passages of the Pleasures of Hope, and especially in his war-songs or lyrics, which form the richest offering ever made by poetry at the shrine of patriotism. This general tone of his verse is calm, uniform, and mellifluous — a stream of mild harmony and delicious fancy flowing through the bosom-scenes of life, with images scattered separately, like flowers, on its surface, and beauties of expression interwoven with it — certain words and phrases of magical power — which never quit the memory. His style rises and falls gracefully with his subject, but without any appearance of imitative harmony or direct resemblance. In his highest pulse of excitement, the cadence of his verse becomes deep and strong, without losing its liquid smoothness; the stream expands to a flood, but never overflows the limits prescribed by a correct taste and regulated magnificence. The Pindaric flights of Gray justified bolder and more rapid transitions. Description is not predominant in either poet, but is adopted as an auxiliary to some deeper emotion or sentiment. Campbell seems, however, to have sympathised more extensively with nature, and to have studied her phenomena more attentively than Gray. His residence in the Highlands, in view of the sea and wild Hebrides, had given expansiveness as well as intensity to his solitary contemplations. His sympathies are also more widely diversified with respect to the condition of humanity, and the hopes and prospects of society. With all his classic predilections, he is not — as he has himself remarked of Crabbe — a "laudator temporis acti," but a decided lover of later times. Age has not quenched his zeal for public freedom or the unchained exercise of the human intellect; and, with equal consistency in tastes as in opinions, he is now meditating a work on Greek literature, by which, fifty years since, he first achieved distinction.

Many can date their first love of poetry from their perusal of Campbell. In youth, the Pleasures of Hope is generally preferred. Like its elder brother, the Pleasures of Imagination, the poem is full of visions of romantic beauty and unchecked enthusiasm — "The bloom of young Desire, and purple light of Love." In riper years, when the taste becomes matured, Gertrude of Wyoming rises in estimation. Its beautiful home-scenes go more closely to the heart, and its delineation of character and passion evinces a more luxuriant and perfect genius. The portrait of the savage chief Outalissi is finished with inimitable skill and truth:—

Far differently the mute Oneyda took
His calumet of peace and cup of joy;
As monumental bronze unchanged his look;
A soul that pity touched, but never shook;
Trained from his tree-rocked cradle to his bier
The fierce extreme of good and ill to brook
Impassive — fearing but the shams of fear—
A stoic of the woods — a man without a tear.

The loves of Gertrude and Waldegrave, the patriarchal Albert, and the sketches of rich sequestered Pennsylvanian scenery, also show the finished art of the poet. The concluding description of the battle, and the death of the heroine, are superior to anything in the Pleasures of Hope; and though the plot is simple, and occasionally obscure (as if the fastidiousness of the poet had made him reject the ordinary materials of a story), the poem has altogether so much of the dramatic spirit, that its characters are distinctly and vividly impressed on the mind of the reader, and the valley of Wyoming, with its green declivities, lake, and forest, instantly takes its place among the imperishable treasures of the memory. The poem of "O'Connor's Child" is another exquisitely finished and pathetic tale. The rugged and ferocious features of ancient feudal manners and family pride are there displayed in connection with female suffering, love, and beauty, and with the romantic and warlike colouring suited to the country and the times. It is full of antique grace and passionate energy — the mingled light and gloom of the wild Celtic character and imagination. Recollecting the dramatic effect of these tales, and the power evinced in "Lochiel" and the naval odes, we cannot but regret that Campbell did not, in his days of passion, venture into the circle of the tragic drama, a field so well adapted to his genius, and essayed by nearly all his great poetical contemporaries.