1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bernard Barton

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:439-40.



BERNARD BARTON, one of the Society of Friends, published in 1820 a volume of miscellaneous poems, which attracted notice both for their elegant simplicity, and purity of style and feeling, and because they were written by a Quaker. "The staple of the whole poems," says a critic in the Edinburgh Review, "is description and meditation — description of quiet home scenery, sweetly and feelingly wrought out — and meditation, over-shaded with tenderness, and exalted by devotion — but all terminating in soothing and even cheerful views of the condition and prospects of mortality." Mr. Barton was employed in a banking establishment at Woodbridge, in Suffolk, and he seems to have contemplated abandoning his profession for a literary life. On this point Charles Lamb wrote to him as follows: "Throw yourself on the world, without any rational plan of support beyond what the chance employ of booksellers would afford you! Throw yourself rather, my dear sir, from the steep Tarpeian rock slap-dash headlong upon iron spikes. If you have but five consolatory minutes between the desk and the bed, make much of them, and live a century in them, rather than turn slave to the booksellers. They are Turks and Tartars when they have poor authors at their beck. Hitherto you have been at arm's length from them — come not within their grasp. I have known many authors want for bread — some repining, others enjoying the blessed security of a counting-house — all agreeing they had rather have been tailors, weavers — what not? — rather than the things they were. I have known some starved, some go mad, one dear friend literally dying in a workhouse. Oh, you know not — may you never know — the miseries of subsisting by authorship!" There is some exaggeration here. We have known authors by profession who lived cheerfully and comfortably, labouring at the stated sum per sheet as regularly as the weaver at his loom, or the tailor on his board; but dignified with the consciousness of following a high and ennobling occupation, with all the mighty, minds of past ages as their daily friends and companions. The bane of such a life, when actual genius is involved, is uncertainty and its temptations, and the almost invariable incompatibility of the poetical temperament with habits of business and steady application. Yet let us remember the examples of Shakspeare, Dryden, and Pope — all regular and constant labourers — and, in our own day, of Scott, Southey, Moore, and many others. The fault is more generally with the author than with the bookseller. In the particular case of Bernard Barton, however, Lamb counselled wisely. He has not the vigour and popular talents requisite for "marketable" literature; and of this he would seem to have been conscious, for he abandoned his dream of exclusive authorship. Mr. Barton has since appeared before the public as author of several volumes of miscellaneous poetry, but without adding much to his reputation. He is still what Jeffrey pronounced him — "a man of a fine and cultivated, rather than of a bold and original mind." His poetry is highly honourable to his taste and feelings as a man.