Rev. William Lisle Bowles

W., "Memoirs of the living Poets of Great Britain: William Lisle Bowles" Imperial Magazine 5 (May 1823) 425-34.

It is a quaint phrase of Anthony Wood, the Oxford biographer, when recording the history of any of his worthies who happened to have been born within the precincts of the university, that such an one "tumbled out of his mother's womb into the lap of the Muses:" thus seeming to ascribe much of the powers of the mind to the accidents of nativity. However fanciful this conceit may be, it cannot be doubted that particular associations have a considerable influence in the direction of the mind; and though they certainly cannot create genius, they will often develop and bring it into action, where otherwise it might have lain altogether as dormant and useless as the brilliant gem in the fathomless caverns of the ocean. Hence, we perceive the importance of a public education, and the great advantages of those venerable institutions which the piety and munificence of our ancestors erected for the encouragement of learning. Here the celebrity acquired by one set of students, stimulates another and another race in perpetual succession to follow the same course; besides which, the literary example of a diligent and venerated preceptor operates in keeping up a spirit of generous emulation in the seminary which he governed, long after he has mouldered into dust. Thus it is that the great schools of the kingdom continue to send forth intellectual luminaries, by whose exertions in the sphere of literature and science, knowledge is diffused, religion is supported, and manners are improved. Among these foundations, Winchester has for four centuries maintained a distinguished rank; and so long as such men as the Lowths and the Wartons shall be succeeded by a Burgess and a Huntingford, the glory of Wykeham will never be eclipsed. What Johnson once said of his college, that "it was a nest of singing birds," may be fitly applied to Winchester, where, during a long period, the taste for poesy has maintained an even pace with the culture of classical knowledge.

In this excellent nursery of letters, did the subject of the present biographical sketch receive his education, under the fostering care of that amiable man and elegant scholar, Joseph Warton, aided by the personal instruction of the present learned bishop of Hereford. His contemporaries at Winchester, though of a different standing, were Henry Addington, now Lord Sidmouth, the bishops of St. David's, London, and Killala, besides several others who have raised themselves, solely by their talents, to the highest stations in church and state.

At the age of eighteen, Mr. Bowles was elected on the exhibition of superannuation to Trinity College, in the university of Oxford, where he studied with the greatest diligence, and became a particular favourite of the senior fellow of that house, honest Tom Warton, who, it may be well supposed, did not esteem him the less, for his indulgence of a poetical fancy. In 1783, Mr. Bowles gained the chancellor's prize for the best Latin poem, on the popular subject of the siege of Gibraltar, ("Calpe Obsessa,") and the year following he took his first degree in arts; but he did not proceed to that of master till the 24th of May, 1792. In the mean time he obtained a fellowship in his college, and, pursuant to the statutes, entered into holy orders. After serving the living of Dumbleton, in Gloucestershire, a few years, he went to reside at Donhead, in his native county of Wilts, from whence he finally removed to the vicarage of Bremhill near Calne, which, with one of the small prebends in Salisbury cathedral, given to him by the bishop, and a nominal chaplaincy to the king; constitutes the utmost of his ecclesiastical preferment. This, considering his personal worth and eminent talents, may excite the wonder of those, who, naturally enough, think that extraordinary merit in every profession should be distinguished by corresponding honours and emoluments. But if Mr. Bowles has been neglected, it is principally owing to his want of energy, and to an habitual love of retirement. His early years were spent in sickness and sorrow, as a relief from which, he was obliged to travel first in his own country, and next in foreign lands. Though he recruited his health, he was under the necessity of observing a severe regimen, which in a great measure secluded him from the world, and produced an abstractedness of mind that seemed to say "melancholy had marked him for her own."

The first effusions of his muse had the same gloomy tinge, and though sweetly flowing in their numbers, beautiful in their descriptions, and chaste in moral sentiment, they may be said to have left on the mind of the reader, an impression of sympathy with the author, rather than an high admiration of his powers. His earliest publication consisted of "Fourteen Sonnets," printed in 1789, and it was so well received as to pass through three editions, previous to the uniform collection of the author's poetical works. This encouragement, on the part of the public, was a clear proof of intrinsic merit, in performances which were not set off by any attractions commonly adopted to gain popularity. The sonnet is generally regarded as one of the most trifling species of composition; and yet so much delicacy is required in the formation of a good one, that few writers have succeeded in this branch of the art of poesy. The English language is not ductile enough for the light and airy measure which is necessary to the construction of a pleasing sonnet; and Milton, with all his genius, and love of Petrarch, failed in his attempts to give the Italian cadence to his native tongue.

Since the time of our great Epic poet, other harmonists have made similar efforts, particularly the two Wartons, and, above all the rest, Mr. Bowles; but their productions, however sweet and elegant they may be, are still little things, which the reader takes up, admires for the moment, and dismisses, without any wish to retain them in his remembrance. The sonnets of Mr. Bowles are mostly of the plaintive kind, for which we have already assigned a sufficient reason; but they exhibit a correct taste, and a mind feelingly alive to the beauty of nature. As a specimen, we shall select one, in which an admirable moral is educed from very common scenery.

Languid, and sad, and slow, from day today
I journey on, yet pensive turn to view
(Where the rich landscape gleams with softer hue)
The streams, and vales, and bills, that steal away.
So fares it with the children of the earth:
For when life's goodly prospect opens round,
Their spirits beat to tread that fairy ground,
Where every vale sounds to the pipe of mirth.
But their vain hope and easy youth beguiles,
And soon a longing look, like me, they cast
Back on the pleasing prospect of the past:
Yet fancy points where still far onward smiles
Some sunny spot, and her fair colouring blends,
Till cheerless on their path the night descends.

The next public appearance of Mr. Bowles as a poet, did honour to the sensibility of his own heart, while he paid a feeling tribute of respect to that of another, in "Verses to John Howard, on his State of the Prisons and Lazarettos." Perhaps the range of English poetry does not yield many sketches more touching and descriptive than the following picture of the interior of a prison, when visited by the philanthropist:—

Be the sad scene disclos'd: — fearless unfold
The grating door — the inmost cell behold!
Thought shrinks from the dread sight: the paly lamp
Burns faint amid th' infections vapour's damp;
Beneath its light full many a livid mien
And haggard eye-ball thro' the dusk are seen.
But, oh! for him, who to yon vault confin'd,
Has bid a long farewell to human kind;
His wasted form, his cold and bloodless cheek,
A tale of sadder sorrow seems to speak,
Of friends, perhaps, now mingled with the dead;
Of hope, that, like a faithless flatterer, fled
In th' utmost hour of need; or of a son
Cast to the bleak world's mercy; or of one
Whose heart was broken, when the stern behest
Tore him from pale affection's bleeding breast;
Despairing, from his cold and flinty bed
With fearful muttering he hath rais'd his head:
"What pitying spirit, what unwonted guest,
Strays to this last retreat, these shades unblest?
From light and life shut out, beneath this cell
Long have I bid hope's cheering sun farewell.
I heard for ever clos'd the jealous door,
I mark'd my bed on the forsaken floor;
I had no hope on earth, no human friend:
Let me unpitied to the duet descend!"
Cold is his frozen heart — his eye is rear'd
To heaven no more — and on his sable beard.
The tear has ceas'd to fall. Thou canst not bring
Back to his mournful heart the morn of spring.
Thou canst not bid the rose of health renew
Upon his wasted cheek her crimson hue.
But at thy look (ere yet to hate resign'd
He murmurs his last curses on mankind,)
At thy kind look one tender thought shall rise,
And his full soul shall thank thee ere he dies.

In the same spirit our author attuned his harp to a sorrowful strain, and suspended a cypress wreath over the "Grave of Howard," a monody of sterling merit, whether considered in regard to the sentiments which pervade it, or the language in which they are conveyed. Soon after this, he published "Verses on the Institution of the Philanthrophic Society;" with the object of recommending that excellent establishment to general support. In 1792, Mr. Bowles printed "A Monody written at Matlock," during a second visit to that romantic spot in the preceding autumn. To this beautiful poem he appended a pathetic piece, entitled "The African," and "Verses on leaving a Place of Residence," in which last he paid the following affectionate tribute of filial respect to the memory of his parent:—

These woods that whispering wave
My father rear'd and nurs'd, now in the grave
Gone down; he lov'd their peaceful shades, and said,
Perhaps, as here he mus'd, "Live laurels green,
Ye pines that shade the solitary scene,
Live blooming and rejoice: when I am dead
My son shall guard you, and amid your bowers,
Like me, find shelter from life's beating showers."
These thoughts, my father, every spot endear,
And whilst I think with self-accusing pain
A stranger shall possess the lov'd domain,
In each low wind I seem thy voice to hear.
But these are shadows of the shaping brain
That now my heart, alas can ill sustain—
We must forget — the world is wide — that ode
Of peace may still be found, nor hard the road—
It boots not, so, to every chance resign'd,
Where'er the spot, we bear the unalter'd mind:
Yet, O poor cottage, and thou sylvan shade,
Remember ere I left your coverts green,
Where in my youth I mus'd, in childhood play'd,
I gaz'd, I paus'd, I dropt a tear unseen,
(That bitter from the fount of memory fell)
Thinking on him that rear'd you — now farewell!

Five years after this, the mourning muse of Mr. Bowles again poured forth her melancholy song in "Elegiac Stanzas during Sickness at Bath;" and shortly after came out "Hope, an allegorical sketch on recovering slowly from sickness." In 1798 he published two poems of a higher character than any of his former productions, one entitled "Coombe Ellen," and the other "St. Michael's Mount;" in each of which, but particularly the last, he has evinced a vigorous fancy, combined with great power of language, and felicity of description. Soon after the appearance of these pieces, our author was induced by the repeated call for his detached performances, to collect the whole, and print them, with some additions, in three volumes; to which, in a few years, he subjoined a fourth, containing, among other articles, "The Battle of the Nile;" "The Sorrows of Switzerland." "The Picture;" and the "Spirit of Discovery;" all of which, in a separate form, had received the stamp of public approbation. After this, the muse of Mr. Bowles slumbered for a considerable period, partly owing to an attention to professional duties, and partly to an engagement entered into with the London booksellers, to superintend a complete edition of the works of Pope.

As a biographer, commentator, and critic he displayed, on this occasion, talents worthy of the subjects in which they were employed; but the execution of his task, though faithfully and honourably discharged, gave dissatisfaction to one set of readers, who could not endure that the faults of an illustrious poet should be laid open to the world. Yet, in fact, Mr. Bowles, in his Life of Pope, did no more than narrate what was already well known; and what neither Warburton, Johnson, nor Warton, had taken any pains to conceal or disguise.

It is, therefore, difficult to account for the intemperate abuse poured out by a few forward writers upon the editor and biographer of Pope; when none of them possessed, or even pretended to possess, the means of disproving the facts that were related by him. The attack was begun by Lord Byron, who, in his "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers," not satisfied with taking the part of "the first of poets;" in the wantonness of his mirth, or the bitterness of his wrath, repeatedly held up to ridicule "sonneteering Bowles," whom he thus addresses:—

Whether in sighing winds thou seek'st relief,
Or consolation in a yellow leaf;
Whether thy muse most lamentably tells
What merry sounds proceed from Oxford bells;
Or, still in bells delighting, finds a friend,
In every chime that jingled from Ostend?
Ah! how much juster were thy muse's hap,
If to thy bells thou would'st but add a cap!

The wit of this, is but a sorry excuse for the venom with which it is pointed, and for the malignity of spirit, that, without the least provocation, could select a man of worth and genius as an object of satire. But Mr. Bowles, though treated with such gratuitous and unmerited asperity, only smiled at the impotent attempt to destroy his literary reputation; and when, a few years afterwards, he met his antagonist at the hospitable table of a common friend and brother poet, they conversed and laughed together with the utmost good humour. Of the sincerity of Mr. Bowles in his conduct towards Lord Byron on this occasion, there can be no doubt; for though injured, as he certainly had been, and that too in no ordinary degree, he never made any retort upon the noble satirist. On the other hand, his lordship took the first opportunity that offered itself, of renewing hostilities; and his manner of doing this, if it did not manifest a rancorous, cannot be said to have indicated a generous disposition.

Among other assailants of Mr. Bowles, as the editor of Pope, were D'Israeli and Gilchrist, two compilers of anecdotes, who, on account of their success in that branch of literary industry, fancied themselves qualified to set up as critics and controvertists. Another writer of higher name, Mr. Thomas Campbell, also ventured to draw an arrow from his quiver, as the defender of Pope's poetical character. The contest, therefore, now waxed hot, and Mr. Bowles stood alone, having to contend with a host of troublesome pamphleteers, that multiplied in numbers every day. He was roundly accused of having stained the moral reputation of Pope, by reviving idle stories and stale calumnies, without taking the pains to examine into the credibility of the one, or censuring, as justice required, the authors of the tales which he reported. This was the heaviest charge brought against the biographer of the great poet; in answer to which it is sufficient to observe, that Mr. Bowles was not the retained advocate of Pope, and that, as an historian, it did not become him to write a panegyric.

Pope was far from being a man of pure morals; and, unfortunately for his fame, the laxity of his principles is too evident in his writings, to be called in question. His correspondence exhibits him as a time-server and a hypocrite; and if other proofs of the narrowness of his mind were wanting, the circumstance of his collecting and publishing his own letters would alone be decisive of his character for meanness and vanity. It would be easy to expatiate upon obliquities of a still worse description, but the present is not the place for the discussion. — Enough has been observed to shew that Mr. Bowles could not have thrown a veil over the conduct of his author without injuring the cause of truth; and, in spite of what has been advanced by Lord Byron and others, it may be safely asserted, that the biographer of Pope has rather softened than exaggerated the disagreeable features in the moral portraiture of his hero.

In appreciating the poetical character of Pope, our author laid down this fundamental position, "That all images drawn from what is beautiful or sublime in the works of NATURE, are more beautiful and sublime than any images drawn from ART, and therefore, per se, (abstractedly) are more poetical. In like manner, those PASSIONS of the human heart, which belong to NATURE, in general, are, per se, more adapted to the higher species of poetry than incidental and transient manners." This was not a novel opinion, for it had been long before explicitly stated by Warton, who applied it as a criterion in appreciating the poetical character of Pope; and, if we are not greatly mistaken, it was the doctrine of Johnson also, for, in his criticism on the works of Gray, he says, that "an epithet or metaphor drawn from nature ennobles art; but that an epithet or metaphor drawn from art degrades nature." Mr. Bowles, therefore, appears to have fallen into a strange error when he considered the great English critic as his opponent in this instance; for if the imagery of nature, as Johnson asserts, be superior to the imagery of art, there is an end of the question.

With regard, also, to the rank that Pope is entitled to hold in the scale of poetical excellence, the same great writer does not differ essentially from Mr. Bowles and his master Warton, for on the score of genius, the highest point of all, the preference is given by him to Dryden. We cannot help thinking that the whole controversy might have been settled in the words of Johnson, who has said of Pope, that "he excelled every other writer in poetical prudence; he wrote in such a manner as might expose him to few hazards. He used almost always the same fabric of verse; and, indeed, by those few essays which he made of any other, he did not enlarge his reputation. Of this uniformity, the certain consequence was readiness and dexterity. By perpetual practice, language had, in his mind, a systematical arrangement; having always the same use for words, he had words so selected and combined as to be ready at his call."

The poetical character of Pope, therefore, according to this, was that of an industrious and harmonious versifier, capable of accomplishing great things with the materials which came in his way; but inferior in original conceptions. Such, in fact, was the opinion of Warton, and such is that of Mr. Bowles; but the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews took the opposite side, and were followed, as already stated, by Campbell and Byron. To the former, Mr. Bowles replied in a very spirited letter, which was succeeded by "A Vindication of the Editor of Pope's Works from some Charges brought against him by a writer in the Quarterly Review." — Upon this, Lord Byron transmitted to his bookseller "A Letter on the Rev. W. L. Bowles's Strictures on the Life and Writings of Pope;" the publication of which desultory piece drew from our author "Two Letters to His Lordship;" in which the canon of poetical criticism, already mentioned, is elaborately defended and illustrated. On this controversy Mr. Bowles displayed the acuteness of the logician and the politeness of the gentleman; affording a striking contrast to the sophistry and rudeness of his principal antagonists, who retired from the field with as little credit to the correctness of their taste as to the liberality of their sentiments.

It is surprising that a question of this nature should have stirred up the angry passions; and it is more surprising, and to be regretted, that the noble advocate for Pope should have descended to vulgar sarcasms upon the sacred character of a worthy and ingenious man, whose mildness of spirit, and literary merits, independently of his professional conduct, which has even been most exemplary, ought to have commanded respect. Since this dispute, Mr. Bowles has published a poem, the sketch of which had lain by him some years, and to which he gave the title of "The Grave of the Last Saxon; or, the Legend of the Curfew." It is a tale partly historical and partly romantic, founded on the fate of Harold, at whose grave, in Waltham abbey, his children assemble with pious devotion, after experiencing some interesting and truly affecting adventures. The piece is in blank verse, and extends to five cantos; but in descending to imitate Lord Byron, the author has betrayed great want of judgment. The character of Editha, the mistress of Harold, is spiritedly drawn, and the interview between her and the benighted Conqueror, is one of the finest scenes in the poem; of which the happiest specimen we can give is the conclusion.

The hand of God! from that dark day of blood,
When vengeance triumph'd and the curfew knoll'd,
England, thy proud majestic policy
Slowly arose! through centuries of shade
The pile august of British liberty
Tower'd, till behold it stand in clearer light
Illustrious. At its base fell tyranny
Gnashes his teeth, and drops the broken sword;
Whilst freedom, justice, to the cloudless skies
Uplift their radiant forms, and fame aloft
Sounds o'er the subject seas, from East to West,
From North to South, her trumpet — ENGLAND, LIVE!

In enumerating the publications of Mr. Bowles, we have passed over one or two occasional sermons, and some minor poems, the former distinguished by oratorical energy, and the latter by tender sentiment and harmony of numbers.