1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Scott of Amwell

Charles Lamb, "Ritson versus John Scott the Quaker" London Magazine 7 (April 1823) 445-48.



I have in my possession Scott's "Critical Essays on some of the Poems of several English Poets," — a handsome octavo, bought at the sale of Ritson's books; and enriched (or deformed, as some would think it) with MS. annotations in the handwriting of that redoubted Censor. I shall transcribe a few, which seem most characteristic of both the writers — Scott, feeble, but amiable — Ritson, coarse, caustic, clever; and, I am to suppose, not amiable. But they have proved some amusement to me; and, I hope, will produce some to the reader, this rainy season, which really damps a gentleman's wings for any original flight, and obliges him to ransack his shelves, and miscellaneous reading, to furnish an occasional or make-shift paper. If the sky clears up, and the sun dances this Easter (as they say he is wont to do), the town may be troubled with something more in his own way the ensuing month from its poor servant to command.

ELIA.

DYER'S RUINS OF ROME.

—The pilgrim oft
At dead of night 'mid his oraison hears
Aghast the voice of time disparting towers,
Tumbling all precipitate down-dash'd,
Rattling around, loud-thund'ring to the moon;
While murmurs sooth each awful interval
Of ever-failing waters.

SCOTT. There is a very bold transposition in this passage. A superficial reader, not attending to the sense of the epithet ever, might be ready to suppose that the intervals intended were those between the "falling of the waters," instead of those between the "falling of the towers."

RITSON. A beauty, as in Thomson's Winter

—Cheerless towns, far distant, never blest,
Save when its annual course the caravan
Bends to the golden coast of rich Cathay,
With news of human kind.

A superficial person — Mr. Scott, for instance, would be apt to connect the last clause in this period with the line foregoing — "bends to the coast of Cathay with news," &c. But has a reader nothing to do but to sit passive, while the connexion is to glide into his ears like oil?

DENHAM'S COOPER'S HILL.

The stream is so transparent, pure, and clear,
That, had the self-enamour'd youth gaz'd here,
So fatally deceived he had not been,
While he the bottom, not his face had seen.

SCOTT. The last two lines have more music than Denham's can possibly boast.

RITSON. May I have leave to conjecture, that in the very last line of all, the word "the" has erroneously crept in? I am persuaded that the poet wrote "his." To my mind, at least, this reading, in a surprising degree, heightens the idea of the extreme clearness and transparency of the stream, where a man might "see more than his face" (as it were) in it.

COLLINS'S ORIENTAL ECLOGUES.

SCOTT. The second of these little pieces, called Hassan, or the Camel Driver, is of superior character. This poem contradicts history in one principal instance; the merchants of the east travel in numerous caravans, but Hassan is introduced travelling alone in the desart. But this circumstance detracts little from our author's merit; adherence to historical fact is seldom required in poetry.

RITSON. It is always, where the poet unnecessarily transports you to the ends of the world. If he must plague you with exotic scenery, you have a right to exact strict local imagery and costume. Why must I learn Arabic, to read nothing after all but Gay's Fables in another language?

SCOTT. Abra is introduced in a grove, wreathing a flowery chaplet for her hair. Shakspeare himself could not have devised a more natural and pleasing incident, than that of the monarch's attention being attracted by her song:

Great Abbas chanced that fated morn to stray,
By love conducted from the chace away.
Among the vocal vales he heard her song—

RITSON. Ch—t?

O stay thee, Agib, for my feet deny,
No longer friendly to my life, to fly—

SCOTT. From the pen of Cowley, such an observation as Secander's, that "his feet were no longer friendly to his life," might have been expected; but Collins rarely committed such violations of simplicity.

RITSON. Pen of Cowley! impudent goose-quill, how darest thou guess what Cowley would have written?

GRAY'S CHURCH-YARD ELEGY.

Save where the beetle wheels—

SCOTT. The beetle was introduced in poetry by Shakspeare.... Shakspeare has made the most of his description; indeed, far too much, considering the occasion:

—to black Hecate's summons
The shard-born beetle with his drowsy hum
Hath rung night's yawning peal.—

The imagination must be indeed fertile, which could produce this ill-placed exuberance of imagery. The poet, when composing this passage, must have had in his mind all the remote ideas of Hecate, a heathen Goddess, of a beetle, of night, of a peal of bells, and of that action of the muscles, commonly called a gape or yawn.

RITSON. Numbscull! that would limit an infinite head by the square contents of thy own numbscull.

SCOTT. The great merit of a poet is not, like Cowley, Donne, and Denham, to say what no man but himself has thought, but what every man besides himself has thought; but no man expressed, or, at least, expressed so well.

RITSON. In other words, all that is poetry, which Mr. Scott has thought, as well as the poet; but that cannot be poetry, which was not obvious to Mr. Scott, as well as to Cowley, Donne, and Denham.

SCOTT. Mr. Mason observes of the language in this part [the Epitaph], that it has a Doric delicacy. It has, indeed, what I should rather term a happy rusticity.

RITSON.

Come, see
Rural felicity.

GOLDSMITH'S DESERTED VILLAGE.

No busy steps the grass-grown footway tread,
But all the bloomy flush of life is fled—
All but yon widow'd solitary thing,
That feebly bends beside the plashy spring;
She, wretched matron, forced, in age, for bread,
To strip the brook with mantling cresses spread.

SCOTT. Our author's language, in this place, is very defective in correctness. After mentioning the general privation of the "bloomy flush of life," the exceptionary "all but" includes, as part of that "bloomy flush," an aged decrepit matron; that is to say, in plain prose, "the bloomy flush of life is all fled but one old woman."

RITSON. Yet Milton could write:

Far from all resort of mirth,
Save the cricket on the hearth,
Or the bell-man's drowsy charm—

and I dare say he was right. O never let a quaker, or a woman, try their hand at being witty, any more than a Tom Brown affect to speak by the spirit!

SCOTT. —Aaron Hill, who, although, in general, a bombastic writer, produced some pieces of merit, particularly the Caveat, an allegorical satire on Pope.

RITSON. Say rather his verses on John Dennis, beginning "Adieu, unsocial excellence!" which are implicitly a finer satire on Pope than twenty Caveats. All that Pope could or did say against Dennis, is there condensed; and what he should have said, and did not, for him, is there too.

ON THE DEATH OF MR. DENNIS

Adieu, unsocial excellence! at last
Thy foes are vanquish'd, and thy fears are past:
Want, the grim recompense of truth like thine,
Shall now no longer dim thy destined shrine.
The impatient envy, the disdainful air,
The front malignant, and the captious stare,
The furious petulance, the jealous start,
The mist of frailties that obscured thy heart—
Veil'd in thy grave shall unremember'd lie;
For these were parts of Dennis born to die.
But there's a nobler deity behind;
His reason dies not, and has friends to find....
Though here revenge and pride withheld his praise,
No wrongs shall reach him through his future days;
The rising ages shall redeem his name,
And nations read him into lasting fame.
In his defects untaught, his labour'd page
Shall the slow gratitude of Time engage.
Perhaps some story of his pitied woe,
Mix'd in faint shades, may with his memory go,
To touch fraternity with generous shame,
And backward cast an unavailing blame
On times too cold to taste his strength of art,
Yet warm contemners of too weak a heart.
Rest in thy dust, contented with thy lot,
Thy good remember'd, and thy bad forgot....

THOMSON'S SEASONS. Address to the Angler to spare the young fish.

If yet too young, and easily deceived,
A worthless prey scarce bends your pliant rod,
Him, piteous of his youth, and the short space
He has enjoy'd the vital light of heaven,
Soft disengage, and back into the stream
The speckled infant throw—

SCOTT. The praise bestowed on a preceding passage, cannot be justly given to this. There is in it an attempt at dignity above the occasion. Pathos seems to have been intended, but affectation only is produced.

RITSON. It is not affectation, but it is the mock heroic of pathos, introduced purposely and wisely to attract the reader to a proposal, which from the unimportance of the subject — a poor little fish — might else have escaped his attention — as children learn, or may learn, humanity to animals from the mock romantic "Perambulations of a Mouse."

HAYMAKING.

—Infant hands
Trail the long rake; or, with the fragrant load
O'er-charged, amid the kind oppression roll.

SCOTT. "Kind oppression" is a phrase of that sort, which one scarcely knows whether to blame or praise: it consists of two words, directly opposite in their signification; and yet, perhaps, no phrase whatever could have better conveyed the idea of an easy uninjurious weight—

RITSON. — and yet he does not know whether to blame or praise it!

SHEEP-SHEARING.

—By many a dog
Compell'd....
The clamour much of men, and boys, and dogs—

SCOTT. The mention of dogs twice was superfluous; it might have been easily avoided.

RITSON. Very true — by mentioning them only once.

SCOTT. Nature is rich in a variety of minute but striking circumstances some of which engage the attention of one observer, and some that of another.

RITSON. This lover of truth never uttered a truer speech. Give me a lie — with a spirit in it.

Air, earth, and ocean, smile immense—

SCOTT. The bombastic "immense smile of air, &c.," better omitted.

RITSON. Quite Miltonic — "enormous bliss" — and both, I presume, alike caviare to the Quaker.

He comes! he comes! in every breeze the power
Of philosophic melancholy comes!
His near approach, the sudden-starting tear,
The glowing cheek, the mild dejected air,
The soften'd feature, and the beating heart,
Pierced deep with many a virtuous pang, declare.

SCOTT. This fine picture is greatly injured by a few words. The power should have been said to come "upon the breeze;" not "in every breeze;" an expression which indicates a multiplicity of approaches. If he came "in every breeze," he must have been always coming

RITSON. — and so he was.

—The branching Oronoque
Rolls a brown deluge, and the native drives
To dwell aloft on life-sufficing trees,
At once his dome, his robe, his food, and arms.
Swell'd by a thousand streams, impetuous hurl'd
From all the roaring Andes, huge descends
The mighty Orellana. Scarce the Muse
Dares stretch her wing o'er this enormous mass
Of rushing water: scarce she dares attempt
The sea-like Plata; to whose dread expanse,
Continuous depth, and wond'rous length of course,
Our floods are rills. With unabated force
In silent dignity they sweep along,
And traverse realms unknown, and blooming wilds,
And fruitful desarts, worlds of solitude,
Where the sun smiles, and seasons teem, in vain,
Unseen and unenjoy'd. Forsaking these,
O'er peopled plains they fair-diffusive flow,
And many a nation feed, and circle safe
In their fair bosom many a happy isle,
The seat of blameless Pan, yet undisturb'd
By Christian crimes, and Europe's cruel sons.
Thus pouring on, they proudly seek the deep,
Whose vanquish'd tide, recoiling from the shock,
Yields to this liquid weight of half the globe,
And Ocean trembles for his green domain.

SCOTT. Poets not unfrequently aim at aggrandising their subject, by avowing their inability to describe it. This is a puerile and inadequate expedient. Thomson has here, perhaps inadvertently, descended to this feeble art of exaggeration.

RITSON. A magnificent passage, in spite of Duns Scotus! The poet says not a word about his "inability to describe," nor seems to be thinking about his readers at all. He is confessing his own feelings, awe-struck with the contemplation of such o'erwhelming objects; in the same spirit with which he designates the den of the "green serpent" in another place—

—Which ev'n imagination fears to tread—
—A dazzling deluge reigns, and all
From pole to pole is undistinguish'd blaze—

SCOTT. From pole to pole, strictly speaking, is improper. The poet meant, "from one part of the horizon to the other."

RITSON. From "his" pole to "thy" pole was a more downward declension than "from the centre thrice," &c.

Ohe! jam satis.

[Note by E. V. Lucas: This was a hoax, as Lamb explained in a letter to Bernard Barton (March 5, 1823): "I took up Scott, where I had scribled some petulant remarks, and for a make-shift father'd them on Ritson." — Works of Charles Lamb (1903-05) 1:475n.]