1785 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Hugh Downman

Richard Polwhele to Hugh Downman, 1785; Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections (1826) 1:173-75.



Kenton, 1785.

DEAR SIR,

You owe the sonnets which accompany this to an observation which, you know, we heard the other day, respecting picturesque poetry. It was observed (you may recollect) that "genuine poetical painting consists in the exhibition of the little particularities of an image; and that it is only in the power of appropriate and distinctive colouring to bring it, as it were, immediately before our eyes." This remark, though it be not applicable (at least the former part of it) to all kinds of poetry, very evidently accords with the true idea of the sonnet; the intention of which is surely to fix the mind to the contemplation of an object presented in its most striking attitudes, and marked by its more trivial, yet pleasing peculiarities. Such a close and accurate inspection of those parts of nature which deserve imitation, is frequently as engaging to the poet, as microscopic observation to the philosopher. Poetry on a larger scale, where a variety of general images must be introduced, and sometimes in rapid succession, will not always display to advantage so particular a delineation; while the smaller pieces of composition seem absolutely to require the minuter touches of the pencil. And as the sonnet should consist of one single image, illustrated by its more pleasing appendages, it is here (and almost here only) that an imitated object may be contemplated at leisure, under all its little forms of beauty. Hence, perhaps, some latent, attribute may be drawn forth, which may diffuse over it an air of novelty.

In this light the sonnet seems peculiarly turned to the beautiful; and (in the province of the beautiful) the more picturesque objects of still life. But the sublime (though some writers in this line have attempted it) is obviously incompatible with such miniature-painting.

With respect to the structure of this little composition, the Italian method, perhaps, needs not in all cases be abandoned; though (as some judicious critics have lately observed) it often gives the sonnet an air of formality and constraint.

In the sonnets now offered to your perusal, every leading image was derived from real incident, or actual observation. Attached to rural scenery, I have been disposed to devote my leisure hours rather to the contemplation of Nature, than to amusements of a less retired kind. The mind that is at peace with itself is not in want of dissipation. I am at least conscious of having been innocently employed; and often, amidst my poetical musings, have I been warmed insensibly to pious fervours! Often have I looked up with gratitude to the Father of that Nature I was attempting to depicture; and often have I said in my heart, that poesy, so unworthily depreciated by the disingenuous and unfeeling, must be highly favourable to religious meditation.

But a truce to preaching. Should you like the little effusions here submitted to you, it is my intention to print them. It is with trembling I await your award.

Yours, &c.

R. P.