1800 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Richard Polwhele

James Hurdis to John Gifford, 8 January 1800; Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections (1826) 1:518-21.



Jan. 8, 1800.

MY DEAR SIR,

I have read the MS. you have been pleased to put into my hands, with as much attention as interrupted leisure, and a very indifferent state of health will permit; and instead of an opinion, which, from such a perusal, it would be little less than madness to presume to give, permit me, in few words, just to tell you the impression it has made on my mind; this is, with much in it that is entitled to high commendation, there is not a little that I seem not quite to like. As you have been so studiously careful to give me no clue by which to guess at the writer, I hope I shall neither hurt your feelings, even should you be the author, nor those of any friend whom you highly respect, by observing, that (if, as you say, the piece be intended for publication) others may feel as I do, and be affronted, that a writer, who gives sufficient proofs of his capacity to write what every body must approve of, should not think it worth his while to be at common pains to have his piece free from some palpable, but very exceptionable faults. It really seems to me that, meaning to be anonymous, and to remain unknown, he has studiously underwritten himself, with the view of being undiscovered. It is evident he has a poetical mind, and I cannot help fancying, either that he is a young man of good learning, disposed to try his skill, or, as I before conjectured, a veteran, vainly attempting, like Achilles, to disguise himself. His mottos, and his quotations, are particularly apt and striking; and in the canto which appears to be written in imitation of Spenser, there is fancy and imagination not unworthy of Spenser. But sometimes, perhaps, the ridicule intended loses its effect, from its being offensively indelicate. Neither, as a whole, is it sufficiently compressed and compact.

I thus give you my hasty notions, because you ask them, in the confidence that you will regard them only as hasty notions; yet, in the same spirit, I am now going to add another, on which I myself seem to lay some more stress, as conceiving it to be almost matured into opinion. If you be yourself the author, or he be one whom you much regard, condescend to take my advice thus far, not to publish this piece as it now is, but work it up into a better form, as you easily can if you will. To give it a suitable object, let it profess to be "The Rise, Progress, &c. (not, I think, of Methodism only, thus expressly and pointedly by name, but) of Modern Enthusiasm." And to draw from the life, let the first canto describe a youth of some imagination, but slender judgment, misled by ill-governed passions into all the crooked paths of folly and vice; then go on to describe him as beggared in his circumstances, and deprived of the esteem and regard of all good and wise men, preserving only his characteristical conceitedness, at a loss where also to dispose of himself with a chance of preserving it; flying to the conventicle, exactly on the same principles as some others, in similar circumstances, have recourse to brothels and gin-shops, and there indulging in spiritual debauchery, and so on. In this way much of what is already written may be brought in; only it must, if possible, be enlivened with arch allusions, as in the "Bath Guide," and droll incidents or stories of humour. The canto in which the most prevalent delusions are so admirably personified and pourtrayed, may then be introduced with great advantage, and the whole have a happy effect, and do much good; of which, I again own, I entertain doubts in its present form.

I could not have given you a stronger proof of the high opinion I entertain both of the poem and its author, than I now unintentionally have done, by thus launching out, contrary to the design with which I sat down, into a lengthened critique on it. As a proof on your part that you take my prattling criticism in good part, permit me to bespeak the reviewing of the piece, when, as I trust will ere long be the case, it comes, by and by, in the shape of a regular, complete, satirical poem, from the Anti-Jacobin press; being sure that then I shall be called on to bestow on it unqualified praise. There is no man who needs to think such a subject beneath him, or unworthy of his taking proper pains with it.

Yours truly,

J. H.