1798 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anna Seward

Edward Gardner, in "Miss Seward, Dr. Darwin, Gray, and Collins" Miscellanies, in Prose and Verse (1798) 1:157-61.



Miss Seward's beautiful poem of LOUISA has been censured as containing a great number of meretricious ornaments, and she has been accused of accumulating in this dramatic character, glaring metaphor, and ostentatious splendor. This charge is to be found in a very respectable publication, the authors of which have eminently served the cause of literature — it is to be found in the Monthly Review.

"Nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri," is the proper motto for literary disquisitions; and the editors of this elegant and generally just repository of criticism, have too much candour to deny to others that right which they themselves always exercise.

But I conjecture the critic formed his idea of the excellence of poetry entirely on the school of Pope, and his archetypes, the classic authors of Greece and Rome. It must be confessed, that if a modern poet was bound to confine himself to any particular manner without the least admixture, the ancient classics are doubtless to be preferred; but as the end of Poetry, as an art, is to captivate the imagination by seizing powerfully on the passions, it may be doubted, whether a happy and judicious assemblage of the various excellencies of different poetic schools, may not be more likely to constitute a perfect poem, than a strict and servile adherence to a single model.

A rich and copious supply of materials has been discovered in the Gothic fictions and legendary tales of the dark ages; tales which by the romantic singularity of their character, are peculiarly adapted to poetry; and if we add to the wild nature of the fable, the scenery that necessarily accompanied it, the ancient castle with its appendages, the gloomy grove, the moat, the Barbican, and the draw-bridge; images which by association create the ideas of assault, danger, and tumult; the "terrible" is excited, and the mind thrown back to the twelfth century, busies itself in no unpleasing contemplation on the events which that period produced. This I conceive to be the exact state of the soul when it is most capable of exercising its poetical powers.

Mr. Hayley, whose critical judgment is almost equal to his genius (which is paying his judgment a very extravagant compliment) is a warm advocate for this mixture of powerful imagery. He wished to unite in his "Triumphs of Temper," some portion of the sportive wildness of Ariosto, with the classic elegance and the moral graces of Pope; and this union, which it must be allowed he has happily effected, contributes in a very great degree to the excellence of that charming poem.

The "Louisa" may perhaps be ornamented in a somewhat richer style than the "Serena," but the materials are of elegant contexture, and of genuine value, the real diamonds of Golconda, not the paltry Bristol-stone.

The ornamental parts of Miss Seward's poetry consists in rich and glowing metaphors, of apt, beautiful, and appropriate imagery, and in a beautiful display of the face of nature. Her pictures are all taken from the life, they breathe vivid on her canvas, and bespeak not the servile copies of a lifeless dauber, but the bold and animated strokes of an original, complete master.

If it were possible to take away those appendages to "Louisa," which have been termed superfluous ornaments, this poem would be dwindled into the shadow of a shade, its spirit would be evaporated, and a caput mortuum would alone remain. The elegant attire of Anna's muse, her captivating smile, and the easy graces of her motion, constitute her most engaging attractions.