1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Lisle Bowles

G....d, "An Essay on Bowles's Poetry and Sonnets" Living Poets of England: Specimens of the Living British Poets (1827) 1:461-62.



The REV. WILLIAM LISLE BOWLES, M.A. of Donhead, near Shaftesbury, rector of Dumbleton, Glocestershire, was educated at Winchester under Dr. Joseph Warton, and afterwards became a member and subsequently a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford.

Mr. Bowles has long been a candidate for literary fame, and one of the most deservedly popular of English minor poets. There is a certain melancholy sweetness in his style peculiar to himself, and although we have heard it objected to his earlier productions, that they dwell too long and too frequently upon the subject of his own private griefs, yet this is done in a manner so little offensive, that our sympathy towards the man begets our indulgence to the poet.

But although he has already given three volumes of miscellaneous poetry to the public, Mr. Bowles has chiefly been celebrated as a writer of sonnets, a species of poem which we are by no means disposed to place so high in the scale of merit, as its popularity appears to warrant. The dilation of a single idea into fourteen lines accords but ill with the energy of the English Language and it has ever appeared to us, that nothing but the soft melody of the Italian, or the majesty of the Spanish, could reconcile the ear to the monotony of metre, and the perpetual recurrence of the same rhyme necessary to the legitimate sonnet. We are aware, however, that this species of poem is highly esteemed in other countries, particularly in France, where the authority of Boileau may be cited by the advocates of the sonnet, both in support of its merit, and of the extreme difficulty of its composition. But the best of the modern French writers have ventured to dissent from this opinion; and Laharpe has not hesitated to affirm, that the decision of this great critic is more to be attributed to a servile compliance with the fashion of the times, than to his own candid and unbiassed judgment.

It is only within these few years that the sonnet has become so favourite a production with the English poets. Formerly (we speak not of the times of Elizabeth and James) few attempted it, and still fewer succeeded. But the present race of poetasters has made ample amends for this blank in our literature. Attracted by its brevity and supposed facility, and probably not a little dazzled by the meretricious ornament of which it has been found to be susceptible, every rhyming school-boy and lovesick girl now give their crude effusion to the public under the denomination of sonnets. The press teems with volumes of this description.

We by no means wish to insinuate, that this species of poem is totally devoid of merit. The writings of Mr. Bowles alone would be sufficient to convince us of the contrary. Indeed we are of opinion, that his merits as a poet (and merits he certainly has) will be found to rest chiefly upon his success in compositions of this nature. His sonnets are superior to any we have read; and if they never obtain for him the character of a first-rate poet, they will at least secure to him the reputation of a pleasing and not inelegant writer.