1873 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Joseph Devey, "Classical School. Campbell" A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873) 156-65.



The chief of the classical poets of the present century is Campbell and, judging from the manner in which this school has so completely died out, his sovereignty over it, is not likely to be disturbed during the present generation. But his own pre-eminence is so great, that even were the school in fashion, rivalship, during the next thirty years, would be a thing almost impossible: for poets with the impassioned stateliness of Gray, or with the deep plaintiveness of Collins, seldom appear even once in a century. But how much rarer must the appearance of those be who combine, to a large extent, the excellences of both? Such was Campbell, who has all Gray's merits, allied to as much of Collins's exquisite pathos as can be detached from spiritual forms and wedded to earthly objects. Campbell's fire and energy raise him above Gray, but his lack of ideality places him below Collins. He has, however, the advantage of being more varied in style, of choosing his subjects from a wider range of object; and of displaying keener sympathies for his fellow-men than either. A Greek reticence of language, exuberance of classical imagery, ornate diction so exquisitely polished as to make each word shed a diamond lustre over the thought, equally characterise the three poets. In Collins, however, this glittering raiment seems the natural expression of his mind, fitting it as closely and tightly as a skin. But in Campbell, as in Gray, the labour of the artist is visible in the artificial construction of phrase which occasionally diverts attention from the thoughts to the words in which they are expressed — a defect so much the more serious, because it inverts the functions of language, which ought, like light, to remain hidden while revealing everything else with which it is brought into contact.

It is this fastidiousness with respect to style that constitutes Campbell's peculiar glory and weakness. All his pieces display perfect elaboration of finish; but he appears to have sacrificed everything else to obtain it. In his longer poems, the action is as much neglected as the style is polished. Impoverished conception of plan is united with faultless execution of details. There is, however, one advantage arising out of Campbell's fastidiousness, that his pages are perfectly free from what is called waste writing. This is most evident in his lesser poems, hardly a line of which occurs without some beauty. If a stanza did not please him, he drew his pen across it without the slightest remorse, as I have seen Herbert put his knife through a picture which would have made the fortune of many a younger artist. In this respect Campbell stands out in pleasing contrast to Wordsworth and Southey. If any of their compositions were unsatisfactory, their only resource was to add as many dozen lines more to the peccant part with a view to conceal, if they failed to enliven, its dullness. But Campbell resolutely applied the incision knife, and if the vital organism of the piece was injured thereby, threw the whole away. Wordsworth and Southey most piously treasured up every verse which they composed. But Campbell had a most provoking habit of tearing up nearly everything he wrote, and scattering the fragments of paper out of his study window; whence it came to pass, when the wind blew in one direction, that the cabbages and gooseberry-bushes of his neighbour's garden at Sydenham looked in the dog-days very much as if a theatrical snow-storm had burst over them. The result of this is, that Campbell is now seldom read except as a whole, Wordsworth only in parts, and Southey not at all.

The "Pleasures of Hope" displays all the ardour and impetuosity of youthful genius blended with those faults to which most young writers are liable, of caring much more for sound than sense, and cumbering immature designs with profusion of florid ornaments. The description of the shipwreck is powerfully given The "Siege of Warsaw" still retains its place as the first battle piece in the language, with that powerful shriek which is destined to vibrate through the hearts of patriots for all time. But the effects of hope upon the imagination, and the aspirations of genius, as indeed all that portion of the poem which required calm philosophical treatment, are inadequately pourtrayed. It is on this account that Rogers' "Memory" satisfies the judgment more; for though immeasurably Campbell's inferior in wielding the lightnings of passion, Rogers evinces far greater skill in metaphysical analysis. His transitions are more distinct, and he passes with greater ease from one topic to another; whereas in Campbell the transitions are unnatural, and their stiffly artificial character does not always prevent the subjects from running into each other. In Rogers, the language is invariably suited to the thought. But with Campbell it not unfrequently happens, that in proportion to the weakness of the thought, the strength of the language becomes apparent, until we are reminded of the pale, consumptive figure of Ruthven, in Maclise's picture, trying to stand erect beneath the suit of heavy-mailed armour which is dragging him to the ground. This blending of two incongruous elements produces in Campbell a similar effort to appear stronger than he really is, and to make up for internal stamina by grinding of the teeth and other spasmodic exhibitions of muscular violence. But as a work of genius, defective as it is in parts, yet grand in its irregularities, the poem of Rogers must yield the palm to Campbell's, who, in this the greenest of his productions, soars far higher than his contemporary ever did in the full maturity of his powers.

From the persistent manner in which the author's name was coupled with the "Pleasures of Hope," it might be thought the author set more value on this poem than on anything else he had ever written. But Campbell's taste was too exquisite to allow him to entertain any such conceit. On the contrary, it was one of the standing annoyances of his life that he should be only known by a performance which evinced all the crudeness and immaturity of youthful genius. But his hatred of the practice could not put it down. Whenever a paper chronicled his arrival in a foreign town, it was always Mr. Campbell, the author of the "Pleasures of Hope." When he was introduced at Court, it was as the author of the "Pleasures of Hope." He was hardly ever pointed out in street, or assembly, without the same startling sound, the author of the "Pleasures of Hope." If any toast was coupled with his name at a convivial meeting, down came the fatal affix in defiance of the protestations of the author. Campbell struggled against his destiny in vain. The book-trade would not advertise his poems without the same magic title. As in life, so it was in death. When his coffin was lowered into the vault at Westminster Abbey, the plate was found to contain the inscription, "Thomas Campbell, author of the Pleasures of Hope." And no sooner was the stone laid over the grave than the attention of the reader was arrested by the same ominous words, coupling his names by iron links with that production for all future generations.

Campbell always avoided lengthy subjects, which is a sign that he mistrusted his powers. None of his pieces evince much skill, either in delineation of character or construction of plot. His "Gertrude of Wyoming" and "O'Conner's Child" are too short for that purpose. His "Theodoric" is so far below him, that it ought never to have been printed. To call the "Pilgrim of Glencoe " a narrative poem would be absurd. The "Pleasures of Hope," so far as it does not evade analysis, is only a succession of pictures, "like pearls upon a thread at random strung," having no connection beyond the feeling of expectancy which this gay deceiver awakes in the human breast. Ideality, or that quality which invests the universe with ethereal splendour, to which its own sunshine is but a shadow, is not in his works prominently conspicuous. Part of the scenery of "Wyoming" is drawn with a magical pencil:—

A valley from the river shore withdrawn,
Was Albert's home, two quiet woods between,
Whose lofty verdure overlook'd his lawn;
And waters to their resting-place serene
Came fresh'ning, and reflecting all the scene
(A mirror in the depth of flowery shelves:)
So sweet a spot of earth, you might, I ween,
Have guess'd some congregation of the elves,
To sport by summer moons, had shaped it for themselves.
[Part 2, st. i.]

But we generally find the colouring in the quiet parts of the poem is not sustained, and that the effect is owing to a few fairy tints artistically introduced to brighten up much that is commonplace, rather than to the overflowing prodigality of a gorgeous imagination. These gems stand out more or less isolated, so that the stanzas appear to have been framed as a foil to set off their beauty rather than to carry forward the action of the poem. How tame would be the description of Gertrude hastening home at early morn, were it not for the line,

While yet the wild deer trod in spangling dew,
[Part 2, st. viii.]

or of Gertrude herself, were it not for the sunniness of her eyes, in which

Their ninth blue summer shone,
[Part 1, st. xii.]

and

Which seemed to love whate'er they looked upon;
[Part 2, st. iv.]

or for the picture of the white boy led by the swarthy Indian, were it not for the simile comparing him to morning brought by night. The reader's taste is rather sharpened than gratified by beauties of this character, which are no sooner introduced than they are lost in the dreariness of commonplace, leaving behind a vain regret that such magic tints should be so transitory, like the gleams of light which are swallowed up by April clouds as soon as they appear, or the perfumes from a tuft of March violets, which no sooner hit the sense than they are carried off by the wind in an opposite direction.

These spiritual touches are more apt to stamp the mind's features, than those of a material landscape, on his pages, and accordingly Campbell is more effective in his characters than in his scenery. The countenance of Albert is well shaded And though amidst the calm of thought entire,

Some high and haughty features might betray
A soul impetuous once, 'twas earthly fire
That fled composure's intellectual ray,
As Etna's fires grow dim before the rising day.
[Part i., st. viii.]

He said — and strain'd unto his heart the boy:
Far differently the mute Oneida took
His calumet of peace, and cup of joy;
As monumental bronze unchanged his look;
A soul that pity touch'd, but never shook:
Train'd from his tree-rock'd cradle to his bier
The fierce extremes of good and ill to brook
Impassive-fearing but the shame of fear—
A stoic of the woods — a man without a tear.
[Part i., st. xxiii.]

But these portraits, while they present the type of a class, lack the features of an individual, and the incidents with which the originals are brought into contact too unfavourably remind us of others to which they are inferior. The character of Oneida is not anything like so minutely developed as that of Chactas, from which it is taken, though his physiognomy possesses qualities more frank and local than Atala's lover, because Oneida had not been half civilized by contact with the inhabitants of Europe. The infancy and love of Waldgrave and Gertrude too much remind us of the exquisite group of Paul and Virginia; but Campbell has made no more than a sketch of a subject which in the hands of Bemardin de St. Pierre comprises a finished picture.

It would, however, be unjust to Campbell to leave the reader without the impression that, wherever his subject admitted of it, he could attain the sublime without effort. In the lower region of ideality he seems to have trod with the fear of the critics before his eyes, but in the upper, he seems to have forgotten that such beings were in existence. Though his imaginative flights are not frequent, he maintains himself in the loftiest sphere of sublimity with the same ease and dignity as if it were his natural home. The immensity of the ocean is nowhere so adequately imaged as by representing it as a mirror wherein all the stars can see themselves at once, or as that element by which our earth, otherwise opaque, is rendered luminous to distant orbs. And again:

Earth has not a plain
So boundless or so beautiful as thine:
The eagle's vision cannot take it in
The lightning's wing, too weak to sweep its space,
Sinks half way o'er it, like a wearied bird.

The lordliest floods
And cataracts are drops of dew
To thee, that couldst subdue the earth itself,
And brook'st commandment from the heavens alone
In marshalling thy waves.

But it is in his address to the dead eagle that Campbell rises to the elevation of his subject, and makes us regret that his desire of disarming criticism by faultless execution should have deterred him from selecting a theme which would have given wider range to his great powers. With what majesty he invests his subject:—

Fallen as he is, this king of birds still seems
Like royalty in ruins. Though his eyes
Are shut, that looked undazzled in the sun,
He was the sultan of the sky, and earth
Paid tribute to his eyry. It was perch'd
Higher than human conqueror ever built
His banner'd fort. Where Atlas' top looks o'er
Sahara's desert to the Equator's line;
From thence the winged despot marked his prey,
Above the encampments of the Bedouins, ere
Their watch-fires were extinct, or camels knelt
To take their loads, or horsemen scoured the plain;
And there he dried his feathers in the dawn,
Whilst yet the unwakened world was dark below.

The aeronaut drifts, in his silken vehicle,

The passive plaything of the winds. Not such
Was this proud bird: he clove the adverse storm,
And cuffed it with his wings. He stopped his flight
As easily as the Arab reins his steed,
And stood at pleasure 'neath Heaven's zenith, like
A lamp suspended from its azure dome.
Whilst underneath him the world's mountains lay
Like molehills, and her streams like lucid threads;
Then downwards, faster than a falling star,
He neared the earth, until his shape distinct
Was blackly shadowed on the sunny ground;
And deeper terror hushed the wilderness
To hear his nearer whoop.
———*———*———*———*———
His bright eyes were his compass, earth his chart,
His talons anchor'd on the stormiest cliff,
And on the very lighthouse-rock he perched
When winds churned white the waves.

"The Last Man" we need not quote, as it is in everybody's memory. For instances of the sublime called up by a few graphic touches, it is perhaps unequalled in any language. But these efforts, great as they are, on account of their short and fragmentary character, do not constitute anything like the substance of those claims to distinction on which this poet's reputation rests.

In what, then, does Campbell's greatness consist, since he holds a place in our literature, both lofty and unique, which could not be filled up with any other bust than his own? It is undoubtedly in his command over the feelings, in his exquisite pathos, in his power to stir the breast with martial ardour as with a trumpet, in the soft emotions he conjures up in his bowers of love, and the red glare he throws over his battle-fields. But Campbell rarely paints love except in contact with death, when it assumes hues which speak to us of heaven. It is not over Armida in her paradisal gardens, the representative of voluptuousness, but over Waldgrave in the lifeless arms of Gertrude, or the young wife bending over the corpse of her bleeding Hussar, that Campbell loves to linger; and in scenes of this character it must be confessed he has no master. The sailor ploughing the billowy wave, or the soldier keeping watch "with the sentinel stars in the sky," have no more faithful delineator of their hopes and their fears, their anxious home-yearnings, and the terrible depths of that love which increases in proportion to the distance of its object, than Campbell. The passion he loves to portray is not that which satisfies the cravings of the senses, but that which spiritualizes our nature by attuning all its chords to pity. The scenes of the Napoleonic campaigns, echoing their thunders daily in his ears, appear to have haunted his imagination, and enabled him to reproduce with tenfold force all the engines of human butchery which ingenuity could devise, in contrast with the softest emotions of the human heart. I know not whether his genius is more evinced in these contrasts, than in the description of the battle itself. His rapid transitions, the quickness with which he hurries us along, recalls the sudden evolutions of troops; his terse imagery illuminating everything on which it falls, the concentrative flash of lightning, and his sonorous periods, those volleyed peals of thunder with which the artillery of his combatants at intervals tears the heavens. The awful stillness at the close which curtains the dismal havoc, or that unquenchable thirst for freedom, which turns the blood-besprinkled dust of the patriot's death-bed into a couch of glory, is given with a fidelity seldom equalled in poetry, and certainly never surpassed. Let the reader compare the "Battle of Hohenlinden," or the "Death-struggle at Warsaw," with Montgomery's "Alexandria," or Scott's "Waterloo," and he will be startled at the difference between the diffusiveness of mere poetic ability and the vigorous strength of genius. It is on account of this fire and energy, enveloped, as it occasionally is in his lyrics, in the silken veil of plaintiveness, and always expressed in the choicest language, that Campbell is entitled to a place in the second division of poets. I do not know that anybody would dispute his claim to being the first martial lyric poet of his country. Had Burns cultivated this vein more than he did, he would have been obliged, though in other respects his master, in this field at least, to yield precedence to his countryman. Campbell has a distinct speciality as the Tyrtaeus of modern England. The keen sympathy which he always felt for the oppressed in every part of the world, the ardour with which his soul always glowed for freedom, imparted a vital intensity to those strains which may fairly challenge for him the proud title of the Bard of National Independence.