1898 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Rowland E. Prothero, in Byron, Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland E. Prothero (1898-1901) 2:84-85n.



Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) lectured at the Royal Institution in 1811 on poetry. The lectures were afterwards published in the New Monthly Magazine, of which he was editor (1820-30). Campbell also apparently read his lectures aloud at private houses. Miss Berry (Journal, vol. ii. p. 502) mentions a dinner-party on June 26, 1812, at the Princess of Wales's, where she heard him read his "first discourse," delivered at the Institution. Again (ibid., vol. iii. p. 6), she dined with Madame de Stael, March 9, 1814: "Nobody but Campbell the poet, Rocca, and her own daughter. After dinner, Campbell read to us a discourse of his upon English poetry, and upon some of the great poets. There are always signs of a poet and critic of genius in all he does, often encumbered by too ornate a style."

Campbell's best work was done between 1798 and 1810. Within that period were published The Pleasures of Hope (1799), Gertrude of Wyoming (1809), and such other shorter poems as "Hohenlinden," "Ye Mariners of England," "The Battle of the Baltic," and "O'Connor's Child." His "Ritter Bann," a reminiscence of his sojourn abroad (1800-1), was not published till later; both it and "The Last Man" were published in the New Monthly Magazine, during the period of his editorship. An excellent judge of verse, he collected Specimens of the British Poets (1819), to which he added a valuable essay on poetry and short biographies. His Theodoric (1824), Pilgrim of Glencoe (1842), and Lives of Mrs. Siddons, Petrarch, and Shakespeare added nothing to his reputation. The judgment of contemporary poets in the main agreed with Coleridge's [negative] estimate of Campbell's work. "There are some of Campbell's lyrics," said Rogers (Table-Talk, etc., pp. 254, 255), which will never die. His Pleasures of Hope is no great favourite with me. The feeling throughout his Gertrude is very beautiful." Wordsworth also thought the Pleasures of Hope "strangely overrated; its fine words and sounding lines please the generality of readers, who never stop to ask themselves the meaning of a passage." Byron, who calls Campbell "a warm-hearted and honest man," thought that his "'Lochiel' and 'Mariners' are spirit-stirring productions; his Gertrude of Wyoming is beautiful; and some of the episodes in his Pleasures of Hope pleased me so much that I know them by heart" (Lady Blessington's Conversations with Lord Byron, p. 353).

George Ticknor, who met Campbell in 1815 (Life, vol. i. p. 63), says, "He is a short, small man, and has one of the roundest and most lively faces I have seen amongst this grave people. His manners seemed as open as his countenance, and his conversation as spirited as his poetry. He could have kept me amused till morning." Shortly afterwards, Ticknor went to see him at Sydenham (ibid., p. 65): "Campbell had the same good spirits and love of merriment as when 1 met him before, — the same desire to amuse everybody about him; but still I could see, as I partly saw then, that he labours under the burden of an extraordinary reputation, too easily acquired, and feels too constantly that it is necessary for him to make an exertion to satisfy expectation. The consequence is that, though he is always amusing, he is not always quite natural." Sir Walter Scott made a similar remark about the numbing effect of Campbell's reputation upon his literary work his deference to critics ruined his individuality. It was Scott's admiration for "Hohenlinden" which induced Campbell to publish the poem. The two men, travelling in a stage-coach alone, beguiled the way by repeating poetry. At last Scott asked Campbell for something of his own. He replied that there was one thing he had never printed, full of "drums and trumpets and blunderbusses and thunder," and that he did not know if there was any good in it. He then repeated "Hohenlinden." When he had finished, Scott broke out with, "But, do you know, that's devilish fine! Why, it's the finest thing you ever wrote, and it must be printed!"