1901 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Lisle Bowles

Rowland E. Prothero, "Controversy between Byron and Bowles as the the Poetry and Character of Pope" Byron, Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland E. Prothero (1898-1901) 5:522-26.



The Rev. William Lisle Bowles published, in 1806, an edition of Pope's Works in ten volumes. As editor, he criticized with some severity the character of Pope both as a man and a poet. It was the criticism on Pope's morals against which Byron protested in English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers (lines 369-384)—

Each fault, each failing scan;
The first of poets was, alas! but man.
Rake from each ancient dunghill ev'ry pearl,
Consult Lord Fanny, and confide in Curll;
Let all the scandals of a former age
Perch on thy pen, and flutter o'er thy page, etc., etc.

Ten years later, Pope's poetical character was championed by Thomas Campbell, in his "Essay on English Poetry," prefixed to his Specimens of the British Poets (7 vols., 1819: Vol. i. pp. 262-271).

Bowles replied to Campbell's "Essay" in his Invariable Principles of Poetry, in a Letter addressed to Thomas Campbell, Esq., occasioned by some Critical Observations in his "Specimens of British Poetry," particularly relating to the Poetical Character of Pope (1819). As this pamphlet gives the key to the controversy, it is here reprinted in the form in which it was published by Bowles in the third edition (1822) of his Two Letters to the Right Honourable Lord Byron, under the title of An Answer to some Observations of Thomas Campbell, Esq., in his Specimens of British Poets.

So far, except by Byron, Pope's moral character had not been defended. But the Quarterly Review for July, 1820, contained an article by Isaac Disraeli, which was nominally a review of Spence's Anecdotes of Books and Men. In this article Disraeli not only supported Campbell, and ridiculed the Invariable Principles of Poetry, but severely condemned Bowles for his attack on the moral character of Pope. Professing to quote from Bowles an "anecdote of exquisite naivete," Disraeli introduces Byron's name into the controversy.

Byron, in English Bards, etc., had misunderstood and misquoted Bowles's lines in The Spirit of Discovery (see Poems, vol. i. p. 325, note 1), and represents him as saying that the woods of Madeira had "trembled to a kiss." Disraeli thus quotes (p. 425) Bowles's account of his correction of Byron's mistake—

"Soon after Lord Byron had published his vigorous satire called 'English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers,' in which, alas! pars magna fui, I met his Lordship at our common friend's house, the author of The Pleasures of Memory, and the still more beautiful poem, Human Life. As the rest of the company were going into another room, I said I wished to speak one word to his Lordship. He came back with much apparent courtesy. I then said to him, in a tone of seriousness, but that of perfectly good humour, 'My lord, I should not have thought of making any observations on whatever you might be pleased to give to the world as your opinion of any part of my writings; but I think f I can shew that you have done me a palpable and public wrong, by charging me with having written what I never wrote, or thought of, your own principles of justice will not allow the impression to remain.' I then spoke of a particular couplet which he had introduced into his satire — 'Thy woods, Madeira, trembled with a kiss.' — Byron. And taking down the POEM, which was AT HAND, I pointed out the passage, etc."

The allusion to Byron offered him the excuse to plunge into the controversy, and to write the first and second Letter to * * * * * * * * * *, on the Rev. Wm. L. Bowles's Strictures on the Life and Writings of Pope. Only the first of the letters was published at the time (1821). To it Bowles replied with Two Letters to the Right Honourable Lord Byron, in answer to His Lordship's Letter to * * * * * * * * *, on the Rev. Wm. L. Bowles's Strictures on the Life and Writings of Pope: more particularly on the question, whether POETRY be more immediately indebted to what is SUBLIME or BEAUTIFUL in the Works of NATURE, or the Works of ART (1821). With the publication of this pamphlet the controversy between Bowles and Byron ended. Byron's second Letter was not printed till 1835.

Meanwhile the war of pamphlets had grown more bitter. Bowles answered the Quarterly Review in A Reply to the Charges brought by the Reviewer of Spence's Anecdotes in the Quarterly Review for October, 1820, against the last Editor of Pope's Works. This pamphlet, written for The Pampleteer, is dated October 25, 1820, and is published in vol. xvii. of that periodical (pp. 73-96). In the course of his reply (p. 96), Bowles attributes the Quarterly Review article to Octavius Graham Gilchrist, a grocer at Stamford, and a contributor both to the Quarterly and the London Magazine. Bowles apparently knew that Gilchrist had reviewed John Clare's Poems, descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery in the preceding number of the Quarterly (May, 1820, pp. 166-174). He also knew that Gilchrist, writing anonymously in the London Magazine for February, 1820, had already defended Pope's moral character in a review of Spence's Anecdotes, and had acknowledged the authorship in the same periodical in July, 1821. On this supposed evidence he attacks Gilchrist as the author of the Quarterly article. "When I think," he says, "of the utter defiance of truth he has manifested, two lines from his favourite and much-injured poet rush irresistibly into my mind:—

Honest and rough, your first son is a Squire,
The next a tradesman meek, and much a liar.

To this attack Gilchrist replied in a Letter to the Rev. William Lisle Bowles, in Answer to a Pamphlet recently Published under the title of "A Reply to an unsentimental sort of Critic, the Reviewer of Spence's Anecdotes in the Quarterly Review for October, 1820." This pamphlet, printed at Stamford, is dated December 2, 1820. In it, as in the pamphlet which it answers, the writer lays about him with a will. Bowles rejoined in Observations on the Poetical Character of Pope: further elucidating the "Invariable Principles of Poetry," etc., with a Sequel addressed to Octavius Gilchrist, Esq., F.A.S., dated February 17, 1821 (The Pamphleteer, xvii. 369-384, and xviii. 213-258). The following lines, with which Bowles concludes the first part of his rejoinder, partly quoted by Byron in his second Letter, afford a fair example of the tone in which the controversy was conducted (The Pamphleteer, vol. xvii. pp. 384, 385)

But chiefly THEE, whose MANLY, GENEROUS mind,
So nobly-valiant, against woman-kind,
Thinks that the man of satire, unreprov'd,
Might stab the heart of Her he fondly lov'd,
And thus, malignantly as mean, apply
The ASSASSIN'S Vengeance, and the COWARD'S lye;

THEE whose coarse fustian, strip'd with tinsel phrase,
Is ek'd with tawdry scraps, and tags of PLAYS;
Whose pye-bald character so aptly suit
The two extremes of BANTAM and of BRUTE;
Compound grotesque of sullenness and show,
The chattering magpie, and the croaking crow;

Who, with sagacious nose, and leering eye,
Dost "scent the TAINT" of distant "pruriency,"
Turn every object to one loathsome shape,
Hear but "a laugh," and cry "a RAPE, a RAPE!"
Whose heart contends with thy Saturnian head,
A root of hemlock, and a lump of lead;
Swelling vain Folly's self-applauding horn
Shall the indignant muse hold forth to scorn.

GILCHRIST, proceed! to other hearts impute,
The feelings that thy own foul spirit suit:
Round thy cold brain, let loathsome demons swarm,
Its native dulness into life to warm,
Then with a visage half-grimace, half-spite,
Run howling, "Pope, Pope, Pope," — and, howling, bite.
Reckless, thy hideous rancor I defy,
All which thy brain can brood, thy rage apply,
And thus stand forth, spite of thy venom'd foam,
To give thee BITE for BITE, or lash thee limping home.