1787 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. James Fordyce

Anonymous, Review of Fordyce, Poems; English Review 9 (January 1787) 26-29.



There are very few persons who have not discovered, in the course of their lives, a propensity or inclination to love and to poetry. Although youth be generally the season of these elegant recreations, the "orgasm" is not limited to any period; and, in many constitutions, there is a kind of second spring, which, though it cannot boast the genial warmth and vigour of the first, is sufficiently potent to produce an after-growth of amorous and poetical fancy. Towards the grand climacteric a change and renovation of the whole frame takes place; and a second juvenility comes on, which gives a new impulse to the animal spirits, and refreshes the imagination. Venus had votaries who never felt her power till their locks were grey; and much mortal and ever-dying verse has been composed on the borders of threescore.

In external nature this latter spring has been often observed; and, though a Christmas rose be a very great curiosity, there are few gardens that will not furnish a nosegay in October.

Of this "viridus senectus" Dr. Fordyce is a venerable and blooming instance. His own account of his poetical conversion, addressed to Lord Bute, is remarkable for its gaiety and ease.

'Tis strange, my Lord, 'tis passing strange,
That now grown old and grey,
From prose to verse I sudden change;
Young Fancy flown away!

In early prime, the sprightly power
Is ever on the wing;
Eager to seize the smiling hour,
And oft in haste to spring.

A wide reverse. when Judgment cool,
Led on by hoary Age,
Moves slow, and only moves by rule,
Through each succeeding state!

Calm History, of sober face,
Then chief attracts the mind,
Intent with curious thought to trace
The manners of mankind.

Or yet the dame, Philosophy,
Now gains upon the heart,
In him whose bosom once beat high
To learn the poet's art.

Her looks so sage, yet void of spleen,
May well the soul engage,
When form'd to taste those joys serene,
That sooth declining age.

Or else grave Contemplation's eye
O'er Nature's works to cast,
And endless wonders there descry,
Shall most delight at last.

In truth, my Lord, 'twere hard to say
What charms the good and great
Have often prov'd, in her survey,
Beyond the pomp of state.

But hardly shall your Lordship find,
In your extended view
Of human life, or human kind,
A case so odd, so new!

Thus, 'mid the very frost of Time,
When ardour dies away,
To glow with all the rage of rhyme,
As 'twere the month of May!

No rhyme disturb'd my youthful rest,
No rage did then inspire:
And can it be, this aged breast
Now feels poetic fire?

Freely to speak its secret source;
The freedom you'll excuse;
In scenes sublime lies mighty force;
And HIGH CLIFF is my muse.

Perhaps some readers, when they consider the lively style and manner of Dr. Fordyce in all his writings, from The Temple of Virtue to his Address to the Deity, may think that there is nothing miraculous or even marvelous in the case; and apply to him the famous saying of Moliere's Bourgeois Gentilhomme, "that he has been writing poetry all his life without knowing it."

We ought to judge of a book according to the plan and intention of the author. In a very modest preface to these poems Dr. Fordyce informs us that "he had not the vanity to imagine he could ever reach the higher strains of poetry; and that the utmost to which he pretends is to exhibit his ideas in a shape not too common or familiar, yet neither forced nor extravagant, with the addition of some melody to please the ear, some description to strike the fancy, and some sentiment to affect the heart." This end he has fully attained. His poems are sometimes elegant and affecting; always innocent or moral.

The following stanzas on Future Fame are the most poetical that we have met with in this collection.

Ah me! what countless myriads lie entomb'd,
To deep forgetfulness for ever doom'd,
Who once adorn'd life's active stage,
Who shone the wonders of their age,
And hop'd posterity to charm,
By their atchievements to disarm
Time's ruthless all-opposing force,
And give their fame an endless course!
No more, alas! are heard the high acclaims
That promis'd to transmit the glory of their names.

Those very names have long on earth been lost:
In solemn silence sunk their loudest boast!
Soon were their gaudy ensigns torn;
Soon were their gilded scutcheons worn;
Their marble monuments no more
Are seen, to tell they liv'd before:
All, all is vanish'd like a dream.
Yet pride still hopes to be the theme
Of praise unwearied to the wond'ring world;
Nor fears to be forgot, when from its confines hurl'd!

While you are acting your allotted part,
Well-tim'd applause, no doubt, will cheer the heart,
Your languid powers demand such aid:
Without it virtue soon would fade.
Virtue, alas! is weak at best,
And slight her hold upon the breast.
Self-love could ne'er content the mind;
She seeks the sanction of her kind.
But when Heav'n's awful verdict once is past,
What can avail to her Fame's fondest, loudest blast?

Or grant its notes could pierce the ear of Death;
They could not yet restore the vital breath,
Or call forth Pleasure in the tomb,
Or change or fix your final doom.
The world's joint plaudit still were vain:
Each soul would in the place remain,
Assign'd her by the Judge supreme,
Whose approbation, or whose blame,
Must stamp the colour of her fate,
In that untry'd, unseen, and dread eternal fate.

In this poem the stanza is well chosen, the thoughts striking, and the versification spirited and harmonious. Dr. Fordyce's poems have a merit of no common kind; they are entirely his own. We seldom meet with poetical common places; with ideas and expressions taken from other poets; with shreds of purple and scarlet stolen from the nobles of Parnassus, and inserted incongruously on a plain ground.

But although we are of opinion that Dr. Fordyce (to use his own phrase) holds a "respectable rank in the numerous army of versifiers," we would not wish him to persist in his poetical amours, or to hold any farther dalliance with the muses.

Among the English dissenters Dr. Fordyce shone without a rival in the eloquence of the pulpit. His "Sermons to young Women," though not free from shining faults, have much merit, and met with a greater and more rapid run than any sermons in the English language, except those of Dr. Blair. A collection of discourses of equal merit, on subjects of general importance, would be a valuable present to the public, and a lasting monument to his fame. In the calm evening of his life the false brilliant that caught the youthful eye loses its lustre; the sober charm of truth and nature takes possession of the mind; and an author, addressing the wise and virtuous part of mankind, learns to distinguish between the beauties and the prettinesses of holiness; between the solemnity and the foppery of devotion. We have suggested these hints to the author, because we know him to be a benevolent and worthy man.