1816 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Richard Polwhele

Walter Scott, Review of Polwhele, The Fair Isabel of Cotchele; Quarterly Review 14 (January 1816) 402-05.



The valuable manuscript of the poem before us was inclosed, it seems, in a bureau of Mr. Walter Scott, which was "for some time inaccessible." (p. 371.) The key, however, was at length luckily found, or a blacksmith procured; and the Cornish Romance emerged from the obscurity of its seclusion.

Novelists, who undertake to describe manners and characters, have often assumed the agreeable fiction of a prosopopoeia. Thus we have "The History of a Black Coat," "The History of a Gold headed Cane," &c. We should he much disposed, had we leisure, to erect a similar novel on the interesting incident above-mentioned; and entitle it "The History of a Manuscript." Much might be revealed, could the said MS. find a tongue, respecting the little pleasing anxieties, the sentimental irritabilities, the fluttering, sensitive jealousies, which are often the portion of great topographers and poets.

In the drawer of this mystic cabinet were some papers belonging to Mr. Scott himself; and the reader will not fail to remark a fortunate result of this contiguity, in the spirit communicated to these pages from the lays of the Northern Minstrel. Thus the Lady of the Lake has stanzaic introductions, so has Fair Isabel; the Lady of the Lake is in short lyric measure, so is Fair Isabel; the Lady of the Lake is interspersed with songs, so, beyond all possibility of cavil, is Fair Isabel; for the songs alone would form a very respectable "Complete Songster," adapted to the vocal paradise of Vauxhall. We must, however, admit a wonderful improvement on the plan of Mr. Scott, inasmuch as these songs are not always incidental, but are made to supply the place of dialogue: most of the principal characters, the lady and her Abigail, and her lover and his rivals, reciprocally warbling chansons and chansonnettes on every possible occasion; so that the author may boldly claim the merit of originality in giving the first example of "an operatic romance."

Thus "archly" replies the fair Isabel to her lover, who had been singing to her in the disguise of a gipsy.

—"If you mean me,"
And dropp'd a sly half curtesy.

SONG.
I was then, in sooth, a cottage maid,
Of mine own shadow quite afraid:
And as I through my vagaries ran
I met a fine young gentleman,
Whom some-one would rejoice to see,
If you mean me.

Nothing is more charming than this even in the "Ovide en Rondeaux."

But has Mr. Polwhele given us the whole of the adventures of his MS.? We can scarcely avoid suspecting that it has also been closeted with the papers of Lord Byron; at least we can only account, by a friendly juxtaposition of this nature, for its being possessed of such words as "kiosk," and "khan," and "bazar," and "yataghan," and "minareh." Let not, however, the author of Fair Isabel be alarmed: it is by no means our wish to convey an impression that time general conduct of his poem, any more than its particular details, are copied from these popular writers. Both Mr. Scott and Lord Byron have a bad custom of hurrying the reader along with them in a sort of breathless interest, and stirring his blood in a way that is both troublesome and unmannerly. Of this offence we cheerfully acquit our author. He has worked after other models, and ingrafted the Italian opera on the monkish legend. There is an old gentleman who rides to the wars, and a young lady who is left behind in a sort of Castle-Spectre turretted mansion; and she kneels in her orary on a velvet cushion, and the colour of the orary ceiling is sky-blue; and she has long conversations with Jessica the waiting-maid, — and they have each a lover, — and they make assignations in a wood, — and these assignations are broken in upon by sundry alarming occurrences — passing footsteps, warning voices, songs, and "gleamy figures that sink away." There are also a prioress and a monk, who between them shut up the young lady in a sepulchral vault; and she, and a certain Lady Alice, who had been poisoned, we believe, but are not quite certain, and comfortably coffined, suddenly appear in white, with visards, at a masked ball, given in honour of the old knight's return from the wars. This grouping, as the reader sees, is adopted with great judgment and effect from the concluding scene of the Rovers, where Marcus Curius Dentatus, a troubadour, a knight-templar, and a Prussian grenadier returning from the Seven Years war, very strenuously join in storming the abbey of Quedlinburgh. The catastrophe then winds up; the monk is shipwrecked, and the prioress jumps off a rock into the sea, dragging with her her confidante Maud; or, as it is expressed, with a laudable attention to the parish register,

Matilda, — so baptized was Maud:

and of whom we had been told,

The beetle did she love to greet,
And on her bodkin's point impale.

The manner in which she expiated this prank, and every other, deserves an ampler notice.

I know you well, I know you well,
Cried Maud with a dire maniac yell;
They beckon, beckon me to hell:
I did it, I did it, the Prioress cried;
And seizing her quick with a mad clasp embraced,
And, in serpent folds twisted close, close round her waist,
With Maud in her arms from the precipice sprang.

The reader cannot fail to have remarked the beautiful imitation of "Me, me, adsum qui feci:" elegantly rendered by Dr. Trapp, "me, me, I did it."

In his concluding address, the author appears to think that the reader must by this time be interested to know a little more of the writer of the "Fair Isabel of Cotchele." He enters therefore on a biographic retrospection, and complains that he was drawn from the grove where he owned "luxurious stings," and where, as he modestly says,

Passion eloquently pour'd
The soul of love through every chord,

and compelled to "rear his unambitious hearth;"

Where Isca widening seeks the main,
Amidst time titled proud and vain,
'Twas there on topographic lore
Some evil genius bade me pore;
By day alert, with keen research
Hunt out a ruin, hail a church;

and lastly, to explore,

—though faint with wan disease,
By the pale lamp, long pedigrees.

We have nothing to do with this gentleman's Exeter squabbles; though we regret to find that his toil, as he says, "has been unrecompensed by gold or fame:" but he is not the only instance of powers and faculties miserably miscalculated. Mr. Polwhele bewails himself that the perversity of his stars should have forced him from the classics, and from poetry, to antiquarian researches. Now, we are not quite sure that his histories of Devonshire and Cornwall are not full as likely to obtain for him a respectable station in literature, as his attempt to translate Bion, &c.; nor are we altogether convinced that he would have been worse employed in decyphering mutilated tomb-stones, or even in tracing "long pedigrees," than in stringing together the "bald, disjointed" rhymes of his Cornish Romance.

We have some notion of a line or two in an old Latin poet; the words indeed have escaped us, — but they began, as we remember, with "Solve senescentem" — If Mr. Polwhele should fortunately recollect the rest of the passage, and would apply it to his own case, we have a strong impression that it might l attended with very beneficial results.