1802 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Amelia Opie

Thomas Brown, Review of Opie, Poems; Edinburgh Review 1 (October 1802) 113-21.



There are, probably, many of our readers, who at some fortunate, or unfortunate moment of their lives, have been tempted to dip their pen in the fatal ink of publication, and who remember the anxiety with which they looked forward to the reception of their first work. We fear that we must not ap peal to the whole number of these, to confirm a declamation on the evils of success; but we are convinced, as much as person without the happy experience can be convinced, that there is a stage of authorship, reputation itself felt as an evil. The young writer of a popular work, in coming forward a second time to public notice, submits his powers to criticism, of which he has already exhausted the indulgence, and which now expects to applaud, rather than to forgive. There is, besides, an innocent selfishness, which magnifies to our pride every past exertion, and persuades us, that success is more difficult of attainment, because we have ourselves succeeded. Nor is the penalty, now, the same simple failure, which, in a first attempt, is scarcely disgrace, because it is scarcely known. To the wretched author, with all his vanities about him, it would now have the ignominy of complete degradation; and, amid the variety of possible sentences, there is thus only one to which he can look with desire, because all those less degrees of praise, which would have satisfied his humbler ambition, must now be accompanied with the mortifying ideas, of disappointment in his readers, and of inferiority in himself.

It was probably with feelings similar to those we have described, that Mrs. Opie committed to the world her volume of poems. To a very large number of readers "The Father and Daughter" had already made its appearance a promise of much delight. That it has completely satisfied the expectations which her novel had excited in us, we will not say. It would be, at best, an ambiguous compliment; and preferring therefore an opinion, which has no reference to the past, we are ready to admit, that her volume of poems has afforded us much pleasure, and that it would have obtained for its author a very considerable reputation, though, her former work had been wholly unknown.

But, while we thus express our praise of Mrs. Opie's miscellany, we do not wish it to be considered as applicable to the whole, or even to the greater number, of the pieces of which it consists. These are of very various species of composition, and are perhaps still more different, in merit, than in subject. In the tender song of sentiment and pathos, there is uncommon elegance; but, in pieces of greater length, which require dignity, or even terseness of expression, and an easy developement of thoughts, which rise complicated in the moment of fancy, there is a dissimilarity of character, in every respect, which contrasts, without relieving, the sweetness of the simpler pictures. Mrs. Opie's mind is evidently more adapted to seize situation, than to combine incidents. It can represent, with powerful expression, the solitary portrait, in every attitude of gentler grief; but it cannot bring together a connected assemblage of figures, and represent each in its most striking situation, so as to give, as it were, to the glance of a moment, the cuts and feelings of many years. When a series of reflections is to be brought by her to our view, they must all be of that immediate relation, which allows them to be introduced at any part of the poem, or we shall probably see before us a multitude, rather than a group. She is therefore wholly unfit for that poetry, which endeavours to reason while it pleases; and, powerful as she is in solitary pathos, we do not think that she is well fitted for bringing before us the connected griefs and characters of the drama. She has, indeed, written a novel; and it is one which excites a very high interest: But the merit of that novel does not consist in its action, nor in any varied exhibition of character. Agnes, in all the sad changes of fortune, is still the same: and the action, if we except a very few situations of the highest excitement, is the common history of every seduction in romance. Indeed, we are almost tempted to believe, that the scene in the wood occurred first to the casual conception of die author, and that, in the design of fully displaying it, all the other events of the novel were afterwards imagined.

But Mrs Opie's novel is not under our criticism; and the character of her powers may be sufficiently ascertained, in the variety which her volume before us presents. She has attempted the gay anacrcontic; and she has only expressed a very common thought, in a very common manner, p. 47. She has attempted the song of sportive humour; and, if things unexisting could be stolen, she might almost be suspected of having pilfered one of the futurities of Vauxhall, p. 105. She has attempted a long Ovidian epistle in elegiac verse; and, in the dull and feeble detail which it presents, the has made us feel doubly the dull solemnity of the measure, p. 15. She has attempted blank verse, p. 135; but with the real music of blank verse the is wholly unacquainted: From its uniformity of pause, it is nothing more than the regular couplet, with a perpetual disappointment of rhyme. The regular heroic couplet she has also attempted; but a line of ten syllables too large for the grasp of her delicate fingers; and the spans her way along, with an awkward and feeble weariness, whenever she lays aside the smaller verse. It is in the smaller verse of eight which requires no pomp of sound, and in the simple tenderness, or simple grief, to which the artlessness of such numbers is best suited, that the power of Mrs. Opie's poetry consists: And, unsparing as our friendly criticism may have appeared, in its censure of trials which it deemed injudicious, we are happy that she has enabled us to make atonement, by our just praise; those pieces which accord better with the character of her imagination. The verses of feeling, on which she must rely for the establishment of her fame, are certainly among the best in our opuscular poetry. As a specimen, we select the following song, which is scarcely surpassed by any in our language—

Go, youth beloved, in distant glades,
New friends, new hopes, new joys to find!
Yet sometimes deign, 'midst fairer maids.
To think on her thou leav'st behind.
Thy love, thy fate, dear youth, to share,
Must never be my happy lot;
But thou may'st grant this humble prayer,
Forget me not! forget me not!

Yet, should the thought of my distress
Too painful to thy feelings be,
Heed not the wish I now express,
Nor ever deign to think on me:
But, Oh! if grief thy steps attend,
If want, if sickness be thy lot,
And thou require a soothing friend,
Forget me not! forget me not!'

The first verse of the second stanza is perhaps too much dilated in expression, and rather too feeble in its syllabic flow. But the simple emphasis of the last line of each stanza, and particularly the thought which introduces it at the conclusion of the whole, have a truth of tenderness which will be acknowledged and loved by the rudest, as well as the most cultivated apprehension.

Mrs. Opie, if the have rightly learned her own powers, will forgive us for illustrating, by specimens of an opposite nature, our unfavourable opinion of her heroic verse. The following is a part of "An Epistle to a Friend on New-Year's Day."

But scorn not thou the sorrows of the muse,
A harmless egotist for once excuse,
And from thy brow the rising frown dispel,
On my own sufferings though I've dar'd to dwell:
For, though my filial sorrow can't impart
A sympathetic feeling to thy heart,
Because thy honoured mother lives to share
Thy fond affection and thy duteous care,—
Reflect, the time may come when thou shalt feel
The deep regrets my mournful lays reveal;
And thy afflicted breast may need from me
The kind indulgence which I ask from thee.
But thou must scorn the lines that bring to view
The self-reproach thy bosom never knew:
Thou, who each hour had by improvement told,
Must my confession with contempt behold. p. 187.

Of the Duke of Bedford she says, that, had Mr. Burke lived a few years longer, he would have changed his contemptuous opinion, and joined in lamenting his Grace's death—

Thy "few and idle years" no longer scorn'd,
But as a public loss thy death bemourn'd. p. 191.

A very charitable society she thus addresses, with much praise, but with little poetry.

If Rome to him a civic garland gave,
Who of one citizen the life could save,
What should your grateful country give to you?
What to your patriot services is due?
From you, Society true aid derives;
Your timely bounty saves unnumbered lives. p. 168.

That the lines we have just quoted were written by the author of the preceding song, it would not have been easy for us to believe, if we had not known, that the powers of poetry and prose are not more different, than the powers which enable a writer to excel in the two great classes of poetry; and it is probably because Mrs. Opie has not succeeded in verses of dignity and reflection, that the has succeeded in the verses of simple feeling. He whole taste has been long habituated to the full majesty of heroic versification, and to all the rhetorical ornaments of figurative poetry, is, by the very circumstance of the pomp to which he has been accustomed, less fitted for the exhibition of a simple thought in numbers as simple; since the humbleness of phraseology and of sound, which he before despised, is now a perfection, which he must studiously elaborate. Such a thought would be to him, what a Scotch or Irish melody is to a bravura singer: In the execution of the one, we should see poetry rather than pathos; as, in the other, we listen to the voice, rather than to the soul. We own, indeed, that many poets have excelled in both species of verse; but many poets have also excelled in prose. We do not say, that the powers necessary to both species are incompatible; we mean only, that, as in the case of the volume before us, there may be considerable excellence in the one, with the total want of excellence in the other.

We must not be so partial, however, to the degree of excellence which Mrs. Opie has shewn, as to say that the has yet attained the full command, even of that style of poetry to which her powers should peculiarly attach her. The true artifice of that poetry, which consists in a happy artlessness, she frequently forgets. There are particularly three great faults; her abuse of reflection, of inversion, and of personification; to which, if she will accept advice, in return for pleasure received, we wish especially to direct her attention.

We remember, that, in the "Father and Daughter," we frequently regretted the intrusion of the writer of the tale, when we were wholly occupied with the misfortunes of her heroine. Reflections of anticipation are always in to the interest excited, as they diminish curiosity; and reflections on the past are superfluous, and offensive to the reader's vanity, if they state what may naturally be inferred from the circumstances of the tale, and call us away too coldly to reason, when the inference is forced. But, above all, reflection is unnatural, when introduced by a sufferer in the midst of distress. Dear thought! blest thought! sad thought &c. are parentheses which we wish to see banished from poetry. Who pauses, in impassioned soliloquy, to determine the classification of his own feelings?

That guilty child, so long disown'd,
Can then, blest thought! no more offend.

A repentant and dying daughter would not have used the interjection.

In forced inversion, Mrs. Opie is often a delinquent, and particularly in her separation of the agent and the action; or, to talk technically, of the nominative case and the verb which it influences. In every other species of poetry, this is frequently admissible and even requisite; but, in the simple expression of present feeling, it is generally misplaced, because it violates the usual associations of our language. "I to thy rays prefer deep gloom," strikes us immediately as an artificial construction; and the mourner as immediately becomes a mere poet.

Personification is an ornament so tempting, that the abuse of it is the most frequent, and the most fatal of all errors, in poetry of feeling. There are few pieces in the volume before us, which it has not affected. Guilt of this kind is, indeed, often to be found, even in the coldest productions of age: and more indulgence, therefore, must be given to a young and inexperienced writer: but, still, it is indulgence, and not praise, which it must demand. "The Despairing Wanderer," which is, upon the whole, of bolder execution than Mrs. Opie's usual manner, is altogether vitiated by the excess of this imagined ornament. Pale Terror leading the shadowy scene, and Fancy listening to a sailor's knell, and Thunder rending the ear of Night, and rousing the form of pale Affright, are not the images which pass through the mind of mad Despair. Prosopopoeia is more suited to the narrator of such a state, than to the soliloquizer, who will think only of the state of real things, though the things themselves may appear in much brighter colours, or much darker shade. Miserable and happy men, not Misery and .Happiness, are the companions of such a mind, even in the wildest of its musings.

Having dwelt so long on the general character of the volume, we have little room for particular criticism; and we must therefore add only a few observations.

It has become a fashion, in modern verse, to make use of the word "ah!" whenever a syllable is wanting. But "ah" is not an expletive; it is an interjection of distress: and we see no reason that any one should complain, because, with a pleasure which others have not, he enjoys the moon still more, in Winter than in Summer — p. 2.

In "the Dying Daughter to her Mother," with several faults of carelessness, there are many passages of great interest. The lines—

And when thou think'st upon the cause,
That paleness will have charms for thee, p. 9,

—in allusion to the sickness of sorrow on the countenance of her infant, present a very affecting thought, in a very pleasing manner. The phrase, "in thy good time," in the last verse, is very objectionable, and must certainly have been introduced for the rhyme's sake. Such a cold reservation might have occurred to a hypocrite, who had been accustomed to repeat, without regard, the phraseology of the pulpit; but it is immediate protection for her child, which alone can be present to the wish of a dying mother.

The first of the two pieces, entitled "The Mourner," has some real feeling, but more quaintness, particularly in the whole passage about the reverend form of Woe. A mourner is too sad for the fine play of a long metaphor. In the following piece, the situation, at the moment of Henry's death, is too minutely described. It is no very great proof of love, to be regardless of thunder without, at such a time. But there is the opposite error, in the representation of herself as tossing away her child with fury, which supposes absolute frenzy; and Henry's death was not sudden, as his bloom is said to have marked him for the grave. The close, however, is more than atonement—

When to my heart my child I fold,
She only deepens every sigh;
I think, while I her charms behold,
How she'd have pleased her father's eye.

And while I from her lisping tongue
Soft childhood's artless accents hear,
I think, with vain remembrance wrung
How she'd have charmed her father's ear.

I think — but O forbear, fond heart!
From vain regrets to duties turn;—
Yes, — I will act a parent's part,—
I'll tear myself from Henry's urn.

In life I still one charm can see,—
One flower adorns that dreary wild,—
That flower for care depends on me.—
O precious charge! — 'Tis HENRY'S CHILD. p. 53.

Of "The Negro Boy's Tale," from the happiness with which the circumstances of the scene are imagined, much more ought to have been made. His argument on the natural equality of the Negro, and his sarcasms against those who practise not what they preach, are more in the character of the poet, than of the supposed speaker. Even had they been natural, as addressed to any other person, they certainly are not, as addressed to her who had always been his friend.

The song of a Hindustani girl is interesting, chiefly from the circumstances of the story on which it professes to be founded. It concludes with the following verse—

Oh! how fast from thee they tear me!
Faster still shall death pursue:
But 'tis well — death will endear me,
And thoul't mourn THY POOR HINDOO.

The two last lines are affecting; but nothing can exceed, in unnatural absurdity, the measurement of the comparative velocity of Death.

In the little song, p. 104, Mrs. Opie must surely have suffered much from the wretched necessity of a rhyme, before the submitted to the introduction of so formal a word as "impart," in the sense in which she uses it, into verses of easy conversation. To impart and to confess, are words of very different meaning.

In the "Stanzas written under Aeolus's Harp," the thought, in the introductory verses, of each woe finding in the varieties of the music its own appropriate plaint, is good; and, if traced out, might have formed an ode worthy of Collins. The stanzas which follow, are merely of the better order of such verses as are usually addressed to Aeolian harps.

"The Orphan Boy's Tale," is, in several passages, affecting by its simplicity. After stating, that he had asked his mother why she called him orphan, it is happily again introduced—

Ah! lady, I have learn'd too well
What 'tis to be an orphan boy.

—But the sudden death of his mother after the question, is, like all sudden grief-strokes, narrative or dramatic, founded on observations so rare in real nature, that, when adopted a poetic incidents, they strike us as made for the poem, rather than as deduced from truth.

"Symptoms of love," is almost a paraphrase on Mrs. Barbauld's song, "Come here, fond youth;" or, rather, both are derived from John Suckling's song, "Honest lover whosoever." The symptoms are so very sickly, that they correspond more with the idle fanciful effeminacy of poetic love, which has descended, in exaggerated description, from bard to bard, than with the manly tenderness of real passion.

In the song, p. 157, the thought of the last verse is put too much in the cold form of a syllogism.

Love as the soul of life I view:
Then, if the soul immortal be,
My love must be immortal too.

How different from the lines of Florian, which it imitates!

Si l'ame est immortelle,
L'amour ne l'est il pas?

The same reasoning is delicately implied, without the formality of a logical demonstration.

Of the song, p. 163, the first stanza is light and elegant. The second is spoiled, by the affectation of something more. The conceit of tones binding the soul in fetters, is ridiculously quaint; and the eyes of an expert coquette are certainly not the best in which to trace every feeling as it rises.

The "Ode to Twilight" is in lyrical blank verse; a style so unsuitable to our language, that, instead of the usual ornament which versification gives to thought, the greatest excellence of imagery is necessary to give ornament to the verse. It is unfortunate, too, to write in the measure of Collins, on a subject so similar to his own.

In passing under our review the contents of this interesting miscellany, though the praise which we have given has been the praise of our judgement, as well as of our gratitude, we own, that a little selfishness has been mixed with our censure; as, in correcting the misapplication of Mrs. Opie's powers, we looked forward to the enjoyment which they must afford us, whenever they are exerted on their proper objects. By her marriage with a celebrated artist, the may be said to have united, in conjugal rivalry, two of the most elegant of arts: and if, as we trust, she will submit to abandon all idle decoration, and to give her whose fancy to simplicity and tenderness, though the pencil of her competitor should even increase in power, "ut pictura poesis" will be a compliment, not of flattery, but of truth.