1805 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Lisle Bowles

Francis Jeffrey?, in Review of Bowles, Spirit of Discovery; Edinburgh Review 6 (July 1805) 313-15.



Some years ago, Mr. Bowles presented the public with a collection of sonnets and short poems. The reception it met with was not unfavourable, especially from that tribe of gentle readers to whom every running stream recals the memory of joys that are past, and every rustling leaf gives sad anticipation of coming sorrow. Success, partial as it was, inflamed his ambition. No longer satisfied with the humbler praise of a sonneteer, he now aspires "in a louder and a loftier strain," to join the Miltons and Cowpers of his country. But when he indulged the "hope that one day he might wake the strings to higher utterance," we cannot help thinking, that he either overrated his own talents, or was not fully aware of the difference between the prettiness and point which may serve to recommend a half-hour's effusion, and the continued display of genius and skill, which is necessary to fix the attention on a long poem. A man may flourish elegantly enough with a fencing foil, who cannot wield the club of Hercules. His former volumes had placed our author in a station neither preeminent nor contemptible; and when he quitted it in search of more extended fame, we suspect it was more from the impulse of a self-conceit than of genius. He might still have engaged in a pleasure excursion, or a coasting voyage with safety; but it was too bold a project to venture, with his frail bark, and small spread of canvas,

E conspectu Siculae telluris in altum.

There is, we conceive, a radical defect in the choice of the subject. It is not enough, in a poem of such length as the present, to have some fine lines, and fine reflections, and pretty passages upon this and the other topic, unless there be at the same time a "res lecta potenter," something to take hold of the feelings, and lead us on from book to book, without languor or impatience. The progress of maritime discovery from the earliest ages to the present times, is a theme that may be well adapted for the pen of the historian, but is lamentably unfit for a poet. The interest which the latter excites is derived, not from rapid and comprehensive sketches, but from minute and circumstantial details, which identify us with the scenes he describes, and make us so well acquainted with his characters, that every change of their fortune affects us with the vivacity of real events. Now, we leave our readers to judge, whether such a thing be practicable where the actors are of every nation, kindred, tongue, and people; and seldom the same for a hundred lines together; and where the time of action extends from the deluge to the present day. It is no answer to this objection to say, that this poem aspires not to the title of Epic; for, let the author class it as he will, he cannot deny that it is employed in narrating a series of events; and if these events be too numerous, too insulated, and too distant from each other in time and place to coalesce into one whole that may interest and delight, he has evidently failed in a very essential requisite of all good poetry.

But he has not only erred in the choice of his subject; his management of it is also exceptionable. If he was determined to write poetry on this unpoetic theme, it was essential, we conceive, to any degree of success, that he should seize on a few leading facts in the history of naval discovery, and, by a proper infusion of poetical fiction, make up a connected and interesting whole. The title of the poem, indeed, seemed to intimate what the fiction was to be. The Spirit of Discovery would be exalted into a poetical personage; and, adorned with all the insignia which a servile imagination could furnish, would be the prime agent in conducting the plot. But after reading three books without the slightest allusion to any such being, we concluded that the author employed the word Spirit in the common prosaic sense of an "active principle." Towards the close of the 4th book, however, Discovery is at last addressed as a person, and old to "pause" and "uplift her gaze" and "mark the rich stores of Madagascar." In the next page, also, we have this expression: "Look southward, Spirit, now" — and there is a foot-note to say that by Spirit, is here meant the Spirit of Discovery, which, as it happens, is a very necessary piece of information. Twice within the next 80 lines, the Spirit is again apostrophized, and then dismissed for ever.

It was frittering away the interest of his poem, to touch, as he has done, on a multitude of facts, some of them obscure and unimportant, and others not even remotely connected with the Conquest of Ocean. Thus, at the opening of the 2d book, we are introduced to the sons of Cush, and before we have got any footing on this antiquarian ground, are hurried away to Ammon, whose acquaintance we drop as suddenly, and with as little reluctance. In another place, the author detains us a considerable time in describing the fall of Babylon, the history of the handwriting on the wall, the call of Cyrus and other topics, which have no relation whatever to his subject. We do not wish to draw too tight the bonds of poetical connexion. The poet, we allow, has a right to be indulged in all decent use of episode, digression, and collateral illustration; but in a poem of such length, we naturally look for something more than a mass of disjointed passages strung together on a common title.