1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Anonymous, Review of Southey, Specimens of the Later English Poets; Edinburgh Review 11 (October 1807) 31-40.



We opened, with considerable curiosity, a work, entitled, Specimens of the Later English Poets, bearing the name of an editor so conspicuous for the singularity of his tenets in matters of poetical taste. Unable, however, to coincide the editor in comprehending the distinct object of the publication, we have closed his volumes with the disappointment of perceiving, that nine tenths of his poets so denominated, have no visible title to such a name; and, that in almost every instance, his selections from the real tribe of Parnassus, are specimens of their secondary, if not of their worst compositions.

The work professes to form a worthy sequel to Mr. Ellis's Specimens of the Early English Poets. Mr. Ellis ends with the reign of Charles II., this begins with that of James II. The work of Ellis is valuable on two considerations; it contains abundance of good poetry, and it is a cabinet of antiquarian curiosities. But in the tomes before our eye, Mr. Southey seems to produce his specimens with no satisfaction to himself. The prefatory notices are generally, though not undeservedly, expressive of contempt for the miserable bard of whom he tosses us a morsel. Nor is this all; the former and the future reader seem to be sneered at, from the implied conjecture, that, as this has pleased so many fools foregoing, it may probably impose on as many admirers in time to come. What value Mr. Southey's specimens may contract by the rust of antiquity, or possess an hundred and fifty years from the present time, it is not for hoary-headed reviewers to hope that they shall live to behold. Certain it is, that the editor seems to plume himself on the anticipation, that an extrinsic value of this kind will one day be attached to his Specimens, though composed for the most part of indifferent versification.

"Many worthless versifyers" says Mr Southey, "are admitted among the English Poets, by the courtesy of criticism, which seems to conceive that charity towards the dead may cover the multitude of its offences against the living. There were other reasons for admitting here the reprobate as well as the elect. My business was to collect specimens as for a 'hortus siccus,' not to cull flowers as for an anthology. I wished, indeed, as Mr. Ellis has done, to exhibit specimens of every writer whose verses appear in a substantive form, and find their place on the shelves of the collector. The taste of the public may he better estimated from indifferent poets than from good ones. Cleveland and Cowley, who were both more popular than Milton, characterize their age more truly. Fame indeed, is of slow growth. Like the Hebrew language, it has no present tense. Popularity has no future one."

It seems to be here directly announced, that the object of this compilation is not to collect a body of valuable poetry, but to afford a key to posterity to judge of the prevailing poetical taste of the British public, from the reign of the Second James to the latter years of our present sovereign George III. Now the present publications, we conceive, with the help of a few others, such as the entire works of Dryden, Thomson, Pope, Akenside, Gray, Cowper, Collins, &c. &c. will enable posterity to guess pretty clearly, that some tolerable verses have been written from the date of the British to that of the French Revolution. But we really think, that by itself, it would scarcely warrant such a conclusion; for so little of the genuine poetry of that interval has been given, that we cannot calculate, without remorse, the vast expense to which the gentle reader of the twentieth century will be put, (in addition to the probably advanced price of Mr. Southey's collection), before he can imbue his mind with the best specimens of the modern muse. If he seek for the beauties of Otway, he will be forced to draw his purse for a copy of the Orphan, or of Venice Preserved, before he can admit that that unhappy genius had any title to die the poetical death of hunger; for Mr. Southey's book will only treat him to one of the wretchedest copies of verses that ever was written by a lord or an alderman. If he languishes for a sight of Dryden's commanding graces, he must seek for them somewhere else than in the Specimens of Mr. Southey. He will only find in that collection, a paraphrase of some monkish-Latin, and a couple of epilogues, which will not throw him into raptures. He may have heard of Thomson's enchanting Castle of Indolence; but again he must be put to the extra charge of purchasing the work, or groping for his beauties in the Elegant Extracts.

From the words of the preface which we have already quoted, it will still, however, be an obvious apology of the editor, that without including the best specimens of our best poets, the object of the publication will still be served, if posterity are enabled to judge of the taste of their predecessors, by the reprobate herd, as well as the elect few, of the writers in verse whom he has specimenized. "If," as Mr. Southey says, "the taste of the public may be better estimated from indifferent, than from good poets," a Whitehead or a Sprat may do as well for such selections, as a Dryden or a Thomson. But we have no hesitation to enter our protest against such an assertion. The taste of no age is to be deduced from the mere existence of a swarm of scribblers. Their existence may arise from the want of brighter geniuses to eclipse them, or they may be scintillations struck off from superior luminaries, like the train which follows the comet. If such petty sparks of literature fly up in the dark during a particular era, they may indeed prove the want of genius, but not the want of taste, in the age which tolerates them. But they receive, it may be said, encouragement and admiration. If Mr. Southey had given us decisive evidence that one tenth part of the herd of indifferent poets, whom he seems himself so duly to contemn, had been favourites with the public, we should excuse their being registered as evidences against the taste of the age. But no such proofs are adduced. They wrote and published; and the public is neither to be praised nor blamed for their so doing.

We are perfectly aware how difficult it may be for the compiler of specimens, such as these before us, to fix the exact line of discrimination between admissible and inadmissible poets. In a work professing to give specimens of a long succession of poets, many indifferent specimens must necessarily enter. Our objection is not at finding some indifferent poetry, but at finding too much of it; and by far too little of what may guide the future reader, for whom it is professedly written, to form a fair estimate of the poetry written for an hundred and fifty years past. If, to ascertain the changes and appearances of British taste at different periods, it was necessary to rake together such trash as the works of Graeme, Baker, Ililfernan, Kenrick, &c. &c. &c. &c. &c. &c. we think it was incumbent on the editor to have given us nothing less than a graduated scale of the estimation that was attached to each of their works, to let us see how high or how low above zero they severally stood in the public opinion. Assuredly their works are, for their own sake, neither worth printing nor reading; but if they served to illustrate so curious a fact as the state of the public taste at this or that period, their value might be extrinsically increased. Here, however, a difficulty occurs: we know that they printed their works, for the printed books are before us; but we know not the exact reception they received from the reading public. It would be very unfair, all our readers will allow, to estimate their popularity by peeping into reviews. What, then, are we to know of the state of public taste from such a farrago; — or what useful purpose, under heaven, is accomplished, by preserving specimens of these verse-tackers? To think of serving the cause of taste by the preservation of insipidities and deformities, is like promoting the study of sculpture, by collecting the bottled fragments of flesh, and the injected preparations of anatomy.

If the curious reader should be distressed to know the state of public taste in his father's, or his grandfather's time, he had assuredly better trust to the good than the bad poets of the age, for a cue to his researches. A few instances of neglected merit, no doubt, will occur; but if he wishes to know the taste of the period of Pope, let him read Pope, not Betterton; of the period of Thomson, let him read Thomson, not Mitchell. The existence of men of genius, such as Pope, Thomson and Gray, proves something definite and certain; it proves that there was genius in the eighteenth century, and taste to feel and revere it. The existence of half an hundred scribblers, proves nothing at all.

The nominal English poets have been extended in number beyond all toleration, by the ignorance, the bad taste, or the avarice of those who have edited their works for profit. To those who have been unworthily introduced, Mr. Southey, though far removed above such motives, has added some very insignificant names. We recollect, however, his previous apology, that he wished to exhibit specimens of every writer, whose verses have appeared in a substantive form, and find their place upon the shelves of the collector. This was to accomplish his scheme of a "hortus siccus." But if every writer, good, bad and indifferent, was to be haled into his system of dry gardening, we wonder that the list was so narrow. Many valuable bad versifiers, we are sure, have been defrauded of their place in this collection. It is quite impossible, that, since the age of James the Second, only 223 poets, of all descriptions, have published their works. We think, with tolerable industry, as many thousand might have been strung together; and the reader, instead of three, might have had the inestimable satisfaction of perusing thirty volumes, of evidences the bad taste of his forefathers.

By the guarded title of "Later English Poets," Mr. Southey seems not to consider himself bound to give us specimens of the last; yet he has included Cowper, one of the very latest deceased of our good poets. From such an extension of his boundaries, we should have expected Beattie and Anstey (author of the New Bath Guide) to have been admitted also. We regret also, that his industry has not been directed to discover some of the floating fugitives of a man whose genius as a poet was still superior to his powers as a critic, Stephens, the colleague of Johnson in his edition of Shakespeare. It is true, the poems of Stephens were never put into a substantive or collective form; but the cause of good taste requires that his name should not be forgotten. A poem of this man, purporting to be written to his mistress on her marriage with a fortunate rival, possesses the very nerve and soul of nature and passion. It is probably so well known to many lovers of poetry, that we forbear to transcribe it. Another of his love-songs, concluding with the following stanza,

And when with envy Time transported,
Shall think to rob us of our joys,
You'll in your girls again be courted,
And I'll go wooing in my boys—

has so much simplicity and merit, as to make us regret it should be omitted in any compilation of English poetry.

Among the new names of poets, introduced by this selection, there is one which poetry will be proud of admitting into the number of her votaries even with inferior pretensions. This is Sir William Blackstone. After so freely animadverting on what appear to us the blemishes of this collection, it affords us pleasure to thank Mr. Southey for having presented the public with a copy of verses by that ornament of his country; whose poetical vein, we believe, is a fact hitherto known, and whose verses, though not of the highest cast of poetry, are tolerably correct, and expressive of an amiable mind.

THE LAWYER'S FAREWELL TO HIS MUSE.
As by some tyrant's stern command,
A wretch forsakes his native land,
In foreign climes condemn'd to roam
An endless exile from his home,
Pensive he treads the destin'd way,
'Till on some neighbouring mountain's brow,
He stops, and turns his eyes below,
There, melting at the well-known view,
Drops a last tear, and bids adieu;
So I, thus doom'd from thee to part,
Gay Queen of Fancy and of Art,
Reluctant move, with doubtful mind,
Oft stop, and often look behind.

Companion of my tender age,
Serenely gay and sweetly sage,
How blythesome were we wont to rove
By verdant hill, or shady grove,
Where fervent bees, with humming voice,
Around the honied oak rejoice,
And aged elms with awful bend
In long cathedral walks extend;
Lull'd by the lapse of gliding floods,
Cheer'd by the warbling of the woods,
How blest my days, my thoughts how free,
In sweet society with thee!
Then all was joyous, all was young,
And years unheeded roll'd along.

But now the pleasing dream is o'er,
These scenes must charm me now no more,
Lost to the field, and torn from you,--
Farewell, a long, — a last adieu.
Me wrangling courts, and stubborn law,
To smoke and crowds and cities draw;
There selfish faction rules the day,
And pride and avarice throng the way;
Diseases taint the murky air,
And midnight conflagrations glare;
Loose revelry and riot bold
In frighted streets their orgies hold;
Or, when in silence all is drown'd,
Fell murder walks her lonely round.
No room for peace — no room for you—
Adieu, celestial Nymph! adieu.

Shakespeare, no more thy sylvan son,
Nor all the art of Addison,
Pope's heaven-strung lyre, nor Waller's ease,
Nor Milton's mighty self must please.
Instead of these, a formal band
In furs and coifs around me stand;
With sounds uncouth and accents dry
That grate the soul of Harmony,
Each pedant sage unlocks his store
Of mystic, dark, discordant lore;
And points with tottering hand the ways
That lead me to the thorny maze.

There, in a winding, close retreat,
Is Justice doom'd to fix her seat,
There, fenc'd by bulwarks of the law,
She keeps the wond'ring world in awe;
And there, from vulgar sight retir'd,
Like eastern queens is more admir'd.

O let me pierce the secret shade
Where dwells the venerable maid,
There humbly mark, with rev'rent awe,
The guardian of Britannia's law,
Unfold with joy her sacred page,
Th' united boast of many an age,
Where mix'd, yet uniform, appears
The wisdom of a thousand years;
In that pure spring the bottom view,
Clear, deep, and regularly true,
And other doctrines thence imbibe
Than lurk within the sordid tribe;
Observe how parts with parts unite
In one harmonious rule of right;
See countless wheels distinctly tend
By various laws to one great end;
While mighty Alfred's piercing soul
Pervades, and regulates the whole.

Then welcome business — welcome strife,
Welcome the cares — the thorns of life,
The visage wan — the pore-blind sight,
The toil by day — the lamp at night,
The tedious forms — the solemn prate,
The pert dispute — the dull debate,
The drowsy bench — the babbling hall:
For thee, fair Justice, welcome all.
Thus let my noon of life be past;
Yet let my setting sun, at last,
Find out the still, the rural cell,
Where sage Retirement loves to dwell.
There let me taste the homefelt bliss
Of innocence, and inward peace;
Untainted by the guilty bribe,
Uncurs'd amid the harpy tribe—
No orphans cry to wound my ear;
My honour, and my conscience clear.
Thus may I calmly meet my end,
Thus to the grave in peace descend!

Among the few pieces which are new to the public, we consider the following sonnet of J. Bamfylde entitled to notice; and regret that a poet, seemingly endowed with no small portion of feeling and elegance, should not have been known to the public by more numerous works.

Cold is the senseless heart that never strove
With the mild tumult of a real flame,
Rugged the breast that beauty cannot tame,
Nor youth's enlivening graces touch to love.
The pathless vale, the long-forsaken grove,
The rocky cave that bears the fair one's name,
With ivy mantled o'er. For empty fame
Let him amidst the rabble toil — or rove
In search to plunder far to western clime.
Give me to waste the hours in amorous play
With Delia, beauteous maid, and build the rhyme,
Praising her flowing hair, her snowy arms,
And all the prodigality of charms,
Form'd to enslave my heart and grace my lay.