1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Richard Mant

Anonymous, Review of Mant, Poems; Edinburgh Review 11 (October 1807) 167-71.



Among the many injuries inflicted on the human intellect by the wits (for in truth they did not deserve the name of poets), who "flourished" in the reign of Charles the Second, none was more permanent in its effects, than the total forgetfulness of that style of poetry which delineates the beauties of the country, and the enjoyment of rural happiness. Few of the inferior topics, however, are so interesting as this; and, to evince how natural it is to love even the plainest description of pleasing and familiar objects, we need only appeal to the popularity so long enjoyed by that dullest of all possible poems, the "ingenious Mr. Pomfret's Choice." It is however true, that though all the "gentlemen who wrote with ease," and rhyming "persons of honour" of that and the preceding age, occasionally thought it necessary, to write pastorals, and to express their love of solitude and rural retirement, yet, by far the greater part knew nothing at all of what they professed to admire; and, when sent by debts into the country, considered it only as a horrible banishment among parsons and savages. Their poetical predecessors had no greater delight than in painting by words, and presenting to their readers a highly coloured image of those sublime natural phenomena which the town-bred bards, whose idea of a mountain was acquired at Richmond, and who knew nothing of rural beauties but a haycock and a syllabub, had neither enthusiasm to imagine, or sufficient knowledge of the subject to describe. Their pastorals, accordingly, are merely imitations of the worst parts of Virgil and, instead of real nature, are filled with fauns and satyrs which exist no where, or with love and politics which may be had any where.

They seem never to have suspected, that a lover might despair in Moorfields as well as in Arcadia; and that the stockjobbers at Garraway's, were at least as hearty as the swains of Trent, in their regret for King William's death. Nor did those who, like Philips and Gay, were really accurate observers of rural manners, at all admire or comprehend what were, properly speaking, rural beauties.

The grand and pervading fault, however, of the poets of the early part of the last century, is the indistinctness of their drawing, and the want of picturesque grouping. Milton and Spencer paint the landscapes they describe. Their distances are really indistinct; nor, when Milton describes towers and battlements,

bosom'd high in tufted trees,

does he describe the accurate form, or enter into a detail of their windows and furniture. Pope, on the other hand, and the author of Grongar Hill, (by no means the most feeble in their style of poetry), give rather a dry catalogue of beauties, than a representation of their general effect. Light and shade are disregarded; and they describe alike the foreground and the horizon with all the monotonous glare of a Chinese screen.

Thomson was perhaps the first who restored the ancient perception of the more striking features of nature, and brought back to our island a knowledge of her own beauties. Yet his times had so much remaining of bad taste and bad habits, that even Thomson had little opportunity to describe the more remote and sublimer landscape. The country was still considered rather as a threat to disobedient wives, than a desireable residence; and the description of a moor or a waterfall would be little understood or relished by the frequenters of Hampton Court or those who listened with so much delight to the nightingales at Vauxhall. Goldsmith contributed, perhaps, even more than Thomson, to restore good taste in this instance; and Cowper, perhaps, possessed it more than either. Yet, while we admire his powers of description, we must always lament those unfortunate circumstances, which doomed the eye of a real poet to rest on the flat and unmeaning pastures of Buckinghamshire. He may, however, be said to have blown the enchanted horn; and all the ladies of hills, of woods, and of waters, were immediately in motion. Wealthy clergymen began to walk in their forests; village curates to gather dandelions; and philosophers to mourn and moralyze, and murmur over ponds "three feet long, and two feet wide." On the whole, we may be perhaps allowed to doubt, whether the advantages of a more accurate observation of nature, have not been counterbalanced, as well by the devouring flight of tourists, as by the equally annoying, and, now, equally periodical visitation of tame or forced, or silly descriptions of rural scenery, rural manners, or rural enjoyments.

Amid so much to disgust us, we are disposed, perhaps, to make large allowances, and to turn with real pleasure to the productions of a man of cultivated taste and unaffected, who, without the microscopic eye of some of our poetical Leuenhocks, is still an accurate observer of nature, and who feels what he writes, without professing to write from his feeling.

I more safely like the bee
Who, in pleasant Chamouny,
Roams the piny wood, or skims
Near her hive the liquid streams,
Studious of the scented thyme;
Weave with care my simple rhyme.
Simple, yet sweet withal to these
Whom most I love, and most would please.

Mr. Mant's principal fault is an extraordinary occasional feebleness, which sometimes entirely spoils the effect of what would else he pleasing description.

With some exceptions of this kind, the "Sunday Morning" has great merit as an imitation of the golden age of English poetry. Is painful, however, to have our course stopt in such a poem, by being desired,

Returning home, to muse
On sweet and solemn views.

—which may be an extract from a sermon, as the following is undoubtedly from a village epitaph,

I hear a voice which speaks to me,
And burn with zeal to follow thee.

We were much pleased with the "Inscription in an Arbour," which is remarkably free from that neglect of perspective which have censured in the works of many superior poets.

But if the thrush, with warbling clear,
Or whistling blackbird charm thine ear,—
Or rooks that sail with solemn sound
Duly their native pines around,—
Or murmuring bee, or bleating shrill
Of lambkin, from the sheltering hill,—
If thine eye delight to rove
O'er hzael copse, and birchen grove,
Sunny field, and shady nook
Ting'd with curls of azure smoke;
Or flocks, whose snowy fleeces crown
The slope side of the russet down—
If thou seek no richer smell
Than such as scents the cowslip bell,
Or southern gale, that blows more sweet
From the tufted violet,
Or the gadding woodbine's wreath,
Or the heifer's balmy breath—

In this we cannot but observe, both in the choice of the epithets, "tufted violet" — "gadding woodbine," &c. and in the easy and natural flow of the whole description, a habit of observing nature accurately, and of seizing such beauties as are best suited to description. We have principally attended to Mr. Mant's descriptions of nature, because it is there he seems to us most fortunate. His other poems have, on the whole, little to detain us. We must except from this general sentence, his War-Song on the threatened invasion, of which as well as the Dirge on Lord Nelson's death, it is barely justice to observe, that they are the best on the subject we have yet seen.

I mourn thee not; — though short thy day,
Circled by glory's brightest ray,
Thy giant course was run:
And Victory, her sweetest smile,
Reserv'd to bless thy evening toil
And cheer thy setting sun.

If mighty nations' hosts subdu'd,
If, mid the wasteful scene of blood,
Fair deeds of mercy wrought;—
If thy fond country's joint acclaim,
If Europe's blessing on thy name
Be bliss, — I mourn thee not.

Mr. Mant must learn, however, that the too frequent mention of his own conjugal felicity is very dangerous ground; and that, in general, addresses to private friends, and the occurrences of private families, require a very nervous lyre indeed to preserve them from the ridicule of a world, to whom their persons are uninteresting, and their characters probably unknown.

It is seldom, perhaps, much to the purpose, to praise a poet for his morality; but it must always afford us pleasure, in one particularly of Mr. Mant's profession, to observe in his whole volume, and every part of it, a strong and manly train of virtuous sentiment, which may be very advantageously contrasted with the strains of some of his most celebrated contemporaries.

On the whole, though these poems evince (what is no small or vulgar praise) considerable powers both of describing and enjoying the pleasures of an elegant and virtuous retirement, yet we cannot help hinting to Mr. Mant, that we think he had more merit in composing than in publishing them. To write smooth verses is a very innocent amusement for a man of leisure and education, — and to read them in manuscript to his family or intimate associates is also a very venial and amiable indulgence of vanity; — but to push them out into the wide world, is not altogether so safe or laudable a speculation: and, though we are happy to tell him, that we think his talents respectable, yet we feel it a duty to announce to him, that we have not been able to discern in his works any of the tokens of immortality; and to caution him not to put himself in the way of more unmerciful critics.