1785 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Sargent

Anna Seward to Court Dewes, 30 March 1785; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 1:54-58.



No, indeed, my conviction of the high poetic merit of Mr. Sargent's dramatic poem, the Mine, has lost none of its ardour. Mr. Hayley says it is the worthy rival of Milton's Comus. Perhaps I do not rate its claim quite so high; but I place it on a level with Mason's Caractacus. Judge, then, if I can subscribe to your friend's opinion, that it does not rise above mediocrity! — Why is it that people of fine understanding, and general accuracy of taste, are so often blind to the irradiations of genius, on its first emerging? — but let me reflect that the sweet effusions of Milton's juvenile years, the Lycidas, Comus, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, &c. sunk, on their first appearance, into that oblivion out of which they did not emerge during seventy years. Are the following passages from the Mine of moderate beauty only?

—'Tis now three months
Since, on this pendant vault, with trembling hand,
I etch'd the sad memorial of my name,
And on its sparry architrave began
To chronicle each day of growing woe.

—When thou shalt inhale
The breezy air, and with a thirst as keen
As the parch'd Arab feels on Nubia's sands,
Drink the refreshing stream of living light,
Thy soul-felt ectasy shall I partake
Mid this abhorr'd privation,

Stern was his brow, and dark. — As on his feet
They bound the cramping irons, he smil'd in scorn.
With more than curious thought be seem'd to view,
And measure all my form.

—Sooner could'st thou bid
The floret, that o'er-hangs the stream, and feeds
On its pure essence, live in these dank caves,
Than plant true friendship in our alien hearts.
'Tis but the trail of braided sparks, that fly
In quick succession from the whirling flints,
And stricken steel; for, in this noxious chasm,
Such dense, and sulphurous fumes exhale, as touch'd
By lighted torch, would instant fire the air,
And wrap the caverns in continuous blaze.

Juliana awaking in the Cavern.

—See, from yon crag she bends,
And lifts her drowsy lids, that hang like clouds
Over the brimming ocean, when the sun
First peeps from the blue wave.

And canst thou then, thou poor afflicted creature,
Root from thine heart the sense of crowding sorrows,
Long days of hope deferr'd, and nights of weeping,
With all the aches, and sick'nings of the soul;
Canst thou forget these pangs, and on a stranger
Waste generous comfort?

—When I behold thee
Environ'd by dim forms, pent in the gloom
Of these abrupt, unorganized caverns,
Mid fierce vicissitudes of heat, and cold,
And sublimated vapours, thy meek carriage
Schools me to patience.

Scarce can I pierce the air with labouring eye,
Such misty darkness reigns; — yet, near yon rock,
Where drops the lingering stream, a form I see
That rests incumbent on a wrenching mattock,
And seems entranc'd in melancholy thought.

Hast thou not sat
Motionless, while he delv'd the rifted rock?
Or, when he sunk beneath the sultry toil,
Brought the cool beverage, and, with gentle hand,
Wip'd from his pallid front faint nature's dew?—
Then, as he slept, hut thou not stol'n towards him,
And hung in silent gaze o'er his wan cheek,
That on the chill stone rested?

—I fain would do so,
And ever in my prayers remember patience;
For hope of better days attends the good,
And virtue, like the wild-bee, can extract,
E'en from the bitter plant, adversity,
Sweet food to cheer the spirit.

Cannot this plenitude of beautiful sentiment, imagery, and description, induce men of taste unanimously to decree the palm of distinguished genius to their author? For my part, I am more and more charmed with the Mine, though I hinted to Mr. Hayley, that I thought it had some flat speeches, and several needlessly inharmonious lines; that it might have been more pathetic; and that the language of Conrad had too much purity and tenderness for his licentious character, his villainous designs, the murky scene, and unprotected situation of her whom he endeavours to seduce.

———*———*———*———*———

The first speech in blank verse of the Gnome is perfectly Miltonic; and I scarce know heroic rhymes more sublime than the ensuing:—

Of hoary fens exalt the stagnant breath,
And load the passing gale with plagues and death!
Thro' yelling gulfs outrageous whirlwinds urge,
Or curl the tossing pool with fiery surge!
Rid flaming cataracts round Vesuvius glow,
Bid Hecla thunder thro' incumbent snow!
From Cotopasci's heights the deluge pour,
And melt a thousand winters' frozen store!
Beneath the main expansive vapours raise,
And with metallic embers feed the blaze,
Till the black vortex of the water boils,
And Ocean wonders at his new-form'd isles!
———*———*———*———*———

But perhaps I ought to beg your pardon for thus drenching you perforce with Heliconian dews, springing up at Lavington, the seat of this other bard of Susex, the emulous friend of the celebrated Hayley. My heart was in the subject, and the midnight clock has struck in vain. — Adieu!