1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Adam Smith

Percival Stockdale, in Lectures on the truly eminent English Poets (1807) 2:642-47.



To a dispassionate, sensible, and philosophical observer, it is curious, and interesting, to mark the various, and very different natural endowments of the human mind. Some learned, and ingenious men, who, indeed, were eminent writers on subjects to which they were adapted by nature; and with which, by their habitual studies they were well acquainted, have likewise presumed to be criticks on our great poets, without possessing much critical acumen, or discrimination. It is Dr. Adam Smith's opinion, that the poetry of Gray bears a striking resemblance to the sublime of Milton. This observation is just, as far as it relates to some of Gray's noblest passages. The rest of his poetical criticism, which may be found in his theory of moral sentiments, I shall not have the pleasure of mentioning with equal approbation. He is a great admirer of the cold, correct, and tamely elegant Boileau; and of the French tragedy; which is principally composed of little meagre rhymes; and of the prolix; bombastick; frothy declamation of Gallick eloquence. On such a puerile taste, the muse of Shakespeare, pervading the heart of man; and that of Milton, "with Heaven's artillery fraught," are miserably thrown away. The same gentleman, would make the display of poetical genius, like that of a lady's court-dress, almost merely an object of fashion. — "Pope, and Dr. Swift" (says he) "have, each of them, introduced a manner different from what was practised before. The quaintness of Butler has given place to the plainness of Swift. The rambling freedom of Dryden, and the correct, but often tedious, and prosaick languour of Addison, are no longer the objects of imitation; but all long verses are now written after the manner of the nervous precision of Pope." — I will speak to this futility as concisely as I can. The manner of Pope, and Swift were not introduced by those great men whimsically, and as a fashion; but in consequence of the progressive improvement of our poetry (in which must necessarily be included the improvement of our versification) varied, and heightened, by the internal character of their own genius. The feeble quality of quaintness (if Dr. Smith understood the word) was never more misapplied than it is here to Butler; for what can be more inadequate than the proper definition of quaintness (i.e. a little affected, conceited kind of elegance) to our just ideas of the genius of Butler; to the inventive powers of his imagination; to the bright, and continued scintillations of his wit? To his ludicrous wit his rhymes were characteristically adapted; indeed the working of his mind spontaneously, and congenially produced them; for after all the blinders that have attempted to tear the manner from the matter, I again repeat it; — style is but embodied thought. Dr. Swift was a very great man; but he was not a very great poet; as he was incapable of Butler's poignancy, he could not have adopted his versification without extreme absurdity; therefore he modelled his poetry by what Dr. Smith (and not, I think, with much propriety of expression) calls his plainness; by a chastised humour rather than wit; and by simply elegant verse; and not of great force, and elevation.

Dryden was obliged to write hastily; for he wrote for bread. But by your leave, Dr. Smith, his is not a rambling freedom; it is the freedom of a great, and fervid mind; pouring on in a copious, and shining flood of poetry; glorious even in his faults; majestick even in his negligence. Addison, in his poetical capacity, was very inferiour to the great poet, of whom, in the next place, I shall take a short view; therefore I shall only pay my tribute to his Cato. In that tragedy he hath shown himself to be an excellent, a great poet: all is classical; elegant; with a moral dignity; with a noble grandeur of sentiment and with language worthy of the sentiments which it conveys. I should do it great injustice if I compared it with the unnatural, inflated rhetorick of the French drama. "The correct, but tedious, and prosaick languour," Dr. Smith; which you ascribe to Addison, is most pertinently applicable to many of your idols, the French poets. I wish that I could at all redeem the merit of a charming tragedy from our insensibility to true poetry; and from our barbarous passion for gorgeous and unmeaning theatrical monsters.

If we consider the various, and complete excellences of Pope, we shall be warranted to assert, that, few greater poets than he have existed. I believe that Dr. Johnson very justly observes, that "he owed much to Dryden, but more to himself." — And is "a nervous precision" to be a principal, while it can only be an inferiour characteristick of a poet who greatly improved on Dryden; and who gave us a new, and astonishing species of poetry; from the elegance, fertility, and fire of his own genius? Take your nervous precision to yourself, Dr. Smith (your theory of moral sentiments is in much want of it) but let it not, for a moment, be obtruded on my attention, while I admire his divine genius; — equally elegant and inventive in "the Rape of the Locke;" — or while I am enchanted with the pictures, and irresistibly borne along with the flame of his Eloisa. You tell us that all long verses are now written after the manner of his nervous precision. The verses which are now written in our common, or epick measure have not even the secondary, or subservient merit of his nervous precision. Their authours cannot disguise them in the subordinate graces of that great man. I am always ready to sacrifice a servile complaisance, to truth. To prove what I assert, let me appeal to unprejudiced, well-informed, and judicious criticks: let them support, and honour me with their opinion of our weak, and childish prologues; or of our larger productions; which, though perhaps they are more highly esteemed, are only more evident proofs of our poetical insignificance.