1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Richardson

Percival Stockdale, in Lectures on the truly eminent English Poets (1807) 1:181-89.



If, with an equal destitution of judgement, and generosity, we appreciate a writer, only as he is the object of reading, and conversation, what are we to infer from the temporary fate of the illustrious and immortal Richardson? I now bring, more, or less, to your attention, that species of composition (if, in general, it deserves that respectable appellation) which is expressly written, universally to attract the heart, and the imagination, by appealing to the favourite passions, and persuits of the multitude. While I am preparing a warm, and grateful tribute, to the memory of this great man; I am not at all ignobly descending; he is worthy to be mentioned after Milton. If a man has an immense ambition for literary fame; not the glittering, perishable meteor of prejudice, and conceit; but the clear, and steady glory, which is to shine through let him produce, if he can, a work equal to Clarissa. His fable and characters flow so purely from the sacred source of nature; so intimately do they mix with all the recesses of the heart; that it is with difficulty that we undeceive ourselves; and find that they are imaginary. There never was a more masterly painter of human nature; there never was a more eloquent, and powerful advocate for virtue. Every word is marked with an apparently inactive simplicity; yet every word immediately insinuates itself; or glides; or penetrates to the soul. I am happy to have my humble encomium on this charming, and astonishing writer, warranted, and dignified by the rapturous eulogy of Rousseau. I have heard the severe Johnson, too, extremely warm in the praise of his departed friend. But the praise which he gives him in the Rambler, where he introduces one of his Letters to the Publick, is an "instar omnium:" it is as elegant as it is just. "He hath enlarged the knowledge of human nature" (saith he,) "and taught the passions to move at the command of virtue." — But my admiration of him is most decisively, most oracularly authorized by the profuse, and luxurious tears of all who read him; those excepted, who have hearts of marble.

Yet Grandison, and Clarissa, are, for the present, almost neglected; while curiosity pants for the innumerable mushrooms of novels; whose authours, instead of exhibiting passions; life; characters, and manners, with interesting art; cloy you with pastoral, or harass you with horrible description. Whenever they attempt human nature, they give you some grotesque, incongruous, distorted figures. But their productions include every recommendation in one; novelty. I am sorry to remark (if I am just, you will excuse me for remarking) that this resistless charm of novelty operates with equal effect through the higher departments of our modern literature. There never was a epocha so fruitful of genius, as the present. The literary prodigies are introduced into the world by novelty; a train of fortunate circumstances accompany them, in society; they never utter a harsh, though salutary truth; they are as great adepts in the bowing faculty as Sir Pertinax is in the play; fashion; the perpetual dictator, in gay, superficial times, shades their brows with a laurel of deciduous verdure. In a highly civilized, and polished community, in proportion as there is little application to useful, and important knowledge, in an inverse ratio, there are many publications; characteristick of the intellectual exertion of the age. An undistinguishing curiosity, is an inseparable companion of superficiality. The sale of those publications is often rapid; the reading of them is desultory. Such as the teachers are, such are the scholars. These times are extremely propitious to booksellers, and sciolists; but they are very unfavourable to free, independent genius; introduced, and recommended, to the world, only by its own merit.

From that indifference to the novels of Richardson, which is a living satire on the times, one might imagine that the taste of the times was partly poisoned by the pen of a gentleman who wrote one excellent comedy; and who has been, for many years, a very great writer — in quantity. This authour has discovered that Fielding is a greater novelist than Richardson. None of his remarks demand a diligent refutation; therefore, I shall only remark, in my turn, that both the geniuses were invaluable diamonds; but that Richardson was a diamond of a finer water. And he is very remote from the truth, when he says that Tom Jones is universally preferred to Clarissa. As I doubt not that his jealousy for virtue, is sincere, and humane; if he is not blinded by prejudice, and partiality, he certainly must acknowledge that virtue is enforced with far more delicacy of pathos, in the latter novel, than in the former. He talks of the pedantick letters, and pedantick characters, of which the reading of Clarissa has been the cause. The book is free, from every kind of pedantry; unless the word can, with propriety be applied to simplicity, and perspicuity of language; to the purest, and most exalted sentiments; and to heroick virtue. But if unexperienced youth, and giddy heads, mistake their situation, they may pervert the naturally good effects of every forcible writer into pedantry, and affectation. He finds fault with the epistolary mode of the narrative; no reasonable fault can be found with it; for it is, throughout, well connected; unembarrassed; distinct, and clear. "The incidents," (he says) "are better conceived, than executed." They are so executed, that they always interest, and affect extremely. — "As to the characters of Lovelace; of the heroine herself; and of the heroine's parents, he takes them all to be beings of another world." — One would suppose that he had dropt from the moon himself. His example is one proof more, that a great genius who has, comparatively, but indifferent opportunities to be acquainted with mankind, will know them better than an inferiour being, whose higher situations bring them more variously, and collectively, under his view. The conduct of obstinate, proud and profligate persons, on the stage of this world; and the grief, and indignation of all virtuous, and feeling readers, prove that these characters are drawn from life, and nature, which this hypercritical gentleman would banish to another sphere. The letters, in general, are those of a master of human nature. The letters of Lovelace are particularly fraught with force, and splendour of talents. He says that "the novel is wire-drawn into such prolixity." — This is a weak, and stale objection; and unworthy of a liberal and distinguishing critick. I should regret the loss of any one letter of Clarissa, very subordinate, or inferiour letter, contributes, in some degree, to make the narrative, and characters more interesting, and consequently, the entertainment more lively, and impressive. There are eight volumes of Clarissa: I wish, that there had been as many more, as well written as the eight with which we were favoured by the authour. He mentions a young lady who made her will; wrote "an inscription for the plate of her own coffin; and forswore all mankind, at the age of sixteen." — This only tends to prove the powers of Richardson, as a writer; it surely proves nothing against him: if a work of imagination were so guarded by judgement, as to be impregnable to the attacks of the most petulant critick, its authour would not, for he could not, be responsible for its effects on a weak, and romantick mind. We may make the most salutary nourishment of the soul, as well as that of the body, our poison. What use; what abuse hath been made, of the celestial morality of the New Testament, by selfish, and ambitious priests, practising on feeble, superstitious. and enthusiastick minds!

But we need not wonder that an industrious, and indefatigable advocate for the slavery; for the inexpressible distresses, and torments, of the most unfortunate Africans; was insensible to the benevolent, the humane; the christian pathos, of Richardson.

What would a stern critick say of this transition from my main subject, who would not endure a digression, or an episode of Milton? Let me, then, close it, at last, by reminding you, that the conceited, and fastidious objections to the unequalled novel of Clarissa; to which objections, I fear, that I have given too much attention, are always overpowered, and effaced, by the sluices of the heart. Some of our most excellent poets, and prose-writers are now treated with an ungenerous, and impertinent contempt. But in the words of my Lord Bolinbroke, "I have singled one man out from among the moderns; because he has had the foolish presumption to censure Richardson, and to write novels, himself; and you will forgive this — I cannot say — short excursion, in honour of a favourite authour."