1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Francis Jeffrey, in Review of Campbell, Specimens of British Poetry; Edinburgh Review 31 (March 1819) 463-72.



We would rather see Mr. Campbell as a poet, than as a commentator on poetry: — because we would rather have a solid addition to the sum of our treasures, than the finest or most judicious account of their actual amount. But we are very glad to see him in any way: — and think the work which he has now given us very excellent and delightful.

The most common fault that is found with it, we think, is, that there is so little of it original, — and that out of seven volumes, with Mr. Campbell's name on the outside, there should hardly be two little ones of his writing. In making this complaint, however, people seem to forget, that the work is entitled "Specimens of British Poetry;" and that the learned Editor did not undertake to write, but only to select and introduce the citations of which it was to consist. Still, however, there is some little room for complaint: and the work is somewhat deficient, even upon this strict view of its objects, and of the promises which the title must in fairness be allowed to hold out. There is no doubt a very pleasing Essay on English Poetry, — and there are biographical and critical notices of many of its principal authors. But these two compartments of the work are somewhat inartificially blended, — and the latter, and most important, rather unduly anticipated and invaded, in order to enlarge the former. The only biography or criticism which we have upon Dryden, for example, is contained in the Preliminary Essay; — and a considerable part even of the specimens of Shirley, are to be found in the same quarter. These, however, are licenses, or lyrical transitions, which must be allowed, we suppose, to a poetical editor — and to which we should not therefore very much object. If the whole that we have a right to look for is in the book, we are very little disposed to quarrel with the author about its arrangement, or the part of the book in which he has chosen to place it. But we really think that we have not got all that we were naturally led to expect — and that the learned author still owes us an arrear which we hope he will handsomely pay up in the next edition.

When a great poet and a man of distinguished talents announces a large selection or English poetry, "with biographical and critical notices," we naturally expect such notices of all, or almost all the authors of whose works he thinks it worth while to favour us with specimens. The biography sometimes may be unattainable — and it may still more frequently be uninteresting — but the criticism must always he valuable; and, indeed, is obviously that which must be looked to as constituting the chief value of any such publication. There is no author so obscure, if at all entitled to a place in this register, of whom it would not be desirable to know the opinion of such a man as Mr. Campbell — and none so mature and settled in fame, upon whose beauties and defects, and poetical character in general, the public would not have much to learn from such an authority. Now, there are many authors, and some of no mean note, of whom he has not condescended to say one word, either in the Essay, or in the notices prefixed to their citations. Of Jonathan Swift, for example, all that is here recorded is, "Born 1667 — died 1744;" and Otway is despatched in the same summary manner — "Born 1651 — died 1685." Marlowe is commemorated in a single page, and Butler in half of one. All this is rather capricious: — But this is not all. Sometimes the notices are entirely biographical, and sometimes entirely critical. We humbly conceive they ought always to have been of both descriptions. At all events, we think we ought in every case to have had some criticism, — since this could always have been had, and could scarcely have failed to be valuable. Mr. C., we think, has been a little lazy.

If he were like most authors, or even like most critics, we could easily have pardoned this; for we very seldom find any work too short. It is the singular goodness of his criticisms that makes us regret their fewness; for nothing, we think, can be more fair, judicious and discriminating, and at the same time more fine, delicate and original, than the greater part of the discussions with which he has here presented us. It is very rare to find so much sensibility to the beauties of poetry, united with so much toleration for its faults; and so exact a perception of the merits of every particular style, interfering so little with a just estimate of all. Poets, to be sure, are on the whole, we think, very indulgent judges of poetry; and that not so much, we verily believe, from any partiality to their own vocation, or desire to exalt their fraternity, as from their being more constantly alive to those impulses which it is the business of poetry to excite, and more quick to catch and to follow out those associations on which its efficacy chiefly depends. If it be true, as we have formerly endeavoured to show, with reference to this very author, that poetry produces all its greater effects, and works its more memorable enchantments, not so much by the images it directly presents, as by those which it suggests to the fancy, and melts or inflames us less by the fires which it applies from without, than by those which it kindles within, and of which the fuel is in our own bosoms, — it will he readily understood how these effects should be most powerful in the sensitive breast of a poet, and how a spark, which would have been instantly quenched in the duller atmosphere of an ordinary brain, may create a blaze in his combustible imagination to warm and enlighten the world. The greater poets, accordingly, have almost always been the warmest admirers, and the most liberal patrons of poetry. The smaller only — your Laureates and Ballad-mongers — are envious and irritable — jealous even of the dead, and less desirous of the praise of others, than avaricious of their own.

But though a poet is thus likely to be a gentler critic of poetry than another, and, by having a finer sense of its beauties, to be better qualified for the most pleasing and important part of his office, there is another requisite in which we should be afraid he would generally be found wanting, especially in a work of the large and comprehensive nature of that now before us — we mean, in absolute fairness and impartiality towards the different schools or styles of poetry which he may have occasion to estimate and compare. Even the most common and miscellaneous reader has a peculiar taste in this way — and has generally erected for himself some obscure but exclusive standard of excellence, by which he measures the pretensions of all that come under his view. One man admires witty and satirical poetry, and sees no beauty in rural imagery or picturesque description; while another doats on Idyls and Pastorals, and will not allow the affairs of polite life to form a subject for verse. One is for simplicity and pathos; another for magnificence and splendour. One is devoted to the Muse of terror; another to that of love. Some are all for blood and battles, and some for music and moonlight — some for emphatic sentiments, and some for melodious verses. Even those whose taste is the least exclusive, have a leaning to one class of composition rather than to another; and overrate the beauties which fall in with their own propensities and they are palpably unjust to those which wear a different complexion, or spring from a different race.

But, if it be difficult or almost impossible to meet with an impartial judge for the whole great family of genius, even among those quiet and studious readers who ought to find delight even in their variety, it is obvious, that this bias and obliquity of judgment must be still more incident to one who, by being himself a Poet, must not only prefer one school of poetry to all others, but must actually belong to it, and be disposed, as a pupil, or still more as a master, to advance its pretensions above those of all its competitors. Like the votaries or leaders of other sects, poets have been but too apt to establish exclusive and arbitrary creeds, and to invent articles of faith, the slightest violation of which effaces the merit of all other virtues. Addicting themselves, as they are apt to do, to the exclusive cultivation of that style to which the bent of their own genius naturally inclines them, they look everywhere for those beauties of which it is peculiarly susceptible, and are disgusted if they cannot be found. Like discoverers in science, or improvers in art, they see nothing in the whole system but their own discoveries and improvements, and undervalue everything that cannot be connected with their own studies and glory. As the Chinese map-makers allot all the lodgeable area of the earth to their own nation, and thrust the other countries of the world into little outskirts and by-corners — so poets are disposed to represent their own little field of exertion, as occupying all the sunny part of Parnassus, and to exhibit the adjoining regions under terrible shadows and foreshortenings.

With those impressions of the almost inevitable partiality of poetical judgments in general, we could not recollect that Mr. Campbell was himself a Master in a distinct school of poetry, and distinguished by a very peculiar and fastidious style of composition, without being apprehensive that the effects of this bias would be very apparent in his work, and that, with all his talent and discernment, he would now and then be guilty of great, though unintended injustice, to some of those whose manner was most opposite to his own. We are happy to say that those apprehensions have proved entirely groundless; and that nothing in the volumes before us is more admirable, or to us more surprising, than the perfect candour and undeviating fairness with which the learned author passes judgment on all the different authors who come before him; — the quick and true perception he has of the most opposite and almost contradictory beauties — the good-natured and liberal allowance he makes for the disadvantages of each age and individual — and the temperance and brevity and firmness with which he reproves the excessive severity of critics less entitled to be severe. No one indeed, we will venture to affirm, ever placed himself in the seat of judgement with more of a judicial temper — though, to soften invidious comparisons, we must beg leave just to add, that being called on to pass judgment only on the dead, whose faults were no longer corrigible, and had already been expiated by appropriate pains, his temper was less tried, and his seventies less provoked than in the case of living offenders — and that the very number and variety of the errors that called for animadversion, in the course of his wide survey, made each individual case appear comparatively insignificant, and mitigated the sentence of individual condemnation.

It is to this last circumstance of the large and comprehensive range which he was obliged to take, and the great extent and. variety of the society in which he was compelled to mingle, that we are inclined to ascribe, not only the general mildness and indulgence of his judgments, but his happy emancipation from those narrow and limitary maxims by which we have already said that poets are so peculiarly apt to be entangled. As a large and familiar intercourse with men of different habits and dispositions never fails, in characters of any force or generosity, to dispel the prejudices with which we at first regard them, and to lower our estimate of our own superior happiness and wisdom, so, a very ample and extensive course of reading in any department of letters, tends naturally to enlarge our narrow principle of judgment, and not only to cast down the idols before which had formerly abased ourselves, but to disclose to us the might and the majesty of much that we had mistaken and contemned.

In this point of view, we think such a work as is now before us, likely to be of great use to ordinary readers of poetry — not only as unlocking to them innumerable new springs of enjoyment and admiration, but as having a tendency to correct and liberalize their judgments of their old favourites, and to strengthen and enliven all those faculties by which they derive pleasure from such studies. Nor would the benefit, if it once extended o far, by any means stop here. The character of our poetry depends not a little on the taste of our poetical readers; — and though some of our bards are before their age, and some be. hind it, the greater part must be pretty nearly on its level. Present popularity, whatever disappointed writers may say, after all, the only safe presage of future glory; — and it is really as unlikely that good poetry should be produced in a' quantity where it is not relished, as that cloth should be manufactured and thrust into time market, or a pattern and fashion for which there was no demand. A shallow and uninstructed taste s indeed the most flexible and inconstant — and is tossed about by every breath of doctrine, and every wind of authority; so as neither to desire any permanent delight from the same works, nor to assure any permanent fame to their authors; — while a taste that is formed upon a wide and large survey of enduring models, not only affords a secure basis for all future judgments, but must compel, whenever it is general in any society, a salutary conformity to its great principles from all who depend on its suffrage. — To accomplish such an object, the general study of a work like this certainly is not enough; — But it would form an excellent preparation for more extensive reading — and would, of itself, do much to open the eyes of many self-satisfied persons, and startle them into a sense of their own ignorance, and he poverty and paltriness of many of their ephemeral favourites. Considered as a nation, we are yet but very imperfectly recovered from that strange and ungrateful forgetfulness of our older poets which began with the Restoration, and continued almost unbroken till after the middle of the last century. — Nor can the works which have chiefly tended to dispel it among the instructed orders, be ranked in a higher class than this which is before us. — Percy's Relics of Antient Poetry produced, we believe, the first revulsion — and this was followed up by Warton's History of Poetry. — Johnson's Lives of the Poets did something; — and the great effect has been produced by the modern commentators on Shakespeare. These various works recommended the older writers, and reinstated them in some of their honours; — but still the works themselves were not placed before he eyes of ordinary readers. This was done in part, perhaps overdone, by the entire republication of some of our older dramatists — and with better effect by Mr. Ellis's Specimens. If the former, however, was rather too copious a supply for the returning appetite of the public, the latter was too scanty; and both were confined to too narrow a portion of time to enable the reader to enjoy the variety, and to draw the comparisons, by which he might be most pleased and instructed. — Southey's continuation of Ellis did harm rather than good; for though there is some cleverness in the introduction, the work itself is executed in a crude, petulant, and superficial manner, — and bears all the marks of being a mere bookseller's speculation. — As we have heard nothing of it from the time of its first publication, we suppose it has had the success it deserved.

There was great room therefore, — and, we will even say, great occasion, for such a work as this of Mr. Campbell's, in the present state of our literature; — and we are persuaded, that all who care about poetry, and are not already acquainted with the authors of whom it treats — and even all who are — cannot possibly do better than read it fairly through, from the first page to the last — without skipping the extracts which they know, or those which may not at first seem very attractive. There is no reader, we will venture to say, who will rise from the perusal even of these partial and scanty fragments, without a fresh and deep sense of the matchless richness, variety, and originality of English poetry: while the juxtaposition and arrangement of the pieces not only gives room for endless comparisons and contrasts, — but displays, as it were in miniature, the whole of its wonderful progress, and sets before us, as in a great gallery of pictures, the whole course and history of the art, from its first rude and infant beginnings, to its maturity, and perhaps its decline. While it has all the grandeur and instruction that belongs to such a gallery, it is free from the perplexity and distraction which is generally complained of in such exhibitions; as each piece is necessarily considered separately and in succession, and the mind cannot wander, like the eye, through the splendid labyrinth in which it is enchanted. Nothing, we think, can be more delightful, than thus at our case to trace, through all its periods, vicissitudes and aspects, the progress of this highest and most intellectual of all the arts — coloured as it is in every age by the manners of the times which produce it, and embodying, besides those flights of fancy, and touches of pathos, that constitute its more immediate essence, much of the wisdom, and much of the morality that was then current among the people; and thus presenting us, not merely with almost all that genius has ever created for delight, but with a brief chronicle and abstract of all that was once interesting to the generations which have gone by.

The steps of the progress of such an art, and the circumstances by which they have been affected, would form, of themselves, a large and interesting theme of speculation. Conversant as poetry necessarily is with all that touches human feelings, concerns, and occupations, its character must have been impressed by every change in the moral and political condition of society, and must even retain the lighter traces of their successive follies, amusements, and pursuits; while, in the course of ages, the very multiplication and increasing business of the people have forced it through a progress not wholly dissimilar to that which the same causes have produced on the agriculture and landscape of the country; — where at first we had rude and dreary wastes, thin sprinkled with sunny spots of simple cultivation — then vast forests and chases, stretching far around feudal castles and pinnacled abbeys — then woodland hamlets, and goodly mansions, and gorgeous gardens, and parks rich with waste fertility, and lax habitations — and, finally, crowded cities, and road-side villas, and brick-walled gardens, and turnip fields, and canals, and artificial ruins, and ornamented farms, and cottages trellised over with exotic plants.

But to escape from those metaphors and enigmas, to the business before us, we must remark, that in order to give any tolerable idea of the poetry which was thus to be represented, it was necessary that the specimens to be exhibited should be of some compass and extent. We have heard their length complained of — but we think with very little justice. Considering the extent of the works from which they are taken, they are almost all but inconsiderable fragments; and where the original was of an Epic or Tragic character, greater abridgement would have been mere mutilation, — and would have given only such a specimen of the whole, as a brick might do of a building. From the earlier and less familiar authors, we rather think the citations are too short; and, even from those that are more generally known, we do not well see how they could have been shorter, with any safety to the professed object and only use of the publication. That object, we conceive, was to give specimens of English poetry, from its earliest to its latest periods; and it would be a strange rule to have followed, in making such a selection, to leave out the best and most popular. The work certainly neither is, nor professes to be, a collection from obscure and forgotten authors — but specimens of all who have merit enough to deserve our remembrance; — and if some few have such redundant merit or good fortune, as to be in the hands and the minds of all the world, it was necessary, even then, to give some extracts from them, — that the series might be complete, and that there might be room for comparison with others, and for tracing the progress of the art in the strains of their models and their imitators.

In one instance, and one only, Mr. C. has declined doing this duty, and left the place of one great luminary to he filled up by recollections that he must have presumed would be universal. He has given but two pages to SHAKESPEARE — and not a line from any of his plays. Perhaps he has done rightly: — a knowledge of Shakespeare may be safely presumed, we believe, in every reader; and, if he had begun to cite his Beauties, there is no saying where he would have ended. A little book, calling itself Beauties of Shakespeare, was published some years ago, and shown, as we have heard, to Mr. Sheridan. He turned over the leaves for some time with apparent satisfaction, and then said, "This is very well; but where are the other seven volumes?" Then; is no other author, however, whose fame is such as to justify similar ellipsis, or whose works can be thus elegantly understood in a collection of good poetry. Mr. C. has complied perhaps too far with the popular prejudice, in confining his citations from Milton, to the Comus and the smaller pieces, and leaving the Paradise Lost to the memory of his readers. But though we do not think the extracts by any means too long on the whole, we are certainly of opinion, that some are too long and others too short; and that many, especially in the latter case, are not very well selected. There is far too little of Marlowe for instance, and too much of Shirley, and even of Massinger. We should have liked more of Warner, Fairfax, Phineas Fletcher, and Henry More — all poets of no scanty dimensions — and could have spared several pages of Butler, Mason, Whitehead, Roberts, Meston, and Amhurst Selden. We do not think the specimens from Burns very well selected; nor those from Prior — nor can we see any good reason for quoting the whole Castle of Indolence, and nothing else, for Thomson — and the whole Rape of the Lock, and nothing else, for Pope.

Next to the impression of the vast fertility, compass, and beauty of our English poetry, the reflection that recurs most frequently and forcibly to us in accompanying Mr. C. through his wide survey, is that of the perishable nature of poetical fame, and the speedy oblivion that has overtaken so many of the promised heirs of immortality. Of near two hundred and fifty authors, whose works are cited in these volumes, by far the greater part of whom were celebrated in their generation, there are not thirty who now enjoy any thing that can be called popularity — whose works are to be found in the hands of ordinary readers — in the shops of ordinary booksellers — or in the press for republication. About fifty more may be tolerably familiar to men of taste or literature: — the rest slumber on the shelves of collectors, and are partially known to a few antiquaries and scholars. Now, the fame of a poet is popular, or nothing. He does not address himself, like the man of science, to the learned, or those who desire to learn, but to all mankind; and his purpose being to delight and be praised, necessarily extends to all who can receive pleasure, or join in applause. It is strange, and somewhat humiliating, to see how great a proportion of those who had once fought their way successfully to distinction, and surmounted the rivalry of contemporary envy, have again sunk into neglect. We have great deference for public opinion; and readily admit, that nothing but what is good can be permanently popular. But though its "vivat" be generally oracular, its "pereat" appears to us to be often sufficiently capricious; and while we would foster all that it bids to live, we would willingly revive much that it leaves to die. The very multiplication of works of amusement, necessarily withdraws many from notice that deserve to be kept in remembrance; for we should soon find it labour, and not amusement, if we were obliged to make use of them all, or even to take all upon trial. As the materials of enjoyment and instruction accumulate around its, more and more must thus be daily rejected, and left to waste: for while our tasks lengthen, our lives remain as short as ever; and the calls on our time multiply, while our time itself is flying swiftly away. This superfluity and abundance of our treasures, therefore, necessarily renders much of them worthless; and the veriest accidents may, in such a case, determine what part shall be preserved, and what thrown away and neglected. When an army is decimated, the very bravest may fall; and many poets, worthy of eternal remembrance, have been forgotten, merely because there was not room in our memories for all.

By such a work as the present, however, this injustice of fortune may be partly redressed — some small fragments of an immortal strain may still be rescued from oblivion — and a wreck of a name preserved, which time appeared to have swallowed up for ever. There is something pious we think, and endearing, in the office of thus gathering up, the ashes of renown that has passed away; or rather, of calling back the departed life for a transitory glow, and enabling those great spirits which seemed to be laid for ever, still to draw a tear of pity, or a throb of admiration, from the hearts of a forgetful generation. The body of their poetry, probably, can never be revived; but some sparks of its spirit may yet be preserved, in a narrower and feebler frame.

When we look back upon the havoc which two hundred years have thus made in the ranks of our immortals — and, above all, when we refer their rapid disappearance to the quick succession of new competitors, and the accumulation of more good works than there is time to peruse, — we cannot help being dismayed at the prospect which lyes before the writers of the present day. There never was an age so prolific of popular poetry as that in which we now live; — and as wealth, population, and education extend, the produce is likely to go on increasing. The last ten years have produced, we think, an annual supply of about ten thousand lines of good staple poetry — poetry from the very first hands that we can boast of — that runs quickly to three or four large editions — and is as likely to be permanent as present success can make it. Now, if this goes on for a hundred years longer, what a task will await the poetical readers of 1919! Our living poets will then be nearly as old as Pope and Swift are at present — but there will stand between them and that generation nearly ten times as much fresh and fashionable poetry as is now interposed between us and those writers: — and if Scott and Byron and Campbell have already cast Pope and Swift a good deal into the shade, in what form and dimensions are they themselves likely, to be presented to the eyes of their great-grandchildren? The thought, we own, is a little appaling; — and we confess we see nothing better to imagine than that they may find a comfortable place in some new collection of Specimens — the centenary of the present publication. There — if the future editor have any thing like the indulgence and veneration for antiquity of his predecessor — there shall posterity still hang with rapture on the half of Campbell — and the fourth part of Byron — and the sixth of Scott — and the scattered tythes of Crabbe — and the three per cent. of Southey, — while some good-natured critic shall sit in our mouldering chair, and more than half prefer them to those by whom they have been superseded! — It is an hyperbole of good nature, however, we fear, to ascribe to them even these dimensions of the end of a century. After a lapse of 250 years, we are afraid to think of the space they may have shrunk into. We have no Shakespeare, alas! to shed a never-setting light on his contemporaries: — and if we continue to write and rhyme at the present rate for 200 years longer, there must be some new art of short-hand reading invented — or all reading will be given up in despair. We need not stress ourselves, however, with these afflictions of our posterity; — and it is quite time that the reader should know a little of the work before us.

The Essay on English Poetry is very cleverly, and, in many places, very finely written — but it is not equal, and it is not complete. There is a good deal of the poet's waywardness even in Mr. C.'s prose. His historical Muse is as disdainful of drudgery and plain work as any of her more tuneful sisters; — and so we have things begun and abandoned — passages of great eloquence and beauty followed up by others not a little careless and disorderly — a large outline rather meagerly filled up, but with some morsels of exquisite finishing scattered irregularly up and down its expanse — little fragments of detail and controversy — and abrupt and impatient conclusions. Altogether, however, the work is very spirited; and abounds with the indications of a powerful and fine understanding, and of a delicate and original taste. We cannot now afford to give any abstract of the information it contains — but shall make a few extracts, to show the tone and manner of the composition.