1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bryan Waller Procter

Francis Jeffrey, in Review of Procter, Sicilian Story; Edinburgh Review 33 (January 1820) 144-47.



A good imitation of what is excellent, is generally preferable to original mediocrity: — Only it provokes dangerous comparisons — and makes failures more conspicuous — and sometimes reminds us that excellent things are imitable by their faults — and that too diligent a study of the wonders of Art, is apt to lead into some forgetfulness of the beauties of Nature.

In spite of all these dangers we must say that the author before us is a very good imitator — and unquestionably, for the most part, of very good models. His style is chiefly moulded, and his versification modulated on the pattern of Shakespeare, and the other dramatists of that glorious age — particularly Marlow, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Massinger. He has also copied something from Milton and Ben Jonson, and his amorous cavaliers of the Usurpation — and then passing disdainfully over all the intermediate writers, has flung himself fairly into the arms of Lord Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Leigh Hunt. — This may be thought, perhaps, rather a violent transition; and likely to lead us to something of an incongruous mixture. But the materials really harmonize very tolerably; and the candid reader of the work will easily discover the secret of this amalgamation.

In the first place, Mr. Cornwall is himself a poet — and one of no mean rate; — and not being a maker of parodies or centos, he does not imitate by indiscriminately caricaturing the prominent peculiarities of his models, or crowding together their external or mechanical characteristics — but merely disciplines his own genius in the school of theirs. In the next place, and what is much more important, it is obvious, that a man may imitate Shakespeare and his great compeers, without presuming to rival their variety or universality, and merely, by endeavouring to copy one or two of their many styles and excellences. — This is the case with Mr. C. He does not meddle with the thunders and lightnings of the mighty poet; and still less with his boundless humour and fresh-springing merriment. He has nothing to do with Falstaff or Silence; and does not venture himself into the lists with Macbeth, or Lear, or Othello. It is the tender, the sweet, and the fanciful only, that he aspires to copy — the girlish innocence and lovely sorrow of Juliet, Imogen, Perdita, or Viola — the enchanted solitude of Prospero and his daughter — the etherial loves and jealousies of Oberon and Titania, and those other magical scenes, all perfumed with love and poetry, and breathing the spirit of a celestial spring, which lie scattered in every page of his writings. — The genius of Fletcher, perhaps, is more akin to Mr. C.'s muse of imitation, than the soaring and "extravagant spirit" of Shakespeare; and we think we can trace, in more places than one, the impression which his fancy has received from the patient suffering and sweet desolation of Aspatia, in his Maid's tragedy. It is the youthful Milton only that he has presumed to copy — the Milton of Lycidas and Comus, and the Aracades, and the Seraphic Hymns — not the lofty and austere Milton of the Paradise. From Jonson, we think, he has imitated some of those exquisite songs and lyrical pieces that lie buried in the rubbish of his masks, and which continued to be the models for all such writings down to the period of the Restoration. There are no traces, we think, of Dryden, or Pope, or Young, — or of any body else indeed, till we come down to Lord Byron, and our other tuneful contemporaries. — From what we have already said, it will be understood, that Mr. C. has not thought of imitating all Byron, any more than all Shakespeare. He leaves untouched the mockery and the misanthropy, as well as much of the force and energy of the noble Lord's poetry — and betakes himself only to its deep sense of beauty, and the grace and tenderness that are so often and so strangely interwoven with those less winning characteristics, — It is the poetry of Manfred, of Parisina, of Haidee and Thyrsa, that he aims at copying, and not the higher and more energetic tone of the Corsair, or Childe Harold, or Don Juan. He has indeed borrowed the manner of this last piece in two of the poems in this little volume — but has shown no great aptitude for wit or sarcasm, and has succeeded only in the parts that are pathetic and tender. There is a great deal of the diction of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and some imitation of their beauties: But we think the natural bent of his genius is more like that of Leigh Hunt than any other author. — He has the same play of fancy, and the same capacity of deep and delicate feeling, together with the same relish for the old Italian poetry, and the plain and simple pathos of Dante and Boccacio. — We doubt, however, whether he has equal force of original talent, or whether he could have written any thing so good, on the whole, as the beautiful story of Rimini: But he has better taste and better judgment —or, what perhaps is but saying the same thing, he has less affectation, and far less conceit. He has scarcely any other affectation, indeed, than is almost necessarily implied in a sedulous imitator of difficult models — and no visible conceit at all. On the contrary, we cannot help supposing him to be a very moral and amiable person, who has taken to write poetry, more for the love he bears it, than the fame to which it may raise him — who cares nothing for the sects and factions into which the poetical world may be divided — but, regarding himself as a debtor to every writer who has given him pleasure, desires nothing better than to range freely over the whole Parnassian garden, "stealing and giving odour" with a faaree spirit and a grateful and joyous heart.

It is this apparent devotion to the purer part of his art — and the total exclusion of all contentious and dogmatical matter, that constitutes the great charm of his writing. The fever of party spirit, and the bitterness of speculative contention, have of late years infected all our literature; and Poetry itself, instead of being the balm and anodyne of minds hurt and ruffled with the rugged tasks and angry struggles of the world, has too often been made the vehicle of moral and political animosity, religious antipathy, and personal offence. We cannot always, with all our philosophy, escape the soil and tarnish of those contagious pursuits; but it is delightful to turn from them awhile, to the unalloyed sweets of such poetry as Mr. Cornwall's; and to refresh our fancies, and strengthen and compose our good affection, among the images of love and beauty, and gentle sympathy and sorrow, with which it every where presents us. It is time, however, to impart a portion of these soothing strains to our readers also; as we are sure we have already said more than enough to explain to the intelligent the opinion we entertain of them, and the principle on which we conceive them to be constructed.