1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bernard Barton

Francis Jeffrey, Review of Barton, Poems; Edinburgh Review 34 (November 1820) 348-57.



Though there is much that is pleasing in this little volume — the thing that has pleased us most about it, is to learn that it is the work of a Quaker; — and that, not merely because a Quaker poet is a natural curiosity, but because it is gratifying to find that the most tolerant and philanthropic and blameless of all our sectaries, are beginning to recommend themselves by the graces of elegant literature, and to think it lawful to be distinguished for their successful cultivation of letters as well as of Science. The interdiction of all light and frivolous amusements, and of all those pastimes which merely dissipate the mind, and distract the affections, ought never to have been construed as extending to that pursuit which not only implies the most vigorous exercise of the intellectual faculties, but may be truly defined to be the art of recommending moral truth, and making virtue attractive. Poetry has been commonly supposed, indeed, to aim more at the gratification than the instruction of its votaries, and to have for its end rather delight than improvement; but it has not, we think, been sufficiently considered, that its power of delighting is founded chiefly on its moral energies, and that the highest interest it excites has always rested on the representation of noble sentiments and amiable affections, or on deterring pictures of the agonies arising from ungoverned passions. The gifts of imagination may no doubt be abused and misapplied, like other gifts; but their legitimate application is not, for this, less laudable or blameless; — and much of the finest poetry in our language may unquestionably be read by the most rigid moralist, not only with safety, but advantage.

To a Quaker poet, it is perhaps true that the principles or prejudices of his sect would oppose some restraints, from which other adventurers are free; and that the whole range of Parnassus could not be considered as quite open to his excursions — some of its loftiest, as well as some of its gayest recesses, being interdicted to his muse. The sober-mindedness which it is the great distinction and aim of the Society to inculcate and maintain, will scarcely permit him to deal very freely with the stronger passions: and the mere play of lively and sportive imagination, the whole department of witty and comic invention, would, we suspect, be looked upon as equally heterodox and suspicious. They have no reason, however, to complain of the scantiness of what remains at their disposal; — all the solemnity, warmth, and sublimity of devotion — all the weight and sanctity of moral precept — all that is tender in sorrow — all that is gentle in affection — all that is elegant and touching in description, is as open to them as to poets of any other persuasion; and may certainly afford scope for the most varied as well as the most exalted Song. When employed upon such themes, and consecrated to such objects, it is impossible, we should think, for the most austere sectary, to consider poetry as a vain or unprofitable occupation, or to deem amiss of an attempt to recommend the purest sentiments, and enforce the noblest practice, by all the beauty of diction, and all the attractions of style. The Society was for a good while confined to the lower classes; and when it first became numerous and respectable, the revolting corruptions of poetry which took place after the Restoration, afforded but too good an apology for the prejudices which were conceived against it; and as the Quakers are peculiarly tenacious of all the maxims that have been handed down from the patriarchal times of their institution, it is easy to understand how this prejudice should have outlived the causes that produced it. It should not however be forgotten, that W. Penn amused himself with verses, and that Elwood the Quaker is remembered as the friend and admirer of Milton and the man to whose suggestion the world is indebted for the Paradise Regained. In later times, we only remember Mr. Scott of Aimwell as a poetical writer of the Society.

The volume before us has all the purity, the piety and gentleness, of the Sect to which its author belongs — with something too much perhaps of their sobriety. The style is rather diffuse and wordy, though generally graceful, flowing, and easy; and though it cannot be said to contain many bright thoughts or original images, it is recommended throughout by a truth of feeling and an unstudied earnestness of manner, that wins both upon the heart and the attention. In these qualities, as well as in the copiousness of the diction and the facility of the versification, it frequently reminds us of the smaller pieces of Cowper, — the author, like that eminent and most amiable writer, never disdaining ordinary words and sentiments when they come in his way, and combining, with his most solemn and contemplative strains, a certain air of homeliness and simplicity, which seems to show that the matter was more in his thoughts than the manner, and that the glory of fine writing was less considered than the clear and complete expression of the sentiments, for the sake of which alone he was induced to become a writer. — Though the volume contains sixty or seventy different pieces, and almost every variety of versification, there is something of uniformity in the strain and tenor of the poetry. There is no story, and of course no incident, nor any characters shown in action. The staple of the whole is description and meditation — description of quiet, home scenery, sweetly and feelingly wrought out — and meditation overshaded with tenderness, and exalted by devotion — but all terminating in soothing and even cheerful views of the condition and prospects of mortality. The book, in short, is evidently the work of a man of a fine and cultivated, rather than of a bold and original mind — of a man who prefers following out the suggestions of his own mild and contemplative spirit, to counterfeiting the raptures of more vehement natures, and thinks it better to work up the genuine though less splendid materials of his actual experience and observation, than to distract himself and his readers with more ambitious and less manageable imaginations. His thoughts and reflections, accordingly, have not only the merit of truth and consistency, but bear the distinct impress of individual character — and of a character with which no reader can thus become acquainted without loving and wishing to share in its virtues.

We open the volume almost at random for a few specimens. The first piece consists of "Verses written in a Quaker Burial-ground;" and contains, among other things, this justification of their disallowance of sepulchral monuments.

Could we conceive Death was indeed the close
Of our existence, Nature might demand
That, where the reliques of our friends repose,
Some record to their memory should stand,
To keep them unforgotten in the land
Then, then indeed, urn, tomb, or marble bust,
By sculptor's art elaborately plann'd,
Would seem a debt due to their mouldering dust,
Though time would soon efface the perishable trust.

But hoping, and believing; yea, through Faith,
Knowing, because His word has told us so,
That Christ, our Captain, triumph'd over Death,
And is the first fruits of the dead below
That he has trod for man this path of wo,
Dying — to rise again! — we would not grace
Death's transitory spell with trophied show
As if that "shadowy vale" supply'd no trace
To prove the grave is not our final dwelling place.

Then, be our burial-grounds, as should become
A simple, but a not unfeeling race:
Let them appear, to outward semblance, dumb
As best befits the quiet dwelling place
Appointed for the prisoners of Grace,
Who wait the promise by the Gospel given,—
When the last trump shall sound, — the trembling base
Of tombs, of temples, pyramids be riven,
And all the dead arise before the hosts of Heaven!

Oh! in that awful hour, of what avail
Unto the "spiritual body" will be found
The costliest canopy, or proudest tale
Recorded on it? — what avail the bound
Of holy, or unconsecrated ground?
As freely will the unencumber'd sod
Be cleft asunder at that trumpet's sound,
As Royalty's magnificent abode
As pure its inmate rise, and stand before his GOD. pp. 2-3.

The following extract from Verses on the Death of a Youth of great promise, will remind the admirers of Cowper of some of that author's smaller pieces.

We had hopes it was pleasure to nourish,
(Then how shall our sorrow be mute?)
That those bright buds of genius would flourish,
And burst into blossoms and fruit.

But our hopes and our prospects are shaded,
For the plant which inspir'd them hath shed
Its foliage, all green and unfaded,
Ere the beauty of spring-time hath fled.

Like foam on the crest of the billow,
Which sparkles, and sinks from the sight;
Like leaf of the wind shaken willow,
Though transiently, beauteously bright;—

Like dew-drops, exhal'd as they glisten
Like perfume, which dies soon as shed
Like melody, hush'd while we listen;—
Is Memory's dream of the dead. p. 70.

The following, inscribed "To the Memory of Mary Fletcher" are nearly of the same character.

Enthusiast, fanatic, and fool,
Many who read thy life will style thee;
And others, more sedate and cool,
Will pity, who dare not revile thee.

For me, I feel, on laying down
The volume, neither power nor will
To ape the critic's frigid frown
To flatter thee were idler still.

While living, praise of man to thee
Was nothing: o'er thy mouldering earth,
Its empty echo now would be
But mockery of thy Christian worth!

Yet there are those, with whom the test
Of truth is not the Gospel creed;
To whom thy life will be a jest,
Thy path — a parable indeed!

And these, perchance, to show their wit,
Will heap thy name with obloquy;
And o'er thy hallow'd pages sit,
"Drest up in brief authority."

To thee it matters not; but those
Who honour and revere thy name,
May be allow'd to interpose,
And vindicate thy well-earn'd fame.

Not for thy sake alone, but theirs
Who tread the path which thou hast trod; &c.
pp. 76-78.

And the same model may be traced in the following lines to Bonaparte in his island prison.

Far from the battle's shock,
Fate hath fast bound thee;
Chain'd to the rugged rock,
Waves warring round thee.

Instead of the trumpet's sound,
Sea-birds are shrieking;
Hoarse on thy rampart's bound,
Billows are breaking.

For ensigns unfurling,
Like sunbeams in brightness;
Are crested waves curling,
Like snow-wreaths in whiteness.

No sycophants mock thee
With dreams of dominion;
But rude tempests rock thee,
And ruffle thy pinion. pp. 122, 123.

This stanza shows, that the author's dislike to tombstones is not altogether insuperable.

Onward the queen of night advances: slow
Through fleecy clouds with majesty she wheels
Yon tower's indented outline, tombstones low,
And mossy grey, her silver light reveals
Now quivering through the lime-trees' foliage steals
And now each humble, narrow, nameless bed,
Whose grassy hillock not in vain appeals
To eyes that pass by epitaphs unread,
Rise to the view. How still the dwelling of the dead! p. 88.

And the same image is brought still more prominently forward in the following.

How lonely and lovely their resting-place seem'd!
An enclosure which care could not enter:
And how sweetly the grey lights of evening gleam'd,
On the solitary tomb in its centre!

When at morn, or at eve, I have wander'd near,
And in various lights have view'd it,
With what differing forms, unto friendship dear,
Has the magic of fancy endued it!

Sometimes it has seem'd like a lonely sail,
A white spot on the emerald billow;
Sometimes like a lamb, in a low grassy vale,
Stretch'd in peace on its verdant pillow.

But no image of gloom, or of care, or strife
Has it ever given birth to one minute:
For lamented in death, as beloved in life,
Was he, who now slumbers within it.

He was one who in youth on the stormy seas
Was a fir and a fearless ranger;
Who, borne on the billow, and blown by the breeze,
Counted lightly of death or of danger.

Yet in this rude school had his heart still kept
All the freshness of gentlest feeling
Nor in woman's warm eye has a tear ever slept,
More of softness and kindness revealing. pp. 230, 231.

The following is in a more gay and discursive vein; and affords a pleasing view of the literary recreations which are now permitted to those self-denying sectaries.

To be by and fashion's laws
The favourite of this fickle day;
To win the drawing-room's applause,
To strike, to startle, to display,
And give effect, would seem the aim,
Of most who bear the Poet's name.

For this, one idol of the hour,
Brilliant and sparkling as the beams
Of the glad sun, culls every flower,
And scatters round dews, gems, and streams,
Until the wearied, aching sight,
Is "blasted with excess of light."

Another leads his readers on
With scenery, narrative, and tales
Of legends wild, and battles won—
Of craggy rocks, and verdant vales;
Till, always on amazement's brink,
We find we have no time to think.

And last, not least, a master mind,
Around whose proud and haughty brow,
Had he but chosen, might have twin'd
The muses' brightest, greenest bough,
Who, would he his own victor be,
Might seize on immortality.

He too forsooth, with morbid vein,
Must fling a glorious fame away;
Instruction and delight disdain,
And make us own, yet loathe his sway
From Helicon he might have quaff'd,
Yet turn'd to Acheron's deadly draught.

O shame and glory of our age!
With talents such as scarcely met
In bard before thy magic page
Who can peruse without regret?
Or think, with cold, unpitying mien,
Of what thou art, and mightst have been? pp. 107-109

What follows has rather more of the ardour and tenderness of love, than we had supposed tolerated in the Society of Friends.

I did not forget how with THEE I had paced
On the shore I now trod, and how pleasant it seem'd;
How my eye then sought thine, and how gladly it traced
Every glance of affection which mildly it beam'd.

The beginning and end of our loves were before me
An both touch'd a chord of the tenderest tone;
For thy SPIRIT, then near, shed its influence o'er me,
And told me that still THOU wert truly my own.

Yes, I thought at the moment, (how dear was the thought!)
That there still was a union which death could not break
And if with some sorrow the feeling was fraught,
Yet even that sorrow was sweet for thy sake.

Thus musing on thee, every object around
Seem'd to borrow thy sweetness to make itself dear;
Each murmuring wave reach'd the shore with a sound
As soft as the tone of thy voice to my ear.

The lights and the shades on the surface of ocean,
Seem'd to give back the glimpses of feeling and grace,
Which once so expressively told each emotion
Of thy innocent heart as I gaz'd on thy face.

And, when I look'd up to the beautiful sky,
So cloudless and calm; oh! it harmoniz'd well
With the gentle expression which spoke in that eye,
Ere the curtain of death on its loveliness fell! p. 176-7.

The following stanzas on the Sea appear to us at once simple and powerful.

Oh! I shall not forget, until memory depart,
When first I beheld it, the glow of my heart;
The wonder, the awe, the delight that stole o'er me,
When its billowy boundlessness open'd before me!
As I stood on its margin, or roam'd on its strand,
I felt new ideas within me expand,
Of glory and grandeur, unknown till that hour,
And my spirit was mute in the presence of POWER!

In the surf-beaten sands that encircl'd it round,
In the billow's retreat and the breaker's rebound,
In its white-drifted foam, and its dark-heavmg green,
Each moment I gaz'd some fresh beauty was seen.
And thus, while I wander'd on ocean's bleak shore,
And survey'd its vast surface, and heard its waves roar,
I seem'd wrapt in a dream of romantic delight,
And haunted by majesty, glory, and might! pp. 242-3.

These specimens, we believe, will suffice: — we shall add but one more from the concluding verses, as a further illustration of the author's descriptive talent.

It is the very carnival of nature,
The loveliest season that the year can show
When earth, obedient to her great Creator,
Her richest boons delighteth to bestow.
The gently sighing breezes, as they blow,
Have more than vernal softness; and the sun
Sheds on the landscape round a mellower glow
Than in his summer splendour he has done,
As if he near'd his goal, and knew the race was won.

It is the season when the green delight
Of leafy luxury begins to fade;
When leaves are changing daily to the sight,
Yet seem but lovelier from each deepening shade,
Or tint, by autumn's touch upon them laid
It is the season when each streamlet's sound,
Flowing through lonely vale, or woody glade,
Assumes a tone more pensive, more profound
And yet that hoarser voice spreads melody around.

And I have wander'd far, since the bright east
Was glorious with the dawning light of day
Seeing, as that effulgence more increas'd,
The mists of morning slowly melt away:
And, as I pass'd along, from every spray
With dew-drops glistening, evermore have heard
Some feather'd songster chant his roundelay;
Or bleat of sheep, or lowing of the herd;
Or rustling of fall'n leaf, when morning's breezes stirr'd. pp. 282-3.

Our readers, we think, may now judge for themselves pretty fairly of the merits of this volume. It is not calculated certainly to make a very strong or lasting sensation in the reading world; and has no chance either of eclipsing any of the poetical luminaries that are now in their ascendant, or even of falling into their orbit with its attendant fires. Yet we believe there is a very large class of readers in this country to whom it is capable of affording the greatest delight — all those tranquil, pious, unambitious persons by whom the higher excitement of more energetic poetry is either dreaded as a snare, or shunned as a disturbance; but who can still be interested and soothed by the sweet and harmonious amplification of the feelings they have been allowed or taught to think it a duty to cherish. To the members of his own Society in particular, we cannot help thinking that a work like this must be a most acceptable present. Their amusements and recreations have always, we think, been rather too few; and both they and their well-wishers in other communions must rejoice when they can add to them the perusal of elegant poetry, in which they are sure of meeting with nothing that can revolt or offend; and from the very success and celebrity of which their whole body must receive new credit and respectability.