1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Pearse Gillies

Francis Hodgson, Review of Gillies, Childe Alarique; The Monthly Review NS 73 (March 1814) 272-77.



We confess that we were never greatly pleased with the revival of the quaint old title of "Childe," which has been prefixed to some modern compositions; and, though the extraordinary merit of "Childe Harold" rendered this and a thousand other objections on, the score of antiquated and, idle phraseology, of little comparative importance, but we are ot disposed to extend our indulgence to inferior performances. In the language of Sir Hugh Evans, we might once for all observe, on the adoption of these obsolete terms, "What phrase is this? Why, it is 'affectations.'"

The style, however, in the text of "Childe Alarique," is, generally speaking, free from those blemishes which the title had led us to anticipate. The plan of the poem (if plan it can be called) is the following: An enthusiastic youth, a sort of Beattie's Edwin, is described as wandering among the woods and rocks of a romantic tract of country, and enjoying the various beauties of nature with the keenest feelings of delight: but he is lured away from his retirement, and tempted to mix in the guilty pleasures of crowded cities, by a certain "ordinary, unfeeling, boasting, worldly-minded character," called Braggadochio. Soon wearied with the empty enjoyments of society, (for such is the inference that may he drawn from the overcharged moral of this "Reverie,") he returns to his beloved solitude: but, alas! all is changed; innocence and peace of mind have left the "Childe," and the fairest prospects in his eyes have lost all their light and beauty. Some pleasing and pathetic lines occur in this part of the poem, which we shall presently select for the amusement of our readers. The Genius of Religion next appears to the unhappy wanderer in his melancholy rambles, and thus he recovers his mental tranquillity, and the rural scenery regains its former attractions. Indeed, this young poet seems highly favoured; for the vision just mentioned is not the only one that vouchsafes to cheer and animate his retreat: the Genius of Poetic Inspiration also pays him a morning call or two; and we are willing to allow that we have really some proofs of her having left her card in person at Alarique's cottage. — Our readers shall judge for themselves, as we have nothing farther to detail respecting the conduct of the hero; and they are now as well acquainted with his destiny as we are. The nicer traits of his character will best be unfolded by quotation:

"Oh Heaven! it is the blessed breath of spring!
The groves again their green attire assume;
It is the blackbird loudly carolling,
These are my favourite flowers that round me bloom:—
Oh what shall cure this everlasting gloom?
What charm shall still the voice that seems to cry,
'Go to the charnel vault — the rayless tomb—
Here is no path in our sweet scenery
For thee, detested child of guilt and misery!'

"Is this the radiant path I trod of yore?
Green grows the grass — the skylark soars on high!
Lo! yonder is the castled summit hoar,
Beneath whose cliff I watch'd the evening sky.
Oh, God! the sunbeam sheds its brilliancy
On that surpassing scene! but, ah! for me
What scene shall wake responsive ecstacy?
Where is mine innocence? mine inward glee?
Oh, days of early bliss, how soon your transports flee!"

This passage, which is the one that we promised to select, is perhaps among the best in the volume, and seems to us to express natural and affecting thoughts in poetical language. We could make some slight verbal objections: but we reserve them for occasions on which their excuse is not pleaded by so much merit. One of the most frequent failures of the author, and that which we shall first mention, is observable in the construction of the Alexandrine verse. The division in this line should be always plainly marked at the end of the sixth syllable; we mean, that the sense should not require the voice to run on to the seventh, without any pause in the rhythm. For instance, in the following lines, the cadence is imperfect in various degrees, for the reason given above:

"Than bright responsive gleams of rapture that are mine."
"And all my infant raptures swell my heart anew."

The last example is very offensive indeed, such a verse is not an Alexandrine; it is a nondescript, that pauses in the middle of a word, as if it stuttered.

"And the sweet Muse, that loves the mountain forest, woo."
"Oh, dreams beloved! whilom I knew your influence well!"
"And thou shalt live, as best befits the Muse's child;"

which last line must be divided into three quadrysyllabic portions in order to make it run harmoniously: a division that is inadmissible in this species of measure; which would then indeed justify Pope's otherwise unwarrantable description of it, and really become

A wounded snake dragging its slow length along,

were it to be so unmercifully mangled.

"The radiance wild of evening on her features played."
"For ever fled — nor aught can renovate their sway!"
"Too well the grief, that clouds their pageantry, I know."

Although this is less objectionable than the other examples, yet, strictly speaking, even here we have not a sufficient break in the middle of the verse.

"To cast its own celestial light on all around."

"That erst was filled with rays of genius passing bright."

The latter verse also may be kept in countenance by many similar lines in our best authors: but so may ten thousand other errors, and against such a plea we must always protest.

"With soul-exalting influence, most divinely bright."
"And with one rosy smile banished each lurking care."
"All, all is mystery! All investigation vain."

The next blemish that we shall notice is the too frequent recurrence of similar rhymes; and the perpetual use of trisyllables and upwards that end in to terminate the verse.

For us and for our tragedy
We do implore your clemency.—

This sort of licence is one of the idlenesses of Dryden; which modern versifiers are as apt to follow as if they mistook it for a beauty. — The third defect is the admission of quaint, obsolete, or affected phrases; though, as we have premised with approbation, these are not numerous.

"Childe Alarique ''gan' utter his delight."
"Go then, 'unapprehensive' youth! explore."
"'What-while' fair twilight sheds her own enchanting hue."
"They 'twain did' revel in the Naiad's court."
"In luckless hour 'did Braggadochio vilde.'"
"That cared not what 'as-pect' the scenes did wear:"

although here again we are aware that high authority may be pleaded, even for the comparatively modern accentuation of the word.

How the following line is to be read, we do not profess to conceive:

That custom "familiarizes" — look on high.

Nor can we allow the liberty taken with the last word in this verse:

Or like the wreck of dry leaves "rustleing."

Nor permit the poor article to be so proscribed as it as below:

And "thousand" airy structures busy build.

We have been so particular in noticing the faults of "Childe Alarique," because, though he by no means exhibits any uncommon poetical power, yet he displays enough to be encouraged to continue in his favourite exercise; and such as we are convinced might attain a very respectable eminence, by cautious and patient correction of his performances: which seem to be struck off in the first heat of fancy, and sent into the world with all their sins upon their heads. Let the author peruse again that beautiful and most highly polished of all modern poems, the Psyche of the late Mrs. Tighe. He quotes a lovely passage from it in the notes, ("Delightful visions," &c. &c.) and seems by his remarks on that passage to be fully sensible of the merits, — the various, high, we had almost said unrivalled, merits of that, enchanting work. Let it be his model: we wish that it were the model of all our living poets, in point of expression and versification. We shall then, we have no doubt, have to welcome the author of "Childe Alarique" again, with a much less mingled satisfaction than we now can feel in the perusal of his unfinished efforts. He undoubtedly possesses imagination and sensibility: indeed we suspect' that the latter quality is redundant rather than deficient in his mind. — We shall allow him to make his own parting impression on our readers.

Pass we awhile the summer hours unsung,
And now the tranquil charms of autumn view!
Behold the Childe in some rude cavern flung,
Weaving the heath-bell into garlands new;
While the wide lake unfolds its waters blue,
Slumbering beneath the sun's attemper'd ray;
And all is silent, save the plaintive coo
Of the lorn dove, or, screaming for his prey,
The falcon's voice remote, from lonely summit grey.

Or meet him wandering through thy rocky vale,
Glenfinlas, where, by watchful shepherds seen,
Ghosts of the mighty dead are known to sail,
And marshal shadowy troops upon the green:
See him, enraptured with the lovely scene,
By lone Moneira's current bend his way,
Till pensive Evening sheds her light serene;
And now, to watch the tints of dying day,
Reclined upon the heath, his listless length he lay.

We select one other specimen, from the third canto, just after the appearance of Religion to Childe Alarique. She has comforted him with some words of holy advice, the talisman of reason and conscience;

The heavenly strains of soothing music died
Like the soft summer gale in languid mood;
But the bright talisman was left to guide
His homeward steps amid the tangled wood.
The Youth, who, long by Melancholy's brood
Of hideous phantoms haunted night and day,
Felt all the bitterness of solitude,
Now saw the wonted forms in bright array
Arise with sunny smile to cheer his lonely way.

Grovelling and false apostates all are they
Who tell us Nature has no charms to show,
When Winter's heavy clouds deform the day,
And on the woods their darkening shadows throw;
It is the influence dark of worldly woe,
And worldly wickedness that mars the scene:
From Nature's every change can transport flow
To the free mind of Innocence serene,
Alike in groves decayed, or prank't in freshest green.

The volume concludes with some minor poems, which are not marked by any very distinguishing characteristics. The author is generally stated to be R. P. Gillies, Esq.; a principal contributor, also, with Sir Egerton Bridges, to a miscellaneous work intitled the Ruminator, lately published, and of which we shall make our report very soon.