1786 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Erasmus Darwin

Anna Seward to George Hardinge, 10 December 1786; Anna Seward to George Hardinge, 23 October 1786; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 1:215-16.



Lichfield, Dec. 10, 1786.

Inconceivable! that a gentleman, who himself writes poetry, with original spirit, and easy grace, can so reply to the extracts I sent him from a beautiful, though yet unpublished poem; novel as to subject, polished and harmonious in its numbers, and rich, even to luxuriance, in that faculty which transfers to the pen the powers of the pencil; adapting, with yet unknown skill, and unattained happiness, philosophic science, and mechanic art, to the sportive warblings of the lyre! That a kindred spirit, which, being determined against publication, can have no warp from rival-hating envy, should turn with cold and sickly taste from such a banquet! — I must again exclaim, inconceivable!

You tell me the author is too much en epithet-monger to hit your taste. You must, perforce, allow, the epithets are the poet's colours, and that he can bring nothing to the eye, without a liberal use of them. When used merely to eke out the measure, without adding strength to the sense, or life to the image, they are superfluous and despicable; but not of that order are those of the Botanic Garden.

You bid me look at Shakespeare and Milton. I am familiar with their writings. When they mean to describe, they use as many epithets as Mason, or the author of the extracts I sent you, or as any other good poet of the present day; and of the compound epithet they are much more lavish. More frequently also, than any modern, do they give us several epithets, in climatic succession, to a single substantive. Conversational poetry may be impressive, pathetic, and interesting, with a very sparing use of epithets; but descriptive poetry must abundantly have them, or it can, as was observed before, bring nothing to the eye of the reader. The Botanic Garden is a professedly descriptive composition. Lavish are its epithets, many of them we find original, and all appropriate.