1788 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Merry

Anna Seward to Hester Thrale Piozzi, 13 March 1788; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 2:53-56.



Lichfield, March 13, 1788.

Again do I intrude upon your attention, dear Madam, to prove my obedience to your injunctions, that I should read and examine the Della Cruscas and Anna Matildas. But for your recommendation I should probably never have read them, being inserted in a magazine into which there is no looking without being shocked by some outrage or other against genius or worth.

I confess to you I did not like Mr. Merry's Paulina. You saw that disapprobation in the coldness and hestitation with which I replied to your question, asked with an air of interest in the author that checked my ingenuousness.

Internal conviction is to me very impressive, that the Anna Matildas, as well as Della Cruscas, are Merry's; the seldom beauties and frequent blemishes of each being so exactly the same complexion. To the best poems he gives the Della Cruscan signature. The first six stanzas of the Elegy on the last day of the departed year, are very pretty; the remaining sink into commonplace insipidity. The sonnet to Metastasio has that mixture of metaphor which is always wrong.

Ah once, or warm'd by hope, or chill'd by fear,
I mark'd in doubtful joy thy wandering ray,
Held the fair promise of the coming day,
Then sunk beneath the sudden blow severe.

To "hold a promise" is strange and awkward language. This sonnet makes Fortune, whom it addresses, a sun which, instead of sinking suddenly into eclipse, lifts up its hand and knocks him down. The simile of the steel, with which the sonnet concludes, is unintelligible, to me at least.

The Embarrassment is nothing like a sonnet, though it assumes that name; and the thought upon which it turns is quaint and old-fashioned.

The Ode to Horror, signed Anna Matilda, though it has enormous faults, forms, on the whole, a spirited imitation of Collins's Ode to Fear, though it by no means equals its original. Anna's poem to Indifference, with D. Crusca's answer to it, are each of them a twin-mixture of wild ideas and absurd appellations, illumined with flashes of poetic fire. Who would conceive that sensibility was meant to be addressed in the following verses?

Savage untam'd! she smiles to drink our tears,
And where's no solid ill she wounds our fears.

Sensibility of all things an untam'd savage!!! — and she, who is undubitably the source of our tears, is made to drink them! — then what a senseless vulgar abbreviation of "where there is" no solid ill. The idea is a plagiarism from Beattie's Minstrel, miserably mangled in the expression. There is a true poet. See how beautifully he expresses the idea Mr. Merry has so clumsily stolen from him!

Fancy enervates while it soothes the heart,
And, while it dazzles, wounds the mental sight,
To joy each heightening charm it can impart,
But wraps the hour of woe in tenfold night;
And often, where no real ills affright,
Its visionary fiends, an endless train,
Assail with equal or superior might,
And thro' the throbbing heart, and dizzy brain,
And shivering nerves shoot stings of more than mortal pain.

I admire Mr. Merry's poem to Mrs. Siddons very much; we forgive imitation, however obvious, when the result is good. Here the imagery, in some parts, approaches that of its archetype, Collins's Ode on the Passions, in the portraits of horror, despair, and madness. That of revenge is almost verbatim from Collins; but the other three are sublime and more original. One is never weary of wondering, that the pen from which they sprung could fabricate the most nauseous of all poems, Paulina; though it certainly contains some fine passages. The pleasure they might afford is counteracted by those eternal vulgarisms that disgrace a style which aims at violent elevation.

I confess the opening admirable in its description of the castle, and the castle's lord, with the fine comparison of him to a rude rock in the Caspian Sea. The Russian scenery is at ties drawn with a Salvatorial pencil.

These excellencies, however, make no adequate compensation for the disgusting horror of the story; — for the inevitable contempt we feel for the heroine, who could be induced to live in a state of odious and promiscuous prostitution, through a despicable desire of preserving her life from the fury of her father, after her imprudence had murdered her lover. The despair of such a loss, and by means so horrid, would have set a mind of any elevation above every selfish fear!