1788 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Henry Francis Cary

Anna Seward to William Hayley, 17 April 1788; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 2:96-98.



We have here two young poets, one the second son of a gentleman of family, and of the name of Lister, lately settled in this city, the other of an officer, called Cary, living at Sutton Coldfield. Their age equal, just turned fifteen — their attachment and delight in each other generously enthusiastic.

They received their last three years' instruction from an ingenious schoolmaster at Sutton; though Cary is now removed to Birmingham school, previous to his going to the university. Lister, on account of an unfortunate hesitation in his speech; which forbids the pursuit of an oratoric profession, is placed with our eminent banker, Mr. Cobb. They have pursued their studies with emulative ardour, and after having, for some time past, amused themselves, in the recesses of the school-hours, with translating Moschus, Bion, and Horace, into English verse, they now write original odes, and also sonnets, upon the Miltonic model; and with success that is quite miraculous in years so blossoming.

If you looked into the last Gentleman's Magazine, you saw a sonnet of Cary's addressed to yourself. Lister writes very sweetly for such a youth, but I think Cary's vein the richer. I inclose specimens of each.

In the course of last summer, Cary wrote an irregular ode to Lord Heathfield, after the manner of Horace's panegyrics upon the heroes of his day. Like them, it contains some very poetic passages, and the numbers are uniformly harmonious; but, like them also, being without plan, and the allusions, as theirs, rather shadowy than distinct, it interests only those few readers who feel delight in observing how early it is possible to be a master of numbers, and to catch a portion of the Horatian spirit.

His sonnets are more perfect of their kind — and must, I should imagine, please every reader who can be pleased with any poetry. Their easy grace, flowing from so inexperienced a pen, which yet never transgresses the strict laws of that measure, sufficiently refutes the idle assertion, that legitimate sonnets suit not the genius of our language.

If that assertion is grounded upon the French and Italian having a much greater variety than ours of similar terminations, that reason militates against using rhymes at all; while Johnson, you know, fancied that blank verse did not become the English muse. It is my opinion that she has the power of looking graceful in every possible dress, and almost equally so in all.