1790 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Headley

Anna Seward to Henry Francis Cary, 21 January 1790; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 2:356-58.



But these, and an hundred similar instances of clashing opinions amongst the bards, concerning each other's productions, will never prove that the opaque imagination of the prose-critic will enable him to judge better of difficulties he never knew, or to decide more acutely concerning the different degree of heat in fires which were never kindled in his own bosom:

Let such teach others who themselves excel,
And censure freely who have written well.

Of prose-men critics I have long been sick, from Warburton, Kames, and —, down to —, to —, and Headly! — How superior to theirs the criticisms of Pope, Warton, and Hayley! — Of Johnson I say nothing, because he suffered prejudice and envy to warp his truth, and blunt his sensibility, else what prose-man could have been found so able?

By the way, one of the above-named prose-critics, Headly's book, has been boring me lately with its supremely dull preferences of second and third-rate poets of Elizabeth's day, to the brightest and purest efforts of modern genius. This gentleman is the twin-brother, in judgment, and the applauder of —, alias —. After the critic in question has decried Pope and the moderns, with Westonian prejudice, and after pronouncing that bell-man dialogue, between the man and the woman, superior to Prior's thrice beautiful work upon that rude and barren foundation, his Henry and Emma, which this author calls, in derision, "Matt's versification-piece," he stuffs a large quarto volume with extracts from these exploded gentry, in all of which, collectively, the sum of poetic beauty does not amount to what may be extracted from any ten stanzas of Beattie's Minstrel; any three pages of Cowper's Task, or of Hayley's Triumphs of Temper; while all that remains in the thick and close-printed volume, after the deduction of those few striking passages, is but an heap of rhyming rubbish, forced conceits, vile quibbling, frittered sense, metaphysic vulgarisms, and incongruous metaphor.

This same critic censures Prior for omitting the tender apostrophe of Emma to her mother, which we find in the original. It appears to me that the poet shewed great judgment in this omission. We have difficulty enough in excusing, even in consideration of an attachment so tender, pure, and enthusiastic, Emma's resolve to abandon her indulgent father, and to follow the fortunes of a mysterious and unknown lover, whose suit had been so suspiciously clandestine, and who acknowledges the commission of murder. The image of a sorrowing mother, presenting itself in vain to the imagination of that love-devoted maid, would not have heightened our sympathy with her distress. Aware that it would not, Prior informs us, that his heroine lost her mother in infancy:

They call'd her Emma, for the beauteous dame,
Who gave the virgin birth, had borne the name.

By the word "had," we learn that she was no more at the period of this jealous experiment.

So much for Mr. Headly, that prose-man decider upon the constituent excellencies of genuine poetry.

My poor father has lately suffered extremely from the paroxysms of a violent cough, to which his strength seems very unequal. To-night he seems better. God grant he may continue to amend — and may you, dear Cary, never know the misery of witnessing pains and struggles which you cannot soften, in an object exquisitely dear to you!