1790 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Merry

Anna Seward to Hester Thrale Piozzi, 20 February 1790; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 2:374-80.



Feb. 20,1790.

No, dear Mrs. Piozzi, you cannot possibly know so little the extent and force of your abilities, to think they could not awaken, charm, and arrest the attention, without its being first started into wonder by apparent and unexpected defect. If Shakespeare had never punned and quibbled, should we have been the less penetrated, inflamed, and delighted with his excellencies? I repeat, that you shew us, in the very work which I so long to have you weed, that you have a style at your command, perfect and polished as that of your great preceptor. Who, amongst those whom genius can think it worth its while to please, can read him without the most awakened attention; yet when does he condescend to use the dialect of the unlettered vulgar! — but I beg your pardon, dear Madam, for pressing farther an unwelcome theme, which, if I did not make sincerity my first point of honour, in friendship, had never intruded upon your attention. It may perhaps occur to you, that I might have been silent upon the subject. I consulted my own heart, and it told me that if I had published a considerable work, I should think acknowledged objections, mingled with liberal praise, more friendly than cold disregarding silence. It is the ambition of my heart to act, as much as possible, on every occasion, up to that golden rule — "Do unto others as thou wouldst," &c.

You have illustrated, in your last obliging letter, by a charmingly ingenious and just simile, the difference between Richardson's novels and Miss Burney's; but as fine painters may expect their portraits to be valuable when the persons of their originals are no more remembered, they ought to avoid adopting the dress of the times; — so, surely, fine writers should describe general nature, rather than fashionable manners.

You certainly placed Mr. Merry's poetry above all other poetry the world has produced, when you asserted, that to read any other after his, was to contemplate the sculpture of Sansovino after having seen the statues, whose superiority to all other sculpture the whole world allows. Surely there can be no explaining away a meaning so single and obvious; but in speaking upon this subject in your last, you surprise me anew.

You say Mr. M. having only written odes and love verses, is neither an epic, a dramatic, nor a preceptive poet, and must therefore aspire only to a fame of a far lower kind, such as an odist may pretend to. I have always understood that lyric poetry was the very highest order of composition next to the epic. Pindar, whom the learned world always places next in rank to Homer and Virgil, wrote only odes — and the English Pindar, Gray, is the most illustrious name of our era. Certainly, therefore, if Della Crusca's odes had been first-rate compositions in their line, he might have claimed the first honours of poetry, after the epic writers, our immortal Shakespeare alone excepted, and he is the only dramatic writer of any time, whose fame transcends that of Pindar, Horace, Dryden, and Gray. Of the claims of an ode-writer, Horace had very different ideas to those you express; witness the conclusion of his first ode to Mecaenas:

Quod si me lyricis vatibus inseres,
Sublimi feriam sidera vertice.

Petrarch's poetry in all or chiefly sonnets, is it not? — a short but a very arduous style of composition. His sonnets are said to be exquisite, and have, therefore, raised his name high amidst bur bards. To be able to write sonnets finely, is more honourable than to be the author of plays that are of second-rate merit. Petrarch is famed for his sonnets, — I never heard of him as a lyric poet, — yet, on their account merely, he is a name of more eminence than that of our Southern, or even Rowe. It matters little what order of composition is chosen by an highly sublimated imagination. Such a one, however, can hardly make a choice more worthy of its powers than the lyric style. Ode-writing surely attained not to excellence under the management of Cowley. We see genius in his forced and far-fetched ideas; but it is genius ill-directed, and rather calculated to disgust than to charm a correct natural taste,

When he on all things will intrude,
To force some odd similitude.

There is only one of his odes that pleases me on the whole, though that is not without its faults, but it is tender, pathetic, glowing, and beautiful. I mean the ode entitled The Complaint. It is curious that Johnson, in his interesting and ingenious life of that poet, mentions it with contempt; so little did Johnson appear to understand, or feel the genuine beauty of lyric verse. Dryden's Ode on Cecilia's Day, was the first instance in which the English lyric poets attained to first-rate excellence. Our great lyrists, Gray, Collins, and Mason, added, to the impassioned ideas, abrupt contrasting transitions, picturesque descriptions, and ardent apostrophes of that ode, the excellence of correct numbers and distincter plan. But how do those four great writers exceed the crude Pindarics of the straining metaphysic Cowley, the sweet Complaint excepted! — and, compared with theirs, how dim and unlustrous is Mr. Merry's muse!

It is universally allowed, that "Dr. Johnson had no taste for the higher walks of poetry;" nor is it much wonder that it should so be said of the man who has spoken contemptuously of the first odes in our language, that are allowed, by so large a majority in the literary world, to possess all the fire and sublimity of Pindar, with an happier and more interesting choice of subject; who has asserted that the odd ode of Dryden's, his Killigrew, is the noblest ode we have; in which there is little pathos, and no dignity, but a train of forced Cowleyan ideas about the soul of Anne Killigrew having animated the bodies of all the dead poets, and the Grecian poetess to boot; and about the malicious planets being all in trine when she was born, and about her "brother angels" tuning their lyres high; that all the people of the sky might know that a great poetess was born on earth; — and that if the bees did not swarm upon Anne Killigrew's month, it was only because Heaven had not leisure for such a vulgar miracle; that now the gift of poetry is profaned with fat pollutions and steaming ordures; — but I am sick of tracing the bombast mazes of this stuff, which Johnson calls the finest ode of the language. What could he mean by it? To bring lyric poetry into disgrace, I suppose, because his poetic talents had not taken that bent. I know the selfish and narrow jealousy of that, in many respects, mighty spirit, and place to its account solely those absurd critical axioms which set the world a-gape, and force it to' conclude that be wanted taste, where, in reality, he only wanted truth.

The Law of Lombardy is indeed a fine tragedy; the language, sentiments, and imagery have Shakespearean grandeur, simplicity, and fire. The character of Bireno is original, and drawn in a bold masterly style. Why should the murder of Alinda behind the scenes disgust, since that of Duncan and Banquo, in the same situation, and that of Desdemona upon the stage does not? It is absurd to affect dislike of striking horrors in a modern play, at which we awfully shudder in the plays of Shakespeare, and confess their fine effect. What is tragedy if we banish the terrible graces! The public is an Egyptian task-master to modern dramatic writers; it calls for Shakespearean effects, yet would preclude the use of the most important means by which they were produced.

You say that, but for my ingenuousness, you should have missed seeing censures upon your last volumes, and yet tell me, that the critical reviewers passed much the same judgment upon the work in July last. I give you my solemn word of honour; that I have never seen nor heard any printed strictures upon that lovely, bewitching, slipshod slattern of yours, which I so long to see divested of her brass ring and rusty black handkerchief.

My heart thanks you for the kind conclusion of your last, and warmly returns its friendly benedictions. It acknowledges also, with grateful pleasure, the continuance of Mr. Piozzi's assured welcome, if ever I should have it in my power to visit Streatham.