1792 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Erasmus Darwin

Anna Seward to Mrs. Jackson, 3 August 1792; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 3:152-57.



March 25, 1792.

You are wise, my dear Sir, in not sluicing off your golden leisure into the unprofitable, the fameless channel of private correspondence. While I want resolution to avoid doing so, it is in vain to inquire after my literary pursuits. Some epistolary duty or other is always stepping in between me and them.

Now let me thank you for two instances of kind attention, which enabled me to pass several hours very agreeably; the introduction of your ingenious friend, Mr. Rogers of Liverpool, and the reperusal of your ingenious book, the Life of Chatterton. I read it with much interest and pleasure on its first appearance; for it is an eloquent, spirited, and valuable memoir of the most extraordinary genius which perhaps ever existed. This ill-starred youth certainly found ancient and curious manuscripts, which furnished the hint of his design, and upon which be poured the splendours of his rich imagination, kindling and flowering as he proceeded. Very superficially, indeed, is the perfection of modern harmony, and the race of modern imagery, veiled by obsolete verbalism. The involuntary imitations, and often entire plagiarisms from our late poets, too striking for the possibility of coincidence, are, of themselves, sufficient proof how largely at least these poems are modern. You have pointed out several instances, and I am struck with several more which you do not notice.

I generally agree with you as to the high degree of estimation in which you hold the particular passages you cite in the notes. The description of morning, from the second part of the Battle of Hastings, is eminently poetic; but that of Salisbury Plain might surely have been written by anybody. Except the words "drear array," it contains no poetry. "There stands a pile of rugged mountains placed upon each other, which could not be the work of human hands." Those very words have, questionless, been used in common conversation by many a commonly sensible traveller, describing Stonehenge.

I think also that there is not much fertility of genius in the ballad, cited page 157. The comparison to the doe seeking shelter in green trees, is the only uncommon thought it contains. The shepherd's assertion, that none but his sheep will come to interrupt them, is in a canzonet, set to music by Morley, in Queen Elizabeth's time, and beginning, "Haste my Nannene," &c. The whole fascinating first eclogue I got by heart years ago. Substituting modern for the obsolete words, the rhythm became as melodious as the ideas are beautiful. Collins's eclogues probably suggested to Chatterton the idea of these, which are, I doubt not, wholly his. There is a striking similarity between my favourite Raufe and Robert, and the fourth of Collins, Agib and Secander. Sweet as is the latter, I yet prefer the simpler tenderness and native scenery of the imitation, to the oriental descriptions and flowing numbers of the original.

I am as sorry for your moleism to Ossian as to Sterne. It induces you to do Macpherson a great deal too much honour. Not that I believe he had ancient manuscripts, any more than I believe his imagination responsible for the original, the solemn, the sublime mythology; the Salvatorial landscapes, and the countless emanations of natural and beautiful sensibilities, scattered through those fragments, collected with infinite industry by their editor from oral traditions.

Catching a portion of their fire, he connected them, doubtless, with much of his own, weaving them together for the Fingal, into something like a regular epic. Probably the episodes are entirely Erse. Internal evidence lies here, with all its weight, for the originality of the Erse poetry, as it is totally against it in the Rowleyan.

I impute the fustian passages, of which it must be allowed there are several, to Macpherson; and it is almost all I can allow him as to the images and ideas. Great praise, however, he merits, for the judicious adoption of the style of the Scripture poetry for their vehicle, it amazes me, that any one, admiring the poetry of the sacred pages, can be insensible to excellence so much on a level, and resembling it so strikingly, without servile imitation.

We find, from Mason's edition of his friend's letters, how dear the Ossian was to Gray. Though Chatterton could not obtain its beauty when be attempted to write in that style, yet that he felt its high claims, is, by that attempt, demonstrated. We always admire before we imitate. I am an enthusiast to the writings of Chatterton; yet, if I was reduced to the choice of no more looking at a line of them, or of eternal abstinence from the pages of Ossian, I would, of the two, resign the former.

Never yet have I opened the Erse volumes without a poignant thrill of pensive transport. The lonely scenery of a barren and mountainous country rises before me. By turns I see the blue waves of their seas, rolling in light; and then, by the dark storm, lashed into foam, and bursting upon their rocks. I view the majestic and melancholy graces, in the persons of the warriors and their mistresses, walking over the silent hills. The tender consecration of the memory of their lost friends, and of the vanished years, are in unison with all the feelings of my soul; and their machinery, sailing upon the blasts of the desert, at once awes and delights me.

Not Homer himself has given us a speech of sublimer spirit and fire than the following:

"Fly, thou chief of peace," said Calmor, "fly to thy silent hills, where the spear of battle never shone! Pursue the dark-brown deer of Cromla, or stop, with thine arrows, the bounding roes of Lena! But, blue-eyed son of Semo, Cuchullin, scatter thou the sons of Lochlin, and roar through the ranks of their pride! Let no vessel from the kingdom of snow bound on the waves of Inistore! Ye winds of Erin rise! — howl ye whirlwinds of the heath! — amid your tempest let Calmor die, if ever chace was sport to him so much as the battle of shields!"

The description of Crugal's ghost, in the second book of Fingal, is one of the sublimest, as that of Margaret, in Mallet's celebrated ballad, is one of the most beautiful that poetry can shew us.

"His face was as the beam of the setting moon; his robes were of the clouds of the hill; his voice as the gale of the reedy lake; his eyes two decaying flames; and dark was the wound on his breast. Dim, and in tears he stood, and stretched his pale hand to the hero."

Her face was like an April morn,
Clad in a wintry cloud.

I meant to have observed, before I quitted the subject of your Chattertonian volume, that I think you have not given sufficient praise to the impersonization of winter in the elegy on T. Phillips. It appears to me so finely conceived, as that no poet, living or dead, has ever excelled it.

By this prolix letter, you would not think that I have been a long invalid, from disorders contracted by the sedentary employment of a correspondence oppressively extended. I repeat, how much wiser are you, and how much better do you employ your time!

Adieu. All health, all happiness, all celebrity attend you; — yet you are now surely treading beaten ground, whose fruit and flowers have all been gathered. However, as I have no great appetite for politics, and am consequently uninterested in the minute history of a period so near our own time, and with whose events we are so familiar, I have but an incompetent guess concerning the degree of acceptability with the public which your present undertaking will meet; — but I remain always, with great esteem, dear Sir, yours, &c.