1796 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Francis Noel Clarke Mundy

Anna Seward to Lady Eleanor Butler, 28 February 1796; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 4:167-70.



Lichfield, Feb. 28, 1796.

Dearest Lady Eleanor, — I know how extensive your correspondence; — how incompetent the time of each fleeting day for the employments allotted to it by energy like yours; and apologies for a few posts delay cannot be necessary to preserve an heart, obliged as mine, from unjust suspicions.

I am glad Mrs. — appears to you in the same estimable point of view, both as to talents and heart, in which she almost invariably appeared to me during a nearly life-long intimacy.

Mr. Mundy's Needwood Forest has ever been a favourite poem of mine. The chaste fidelity of the descriptions to a beauteous region, with whose scenes I am familiar; the images so original, and so truly "forestian," if I may be allowed the verbal coinage, make me consider it as the first entirely local poem in our language. What pity that, as yet, it has only passed a private press! Cowper's Hill appears to me hard, and heavy in the comparison, destitute of the poetic pictures, and of the variety, which grace and inspirit Needwood. Windsor Forest is fine verse, but extremely inferior to Needwood in the prime excellence of local verse appropriation.

How beautifully Mr. Mundy's poem opens! — all is to the eye, and in the liveliest poetic tints. We see the green-robed dryad tripping down the turfy glade, with health and gladness, and wild enthusiasm in her countenance. The Genius of the forest appears with great dignity, reclined on his primrose-bed, listening to the rhymes of a druid, and bending his eye on former times, while his sylvan vassals are casting their garlands at his feet. We see him start up, and extend his wand, beneath which the whole of the scenery opens and expands; and we are presented with a landscape worthy the pencil of Claude.

The exordium of the second part, is it not finely illustrated by the portrait of Fiction, bending her rainbow, and decking it with prismatic colours?

L'Allegro, or Il Penseroso, have scarcely a lovelier passage than that from the 26th to the 50th line of that second canto; and is not the dress of the fairy queen, in the next paragraph, new, and well-fancied? and is not her concert charming? The remainder of this second part has pictures, painted from nature, and with a master-hand. Do you not see the old earth-stopper, with his lantern gleaming down the glade; and hear the solemn passing-bell in the fields of air? — and then the ghastly face of the deer-stealer behind the oak, seen by the lightning's flash!

The next sentence beginning,

Night, when rude blasts thy scenes deform,

is very sublime indeed. There is Shakespearean spirit in its close, which makes the obscene sow a terrible grace, thrilling us with horror, like the incantations in Macbeth. And how do you like the dark pictures of witchcraft and murder? is not that of the latter, starting at the sight of his bloody hands, beneath the sudden gleam of the shrouded moon, original and impressive?

Do you not think the third part varied with mournful sweetness by the episode of the weaver, and that the little tale is told with beautiful and pathetic simplicity? — that the zoology in the fourth part is charming? — and that the description of the fox-hounds, streaming over the fields, with its similes of the Aurora Borealis, and of the sudden flood, broken into numerous currents, is Homeric? — Your accurate taste will find the fifth and last part considerably inferior to the others in poetic excellence.

I beg your Ladyship's pardon for my forgotten promise of reading Celestina. To be sure, the name did completely sicken me. What a vain fool must a parent be who could in reality give such a name to an infant girl! who could hope that the beauty and virtues of the so presumptuously christened could be in such excess as not to burlesque the appellation! — Celestina!!! — how silly! The author will find it difficult to recompense me for such a true coxcombly title. We have a pompous man in this town, meanly born, and meanly educated, and low in fortune, who christened his son Augustus.

The omission of Julia Mandeville, in my list of favourite novels, was not purposed. I have never seen the book since I was sixteen. It delighted me then. The more recent impressions, made by Mrs. Brookes's other works, overshadowed the time-dimmed image of the engaging Julia.

I have the honour to remain your Ladyship's obliged and devoted friend and servant.