1797 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Mason

Anna Seward to Mrs. Stokes, 15 June 1797; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 4:363-66.



Nothing on, literary themes could surprise me more than your decision respecting Mason, viz.. that "the fire of genius was not great in his compositions." Look, I implore, at his Monody, written at twenty, on the death of Pope — see it commanding the various styles of Spenser, Milton, and Pope, in the most graceful and spirited assumption; and forming those happy imitations into a beautiful funeral poem, upon a new plan! — Remember the exquisite Grecian dramas,; the lyric powers and touching pathos of the Elfrida; — the gloomy grandeur of the Caractacus! — Remember his detached lyric odes; — the sublimity of that on the Fall of Babylon, — the picturesque charms, and manly dignity of sentiment in that to Independence; — and the wild original graces of that to a Water Nymph! Above all, reflect that he was the known, though not acknowledged author of those inimitable satires, the Epistle to Sir W. Chambers, and the Postscript, and the Epistle from an unfortunate Elector of Hanover to his friend, Mr. Pinchbeck; — which last, in strength of fancy, happiness of classic allusion, keenness of covert reproach, and poetic magnificence of style, exceeds any poetic satire I have read — not excepting even Pope's.

Sir Brooke Boothby, a critic coy, and hard to please, agreed with me, the other day, that, his versatility of style considered, and the distinguished excellence with which he wrote in all, Mason stands very high indeed on the poetic scale — that even as a lyric poet solely, he ranks but one degree below Gray, who was unquestionably the first lyric poet the world has produced — that, though that world has given us some greater poets than Mason, their number is few.

If my paper would allow me to launch into quotations, I could produce such a phalanx of grand and of lovely passages from Mason, as must be invulnerable to the darts of prejudice, though with ineffectual hand it might hurl them. I can trust my own feelings, which I know are not to be thrilled, as Mason's poetry has always thrilled them, by compositions in which the "fire of genius is not great." I grant his lately published volume is "a falling off indeed." Compared to his other works, it is the Paradise Regained to the Paradise Lost, which, respecting the talents of Milton, might have their titles reversed.

I wonder what makes Dr. Stokes such a petulant and sickly-tasted critic. To decry episodes of sentiment, allegory, or narrative, in didactic composition, is a singular morbidity in criticism. They have ever been considered as enlivening and adorning the style of precept and instruction — not only affording the charm of variety, but relieving, the attention of the reader. Thomson's sweet little narratives are universally and justly admired — and yet the dignified Nerina, in Mason's English Garden, is the poetic superior of Thonson's Amelia, Lavinia, or Musidora.

At the instant I closed the last sentence, I took, the charming poem, which she inspirits, from my book-shelves, and have attentively perused that last book, so inconceivably censured by Dr Stokes. Well did I remember having always thought it rose in excellence above the, three preceding cantos of the English Garden, beautiful as they are. My tears, which renewed their tribute to the pathos of its story, are yet wet on my cheek. Afresh did my judgment admire the skill with which that vivid episode is connected with the didactic design of the whole poem; so naturally introducing new precepts for attaining excellence in planning the landscapes of pleasure-ground; and also a novel and highly-improved design for a conservatory. In this respect, Mason is very superior to Thomson; — but indeed the purpose of the former is more professedly preceptive.

From a physician, who had ever tasted poetry at all, I should have expected a warm eulogium on anatomic truth and nature in this description of the dying Nerina. — It has Homeric accuracy.

This last perusal places the final book of the English Garden higher than ever in my estimation. So will it always be with poetic excellence. Familiarity endears it. New beauties disclose themselves on every repetition. O how divine is that noble apostrophe which closes the work!