1801 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edward Jerningham

Anna Seward to Edward Jerningham, 23 February 1801; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 5:357-64.



Lichfield, Feb. 23, 1801.

Indebted to you for two most gratifying letters, the delay of this acknowledgment can only plead excuse from the bad state of my health. It impedes the business of my pen; it is at war with the hope of longevity; but away with fruitless complaints and dismal forebodings!

Thank you for mentioning the new poetic literature. I have never seen any of Sir J. B. Burgess's verse. You tell me his epic poem has just emerged, and you say — "It is the ton to commend it, though nobody reads it, because it is written in the Spenceric stanza." There is no true taste in such idle fastidiousness. It has, in the present instance, been caught from the prejudiced pages of Johnson's Lives. I recollect that, in them, the Goliah lays a broad heavy paw upon that form of verse, infinite mischief is done to science of every sort, by the often irrational dogmas of people of high ability.

One of the most justly admired of our modem poems, the Minstrel, is written in the Spenceric stanza, which, without narrative, can interest, and, without exciting the passions, can charm. No inevitable weariness, surely, attaches to an order of verse, through which such triumph has been attained. The Minstrel is certainly not of epic length; yet it is seldom that we read, at one sitting, more lines of an epic poem than are contained in the two books of the Minstrel. That, with all its genius and exhaustless fancy, the Fairy Queen tires our attention is certain; but it is of the eternal allegories, not of the measure, that we are weary.

Oberon is written in that measure, and, though a translation, a sort of epic, and certainly of epic length, has had very general reading, and may boast an everybody against Sir J, B. Burgess's nobody — but perhaps you will slily say, the voluptuous descriptions made the everybody for Oberon.

I have been amused by the gnat-strainers and camel-swallowers (who read a little poetry now and then) praising and recommending Oberon to the perusal of their associates, while they abuse Darwin's charming Loves of the Plants for their licentiousness. They confess delight in exploring the human Harem of Wieland, and his translator, and turn away, with holy decency, from the enamoured pleasures, when they laugh and frolic in a blossom's bell.

I am unacquainted with the powers of Sir J. B. Burgess; but, as to Cumberland's Calvary, I could not read it through; and in an epic, from the smooth pen of the present laureate, I have no confidence. There is not strength in his wing for such a soaring. Mr. Cottle's Alfred has not reached us, nor have I seen any thing he has written.

Southey's Joan d'Arc is the best epic I have read since Milton's, though from the imagination of a then scarce bearded stripling. Its design is exceptionable, but the stamp of genius is upon it. I inclose a philippic of mine upon its tendency. The lines ran off from my pen after first perusing the poem, and formed a literal impromptu.

But to return, for an instant, to metre-prejudices. They are morbid things. Surely no people of true and vivid taste for that charming science, will ever dislike a work of real genius on account of the metrical form it wears. Such hectic dislikes live only with the Vainloves of verse.

It has been said, "that form of government is best, which is best administered." So it may be said of poetry: — that order of verse is best in which most poetry is found. The stanza has one advantage over the heroic couplet, or even blank verse; which last, abstractedly considered, is perhaps the best vehicle for poetic ideas; viz. that the stanza enables the memory more easily to retain those detached parts which may be of prominent beauty.

I did not mean to express, as from myself, the slightest doubt of Sir Isaac Newton's faith in the Christian religion; — nothing more than my surprise that a prelate, of some eminence, should entertain and avow an idea so injurious to that great man; so contradictory to the received opinion; so mortifying to believers; so gratifying to infidels. Whitaker's book, which you say expresses the same belief, 1 have not seen.

If any words of mine were so unfaithful to my sentiments, as to induce your declaration of an upright intention in the composition of your interesting and eloquent treatise, and in the publication of your selections, I disclaim them utterly. I met you in the lists as knights used to meet each other in the tournament, — nothing doubting your skill in the contest, or your perfect honour. What appeared to me partiality to foreigners in your tract, induced me to take up the gauntlet for the talents of my countrymen. You support your preference of Bossuet to our best English sermon-writers with so much beautiful writing, and with so many just observations, that I dare believe our men of genius in that line may improve by your documents; though all which I think the dull drones of divinity will get by you is — the laugh of their congregation. You imp the wings of the eagles; but, in hustling up the owls, I think the sun, at which you point, may blind them wofully. Many a doughty doctor, and many a pompous prelate, will be found in the latter class.

What you tell me about the exclusion of compositions by English masters from the high-life concerts, only proves that the same infatuation prevails in that science amongst our great peop!e, as in poetry amongst our acamedicians. It is the English mania to prefer the productions of foreigners to those of our own country. I see you are not acquainted with the beautiful compositions in music, which exist for the honour of England. You have had no opportunity of hearing them, banished as they dully are from the fashionable concerts. So was Shakespeare banished our stage from the gay Gallic reign of Charles the Second, till the talents and resolution of Garrick restored him. So have been, and so still are, the great English poets from our universities, to the infinite detriment of the understanding and taste of our students, since superior to the Greek, Roman, and Tuscan bards, are the bards of Britain, in every line but of the epic, and even there our Milton equals Homer, and transcends Virgil. The good Lord Lyttleton, to the honour both of his head and heart, had patriot taste in the science he cultivated, as the following lines from his wildly beautiful Monody on his Lucy evince:

With you she search'd the wit of Greece and Rome;
And all that in her latest days,
To emulate her ancient praise,
Italians happy genius could produce;
And what the Gallic fire,
Bright sparkling, could inspire,
By all the graces tempered and refin'd;
Or what in Britain's isle
Most favour'd with your smile,
The powers of reason and of fancy join'd
To full perfection have conspir'd to raise.

I hope you, who are of the elect, will, at least, with Lord Lyttelton, subscribe to that preference.

A few words more on the subject of music. — However weak a single exception, or even two or three exceptions, may be to obviate what is given us as a general rule, yet surely exceptions, numerous as those I brought in my former letter, and which are yet only a small portion of what exist, may render its validity at least questionable. Probably you have never heard the beautiful passages in Ossian, which are set as glees by Calcot, since you say you have not heard, at the fine people's concerts, these ten years, a single glee composed by an Englishman. O folly and affectation, how wide is your dominion! The Ossianic glees are ravishing; and, above all their brethren,

Peace to the souls of the heroes!

is most ravishing. I confess the beauty of Converso's—

When all alone my pretty love was playing;

but Morley has several, in exactly the same style, and of equal charm, I would answer for producing an hundred glees from my own recollection, all by Englishmen, and all of original melody and correct harmony.

When I was a girl, it was the fashion for the fine people to abuse Handel as heavy, coarse, and tiresome. Our king, by instituting the commemorations, rescued his fame. If I was Prince of Wales, I would give concerts, from which every foreign composition should be interdicted; and glees should be performed there, that must awaken the cold dead ear of prejudice itself into life and enthusiasm. But it is time to close my controversy, for the clock has struck that hour which Burns, with equal humour and fancy, calls the key-stone of night's black arch. Addio!