1837 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edward Moxon

John Wilson Croker, "Moxon's Sonnets" Quarterly Review 59 (July 1837) 209-17.



This is quite a dandy of a book. Some seventy pages of drawing-paper — fifty-five of which are impressed each with a single sonnet in all the luxury of type, while the rest are decked out with vignettes of nymphs in clouds and bowers, and Cupids in rose-bushes and cockle-shells. And all these coxcombries are the appendages of, as it seems to us, as little intellect as the rings and brooches of the Exquisite in a modern novel. We shall see presently, by what good fortune so moderate a poet has found so liberal a publisher.

We are no great admirers of the sonnet at its best — concurring in Dr. Johnson's opinion that it does not suit the genius of our language, and that the great examples of Shakspeare and Milton have failed to domesticate it with us. It seems to be, even in master hands, that species of composition which is at once the most artificial and the least effective, which bears the appearance of the greatest labour and produces the least pleasure. Its peculiar and unvaried construction must inevitably inflict upon it something of pedantry and monotony, and although some powerful minds have used it as a form for condensing and elaborating a particular train of thought — an Iliad in a nutshell — yet the vast majority of sonneteers employ it as an economical expedient, by which one idea can be expanded into fourteen lines — fourteen lines into one page — and, as we see, fifty-four pages into a costly volume.

The complex construction, which at first sight seems a difficulty, is, in fact, like all mechanism, a great saving of labour to the operator. A sonnet almost makes itself, as a musical snuff-box plays a tune, or rather as a cotton Jenny spins twist. When a would-be poet has collected in his memory a few of what may have struck him as poetical ideas, he puts them into his machine, and after fourteen turns, out comes a sonnet, or — if it be his pleasure to spin out his reminiscences very fine — a dozen sonnets.

Mr. Moxon inscribes as a motto on his title-page four lines of Mr. Wordsworth's vindication of his own use of the sonnet-form—

In truth, the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence to me,
In sundry moods 'twas pastime to be bound
Within the sonnet's scanty plot of ground.

Yes, Mr. Moxon, to him perhaps, but not to every one — the "plot of ground" which is "scanty" to an elephant is a wilderness to a mouse; and the garment in which Wordsworth might feel straitened hangs flabby about a puny imitator. There seems no great modesty in the estimate which Mr. Moxon thus exhibits of his own superior powers, but we fear there is at, least, as much modesty as truth — for really, so far from being "bound" within the narrow limit of the sonnet, it seems to us to be

—a world too wide
For his shrunk shank.

Ordinary sonnetteers, as we have said, will spin a single thought through the fourteen lines. Mr. Moxon will draw you out a single thought into fourteen sonnets: — and these are his best — for most of the others appear to us mere soap bubbles, very gay and gaudy, but which burst at the fourteenth line and leave not the trace of an idea behind. Of two or three Mr. Moxon has kindly told us the meaning, which, without that notice, we confess we should never have guessed. Let us take as a specimen the first of these, and we take the first that we may not be suspected of a partial selection—

Hence Care, and let me steep my drooping spirit
In streams of Poesy, or let me steer
Imagination's bark 'mong bright scenes, where
Mortals immortal fairy-land inherit.
Ah me! that there should be so few to merit
The realized hope of him, who deems
In his Youth's spring that life is what it seems,
Till sorrows pierce his soul, and storms deter it
From resting there as erst! Ye visions fair
Of genius born, to you I turn, and flee
Far from this world's ungenial apathy;
Too blest, if but awhile I captive share
The presence of such Beings as engage
The heart, and burn thro' Shakspeare's matchless page. — p. 17.

Now, does the reader guess what the subject of the foregoing sonnet may be? The author tells us — "Solace derived from books." We may be very dull, but we must own that even the mention of "burning thro' Shakspeare's magic page" — reserved for the last line, like "le mot de l'enigme" — would not, without the author's memorandum, have afforded us a clue to the maze. Mr. Moxon indeed seems to aspire to the glory of having invented a new species of composition — the sonnet-riddle — which shall keep the reader in an agreeable mystification till the last word comes, like the bringing in of a candle, to illumine the preceding obscurity. For instance—

If I were asked what most my soul doth prize
Of all the good gifts men enjoy below,
Whether from Fortune or from Fame they flow,
My answer would be thus. Not wealth, which flies
Away from those who hold it in esteem,
Nor yet the honours proud place hath to give:
These with their donor changing die or live.
Not ev'n earth's fairest mountain, vale, or stream,
For these at times are 'neath dark winter's gloom:
Take the world's pleasure and its loud acclaim,
Leave me but this, like an unsullied name
Which wears for aye the self-same hue and bloom—
Need I the secret of my soul impart? — p. 21.

What can it be? "a gift from Fame or Fortune," and yet neither wealth — nor honour — nor land — nor landscape — nor the world's pleasures, nor its praise — nor an unsullied name — though something like that in hue and bloom — (the hue and bloom of an unsullied name!)—

Need I the secret of my soul impart?

Do you give it up?

Be witness ye that love — 'tis woman's heart!!

Did Mr. Moxon expect that, because his sonnets are as hard as Hebrew, we should read them, like Hebrew, backwards?

There is not much more of novelty than of truth in the proposition that a lovesick poet "prizes his mistress above the wealth and honours of the world — that he sees gems in her eyes and flowers in her features" — but such trivial common-places are Mr. Moxon's staple commodity — one-fifth of his sonnets have little other pretence to meaning: and we think the ten following examples will prove a very remarkable penury both of thought and expression:—

1. That which we have just quoted at length about "fame or fortune" — "hue and bloom," et caetera.

2. My Love she is a lowly but sweet flower,
And I would wear her in my breast, for she
Is full of fragrance....
He, who hath mark'd the opening rose in spring,
"Hath seen but portion small of her I sing.
For Fortune if I struggle, or for Fame,"
'Tis that, unworthy, I may worthy be
Of her, the maiden with the "dark black hair,"
And "darker eyes." My only wish to share
The sunless "sums" low sunk beneath the sea,
Is that with it I might my true love greet,
And lay the too small "treasure" at her feet. — p. 10.

3. Methinks I see the purest of her kind
Blushing 'neath fillets that her "dark hair" hind,
Yielding to me her heart, itself a dower
Richer than any which, in days gone by,
Ev'n Kings to win have prov'd their chivalry. — p. 19.

4. Speak not to me of "fortune" or base "gain;"
Both Indies hold no "treasure half so fair"
As she I love. Dull lead, can ye compare
With "rubies" or with "diamonds"? Cease your strain. — p. 23.

5. Bring me a posie of the choicest "flowers"....
Let there be roses, emblems of her lips,
And "lilies" fair to represent her cheeks,
"Woodbine" her hair! in vain my fancy seeks
For emblems of her "eyes"! "stars" that eclipse
All others, and comparison outshine;
But for "these" bring the darkest violet.
Her voice, her forehead, and her white teeth, set
Like "pearls" around a "crown." — p. 28.

6. By classic Cam a lovely "flow'ret" grew....
And yet the summer fields in all their pride
And lustiness of beauty, could compare
No "gem" with this....
....The lovely "gem" I spied,
And from that moment sought it for my bride. — p. 41.

7. My "love I can compare with nought on earth"....
Italia bright would claim her for its own;
But Al-bi-on, the seat of all my bliss,
Divides with it the boast, and prouder is
Of this than the "chief jewel" of her "crown."
Happy is he who may possess this "flower,"
For which two nations wreathe so rare a "dower"! — p. 42.

8. The hawthorn robed in white, May's fragrant daughter;
The willow weeping o'er the silent stream;
The rich laburnum with its golden show
The fairy vision of a poet's dream;...
The "star" of eve; the "lily," child of light;...
Imagine these, and I in truth will prove
They are not half so "fair" as she I love. — p. 43.

9. "Fair art thou as the morning," my young Bride!...
Meeker thou art than "lily" of the spring,
Yet is thy nature full of nobleness!
And gentle ways, that soothe and raise me so,
That henceforth I no worldly sorrow know! — p. 47.

10. There is no landscape, bay, or promon-tory,
None that can match the beauty of thy smiles,
My Tuscan "Flow'ret," of that clime the glory
Hence wherefore should I roam, or gaze at even,
Or pant for summer, or the gorgeous mead? — p. 48.

We will not insist on the numerous beauties of expression which distinguish these passages; but our readers will judge whether their originality and meaning might not have been, without any extraordinary power of condensation, comprised within one sonnet.

But poverty of thought does not always show itself in tautology and sameness — it is sometimes equally or indeed more visible in extravagance and incongruity — as indigence is less conspicuous in a threadbare coat than in a patched one. Mr. Moxon seems sometimes literally at his wit's ends to finish his concluding couplet, and has recourse to expedients which, if not original, are at least very surprising. He had been, on some occasion, four days at sea, pining, of course, for his absent mistress, whom to see again he will be as glad as — what or who do you think? — Christopher Columbus or Father Noah at the happy termination of their respective voyages.

Four days, wild ocean, on thy troubled breast
A wanderer I have been!....
....Sweet maid, with thee
Seated once more within my beechen grove,
"The bower of graceful Emma and of love,"
Glad I shall be, as HE who from the sea
New lands beheld, or HE of old who SAT
And his "bark" saw rest safe on — ARARAT! — p. 45.

The music of the last line is delicious; but "bark" is, we presume, an erratum for ark: we wish, for the lady's sake, we could cure by another erratum the resemblance between

The bower of "graceful Emma" and of love,

and

The bower of "wanton Shrewsbury" and love.

Nor is the following batch of incongruities less startling—

Where Surrey's favourite hill o'erlooks the Thames,
And Twick'nam's flow'ry meads fair maids invite,
The "patient angler" sits from morn till night.
For him the "shade" of Thomson shall arise;
For him sad "Eloisa's Bard" shall sing;
The fields for him assume their gayest dyes;
"Naiad" or "Sylph" from every lily spring;
For him old "Faunus'" voice shall cheer the skies,
And "Nymphs" and "Dryads" dance in festive ring! — p. 51.

Fishing in Twickenham meadows — with Eloisa and Abelard — sylphs — gudgeons — a brace of ghosts, and Ovid's Metamorphoses — all combining, "from morn till night," to amuse patience in a punt!

Another of time same genus — though he had just told us

My love I can compare with nought on earth—

is like "nought on earth" we ever read but Dean Swift's song of similes. "I will prove," he says, that

A swan—
A fawn—
An artless lamb—
A hawthorn tree—
A willow—
A laburnum—
A dream—
A rainbow—
Aurora—
A dove that "singeth"—
A lily — and finally,
Venus herself!
—I in truth will prove
These are not half so fair as she I love.
Sonnet iii., p. 43.

Such heterogeneous compliments remind us of Shacabac's gallantry to Beda in Blue Beard: "Ah, you little rogue, you have a prettier mouth than an elephant, and you know it!" — A fawn-coloured countenance rivalling in fairness a laburnum blossom, seems to us a more dubious type of female beauty than even an elephant's mouth.

Love, it may be said, has carried away better poets and graver men than Mr. Moxon seems to be, into such namby-pamby nonsense; but Mr. Moxon is just as absurd in his grief or his musings, as in his love.

When he hears a nightingale — "sad Philomel!" — he concludes that the bird was originally created for no other purpose than to prophesy in Paradise the fall of man, or, as he chooses to collocate the words,

Prophetic to have mourned of man the fall, — p. 9.

but he does not tell us what she has been doing ever since.

When he sees two Cumberland streams — the Brathay and Rothay — flowing down, first to a confluence, and afterwards to the sea, he fancies "a soul-knit pair," man and wife, mingling their waters and gliding to their final haven—

in kindred love,
The haven Contemplation sees above!

"Below," he would — following his allegory — have said; but rhyme forbade — and allegories are not so headstrong on the banks of the Brathay as on those of the Nile.

A sonnet on Thomson's grave is a fine specimen of empty sounds and solid nonsense:—

Whene'er I linger, Thomson, near thy tomb,
Where "Thamis"—

"Classic Cam' will be somewhat amazed to hear his learned brother called "Thamis"—

Where Thamis urges his majestic way,
And the Muse loves at twilight hour to stray,
I think how in thy theme ALL seasons BLOOM;—

What, all four? — autumn, nay, winter — blooming?

What "heart" so cold that of thy fame has "heard"
And "pauses" not to "gaze" upon each scene.

We are inclined to be very indulgent to what is called a confusion of metaphors, when it arises from a rush of ideas — but when it is produced by an author's having no idea at all, we can hardly forgive him for equipping the Heart with eyes, ears, and legs: — he might just as well have said that on entering Twickenham church to visit the tomb, every Heart would take off its hat, and on going out again would put its hand in its pockets to fee the sexton.

And pauses not to gaze upon each scene
That was familiar to thy raptured view,
Those walks beloved by thee while I pursue,
Musing upon the years that intervene—

Why this line intervenes or what it means we do not see — it seems inserted just to make up the number—

Methinks, as eve descends, a hymn of praise
To thee, their bard, the "sister Seasons" raise!

That is, as we understand it, ALL the Seasons meet together on one or more evenings of the year, to sing a hymn to the memory of Thomson. This simultaneous entree of the Four Seasons would be a much more appropriate fancy for the opera stage than for Twickenham meadows.

Such are the tame extravagances — the vapid affectations — the unmeaning mosaic which Mr. Moxon has laboriously tesselated into fifty and four sonnets. If he had been — as all this childishness at first led us to believe — a very young man — we should have discussed the matter with him in a more conciliatory and persuasive tone; but we find that he is, what we must call, an old offender. We have before us two little volumes of what he entitles poetry — one dated 1826, and the other 1829 — which, though more laughable, are not in substance more absurd than his new production. From the first of these we shall extract two or three stanzas of the introductory poem, not only on account of their intrinsic merit, but because they state, pretty roundly, Mr. Moxon's principles of poetry. He modestly disclaims all rivalry with Pope, Byron, Moore, Campbell, Scott, Rogers, Goldsmith, Dryden, Gray, Spenser, Milton, and Shakspeare; but he, at the same time, intimates that he follows, what he thinks, a truer line of poetry than the before-named illustrious, but, in this point, mistaken individuals.

'Tis not a poem with learning fraught,
To that I ne'er pretended;
Nor yet with Pope's line touches wrought,
"From that my time prevented."

We skip four intermediate stanzas; then comes

Milton divine and great Shakspeare
With reverence I mention;
My name with theirs shall ne'er appear,
'Tis far from my intention!

If poetry, as one pretends,
Be all imagination!
Why then, at once, my bardship ends—
'Mong prose I take my station.
Moxon's Poems, p. 81, Ed. 1826.

But as "common sense" must see, says Mr. Moxon, that imagination can have nothing to do with poetry, he engages to pursue his tuneful vocation, subject to one condition—

You'll hear no more from me,
If critics prove unkind;
My next in simple prose must he,
Unless I favour find!

We regret that some kind — or, as Mr. Moxon would have thought it, unkind — critic, did not, on the appearance of this first volume, confirm his own misgivings that he had been all this time, like the man in the farce, talking not only prose, but nonsense into the bargain: this disagreeable information the pretension of his recent publication obliges us to convey to him. The fact is, that the volume at first struck us with serious alarm. Its typographical splendour led us to fear that this style of writing was getting into fashion; and the hints about "classic Cam" seemed to impute the production to one of our Universities: on turning, with some curiosity, to the title-page, for the name of the too indulgent bookseller who had bestowed such unmerited embellishment on a work which we think of so little value — we found none; and on further inquiry learned that Dover Street, Piccadilly, and not the banks of "classic Cam," is the seat of this sonnetteering muse — in short, that Mr. Moxon, the bookseller, is his own poet, and that Mr. Moxon, the poet, is his own bookseller. This discovery at once calmed both our anxieties — it relieved the university of Cambridge from an awful responsibility, which might have called down upon it the vengeance of Lord Radnor; and it accounted — without any imputation on the public taste — for the extraordinary care and cost with which the paternal solicitude of time poet-publisher had adorned his own volume. Mr. Moxon seems to be — like most sonnetteers — a man of amiable disposition, and to have an ear — as he certainly has a memory — for poetry; and — if he had not been an old hand — we should not have presumed to say that he is incapable of anything better than this tumid common-place. But, however that may be, we do earnestly exhort him to abandon the self-deluding practice of being his own publisher. Whatever may have been said in disparagement of the literary taste of the booksellers, it will at least be admitted that their experience of public opinion and a due attention to their own pecuniary interest, enable them to operate as a salutary check upon the blind and presumptive vanity of small authors. The necessity of obtaining the "imprimatur" of a publisher is a very wholesome restraint, from which Mr. Moxon — unluckily for himself and for us — found himself relieved. If he could have looked at his own work with the impartiality, and perhaps the good taste, that he would have exercised on that of a stranger, he would have saved himself a good deal of expense and vexation — and we should have been spared the painful necessity of contrasting the ambitious pretensions of his volume with its very moderate literary merit.