1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Edward Smedley, "Campbell's Theodric" Quarterly Review 31 (March 1825) 342-49.



The claims of a living poet upon contemporary admiration, like those of a professed beauty, are exposed to hazard from two directly opposite causes. If he offer himself too frequently to the common eye, there is a risk lest the fastidiousness of public taste may become sated by constant recurrence to the same object. If, on the other hand, he be unnecessarily reserved, some younger or bolder favourite steps in, withdraws the public attention from him who seems to have ceased to be its suitor, and perhaps seizes the wreath, which it is far more easy to will at first than to retain when won, or to regain if it be once loosened from the brow. Fame too, or at least contemporary popularity, which is so often mistaken for it, is at the best but as fickle and capricious as Fortune — "hinc apicem rapax .... Sustulit; hic posuisse gaudet"; and she generally compensates any excess of kindness at one time by a tenfold payment of neglect or persecution at another.

Of the first of these two dangers Mr. Campbell has proved himself sufficiently conscious. How far he has been aware of the second is by no means so plain. His "visits" before the public (to adopt his own words) have been "few and far between." Ten years elapsed between the appearance of The Pleasures of Rope and that of Gertrude of Wyoming: thirteen have been allowed to roll away before his third appeal to the Palatine Apollo. With a caution exceeding that recommended by the precept of Horace, and scarcely exceeded by the practice of Gray, he has consumed a third of the age of man in the slow creation of fewer lines than some of his prolific brethren would have thrown off in a single season. Whatever be the cause of this delay, we certainly are by no means prepared to object to it. There is a want of respect to his readers, and an inability to perceive either the real importance or the high prize of his calling in the poet, who throws his first thoughts immediately before the public, warm as they come from his head, and before he is himself in a condition to exercise a cool judgment upon them. But on the other hand, delay and misgivings are not always occasioned by feelings such as those we have just mentioned; there is a consciousness of concealed feebleness in some cases, and of disproportionate success in others, which will make inch fearful to risk what they have, by any venture for more. Nor is it an unerring sign of true genius to be slow in composition, to write little, or to finish with excessive labour. To the real poet poetry is the vocation of his life; from every thing within and without him, the appearances of nature and the achievements of art, from study of books — and meditation on himself, he is every day and every hour deriving fresh materials for his occupation, and additional skill in the use of them. The moment of composition is that of his greatest delight — it is not therefore to be expected that he should write either very slowly or seldom; and though it is a mistake to suppose that the labour of correction is cold or painful, still, as habit will tend to give his first conceptions clearness, and, his first expressions fitness, and as a sense of his own power will give decision to his judgment, the necessity and the inclination to correct will gradually diminish.

It was by no means a cold approval which Mr. Campbell's former poems obtained from the public; and we gladly added our tribute to the general voice of praise. We thought The Pleasures of Hope a poem of brilliant promise — bold and animated in many of its conceptions — luxuriant in its imagery — rich and varied its versification; yet the most partial criticism must have admitted that it was not upon this single "coup d'essai" that Mr. Campbell ought to rest his ultimate hopes of fame. Pope might just as reasonably have been content to repose upon the applauses which were bestowed on his Windsor Forest; for each of these poems seemed rather to be evidence of great powers than specimens of perfect performance, blossoms only which raised, hopes, not fruits which satisfied desire. Public expectation was accordingly much excited by the announcement of Gertrude of Wyoming, and if it was in some measure disappointed by its appearance, if Gertrude was not so universally popular as The Pleasures of Hope had been, we believe that it was more intensely admired: with less brilliancy, it had more delicacy and softness of colouring; its appeals were directed more closely to the heart, and the tenderness, with which its domestic pictures were drawn, atoned for the absence of more prominent and striking attractions. There was in it, too, a sweetness of diction and rhythm, carried perhaps to a faulty excess, and which in a longer poem might have become cloying, yet which added to the charm of Gertrude — if the expression be not fanciful, it — made it even physically pleasant to read. Some disappointment, however, there certainly was; and it arose, we think, not so much from positive demerit as from a want of increase in relative value. Time appeared to have added nothing to that promise which the poet had, exhibited before its lapse. His form and gestures still shewed adolescence, though his years sufficiently proclaimed the fullness of manhood. He had gained neither in strength nor in correctness; he had even lost in simplicity and clearness. The defects which had been, in great measure, concealed by the rambling and desultory nature of his didactic poem, were plainly developed in this, which was narrative. The plot was ill laid; the story feebly, obscurely, and imperfectly told; and deeply interesting as many separate passages most assuredly were, Gertrude of Wyoming was justly characterized rather as a beautiful assemblage of detached stanzas, than as the well compacted and highly finished work of a poetical mind of the first order.

It is unnecessary here to repeat our opinion of some of Mr. Campbell's minor pieces. Lochiel, Hohenlinden, and the Mariners of England, in their several kinds, have scarcely ever been surpassed. They are treasured in our memories now, and they will survive in all future collections of the beauties of English poetry. But it was still higher that we wished and hoped to see him rise; and we would fain persuade ourselves if we could, that it is any thing rather than want of power, which has hitherto prevented him from attaining a permanent rank among the classics of our language, and which, in his present poem, has degraded him so very many steps below it.

The story of Theodric may be comprised in a short compass. Julia and Udolph are the children of a Swiss gentleman, and the latter is engaged in the Austrian service, during the war of the French revolution. He serves under the command of Theodric, and the letters which he writes to his home, are full of the most glowing admiration of his leader's worth and valour. On one occasion, Theodric saves the life of Udolph on the field, and the letters which announce the safety and restoration of the wounded boy, are written under the hand of his colonel. The imagination of the tender and secluded Julia is kindled by these incidents. She paints Theodric to herself as the perfect model of heroism, and she becomes deeply enamoured of her own brilliant fancy. This romantic passion is increased by the sight and possession of his picture, which Udolph brings home with him during a short interval of peace. Profiting by the same period of repose, Theodric meanwhile visits England, where accident introduces him to Constance, an English lady, whom he sues, is accepted by, and betrothed to. Before his marriage to her, it is necessary that he should return for a short time to Germany, and as his route lies through Switzerland, he pays a visit to the chateau of Julia's father by the way. During this visit, Julia betrays her secret, and receives an assurance from Theodric (without violation of fits fealty to Constance) that had he seen her before his present engagement, he might have pleaded for her love. Theodric returns to England and marries Constance. In the remainder of the story, however reluctant we may be to fall into the flippancy of caricature, it would be most difficult to avoid the appearance of it, if we attempted any paraphrase; and we shall therefore tell most of it in Mr. Campbell's own words. Constance has some ill-tempered relations whom she occasionally visits as a peacemaker, and she has besides only "one congenial sister." War is renewed, and Theodric resolves to take the field again. He urges Constance to remain one campaign in England, and she, though secretly resolved to accompany him, gives an apparent assent, and, at a time when the days previous to his embarkation are numbered, sets off on a visit to her relations. Theodric is naturally much vexed at this unseasonable absence, and, while he is musing on her seeming neglect, Udolph s unexpectedly announced, bringing an account of his sister's hopeless illness, and her strong wish to see Theodric once more before her death.

Their converse came abruptly to a close;
For scarce could each his troubled looks compose,
When visitants, to Constance near akin,
(In all but traits of soul) were usher'd in.
They brought not her, nor midst their kindred band
The sister who alone, like her, was bland;
But said — and smiled to see it gave him pain
That Constance would a fortnight yet remain.
Vex'd by their tidings, and the haughty view
They cast on Udolph as the youth withdrew,
Theodric blamed his Constance's intent.—
The demons went, and left him as they went,
To read, when they were gone beyond recall,
A note from her lov'd hand, explaining all.
She said, that with their house she only staid
That parting peace might with them all be made;
But pray'd for love to share his foreign life,
And shun all future chance of kindred strife.
He wrote with speed, his soul's consent to say:
The letter miss'd her on her homeward way.
In six hours Constance was within his arms:
Mov'd, flush'd, unlike her wonted calm of charms,
And breathless — with uplifted hands outspread—
Burst into teats upon his neck, and said,—
"I knew that those, who brought your message, laugh'd,
With poison of their own to point the shaft;
And this my one kind sister thought, yet loth
Confess'd she fear'd 'twas true you had been wroth.
But here you are, and smile on me: my pain
Is gone, and Constance is herself again."
His ecstacy, it may be guess'd, was much,
Yet pain's extreme and pleasure's seem'd to touch.
What pride! embracing beauty's perfect mould;
What terror! lest his few rash words, mistold,
Had agonized her pulse to fever's heat:
But calm'd again so soon it healthful beat,
And such sweet tones were in her voice's sound,
Composed herself, she breathed composure round.
"Fair being! with what sympathetic grace
She heard, bewail'd, and pleaded Julia's case;
Implored he would her dying wish attend,
"And go," she said, "to-morrow with your friend;
I'll wait for your return on England's shore,
And then we'll cross the deep and part no more." pp. 31-34.

Theodric arrives in time to take leave of Julia; and from her death-bed he is summoned to attend his wife, to whom he returns too late to find her alive. The violence of her mother, who from selfish reasons wishes to prevent her from going abroad, has occasioned premature delivery (if we understand the passage rightly). She dies, having first penned a letter to her husband, with which, and with a description of his feelings on perusing it, the poem closes.

However simple, even to nakedness and childishness, this plot may appear to be, the conduct of it necessarily involves most disproportionate difficulties, from the ill-judged division of interest between the two heroines. Theodric is, in truth, no other than an involuntary Macheath, and Constance and Julia are the dear charmers with either of whom he could be happy were the other away, yet the death of both of whom he is made to occasion. Julia, after all, has most claim upon our pity, (for Constance in some measure falls a victim to a certain little conjugal trickery,) and in her dignified and suppressed love, her sinking health, and her deathbed, there was room for affecting poetry, which might have atoned for the defects of other parts of the story. To our surprise and disappointment, however, these are among the least effective passages of the poem.

Of Constance then she heard Theodric speak,
And steadfast. smoothness still possess'd her cheek;
But when he told her how he oft had plann'd
Of old a journey to their mountain-land,
That might have brought him hither years before;
"Ah! then," she cried, "you knew not England's shore;
And, had you come, — and wherefore did you not?"
"Yes," he replied, "it would have changed our lot!"
Then burst her tears through pride's restraining bands,
And with her handkerchief, and both her hands,
She hid her face and wept. — Contrition stung
Theodric for the tears his words had wrung.
"But no," she cried, "unsay not what you've said,
Nor grudge one prop on which my pride is stay'd;
To think I could have merited your faith,
Shall he my solace even unto death!"—
"Julia," Theodric said, with purposed look
Of firmness, "my reply deserved rebuke;
But by your pure and sacred peace of mind,
And by the dignity of womankind,
Swear that when I am gone you'll do your best
To chase this dream of fondness from your breast."

Th' abrupt appeal electrified her thought;—
She look'd, to Heav'n, as if its aid she sought,
Dried hastily the tear-drops from her cheek,
And signified the vow she could not speak. — pp. 20-22.

The death of Julia is dismissed in these lines:—

Sweet Julia, though her fate was finish'd half,
Still knew him — smiled on him with feeble laugh—
And blest him, till she drew her latest sigh! — p. 35.

Constance fares little better under the poet's hand; and yet she dies under circumstances of loneliness and widowhood, which it required but moderate power over the passions to have made the foundation of very pathetic description; it is hardly credible that her death should be told by "the one kind sister" in such lines as these:—

"'Twas blame," she said, " I shudder to relate,
But none of yours, that caused our darling's fate;
Her mother (must I call her such?) foresaw,
Should Constance leave the land, she would withdraw
Our House's charm against the world's neglect—
The only gem that drew it some respect.
Hence, when you went, she came and vainly spoke
To change her purpose — grew incensed, and broke
With execrations from her kneeling child.
Start not! your angel from her knee rose mild,
Fear'd that she should not long the scene outlive,
Yet bade ev'n you the unnatural one forgive.
Till then her ailment had been slight, or none;
But fast she droop'd, and fatal pains came on:
Foreseeing their event, she dictated
And signed these words for you—" p. 38.

We had marked other passages of the same bare feebleness for remark; but it is still more a subject for complaint that we do not find any redeeming beauties, any of those broad and decided master-strokes obliterating the sense of accompanying defects and causing the figures to start from the canvass under the hand of the artist into such energy and expression of life, that we think only of them and forget what is around them. On the contrary, all is tame and languid; we are left to gather the characters of the leading personages from vague generalities; to take the poet's word for what they are, not to learn it from our observation of themselves: and it is thus that, in the end, we obtain but loose and indistinct notions of their respective qualities. Theodric is a bold dragoon, Julia a romantic girl, Constance an affectionate wife; but there is no sign of individuality by which any one of them may be distinguished from numerous counterparts in every insipid novel. With this opinion of the matter of the poem generally, it would be a waste of time to enter into a minute description of its execution — the one is worthy of the other; we seek in vain for the brilliancy of the Pleasures of Hope, or the sweetness of Gertrude of Wyoming: the language is prosaic without being either natural or clear, abounding in turns of diction that are vulgar without being simple — the rhymes are often incorrect, and the versification at once languid and inharmonious.

There is little to say of the Fugitive Pieces, to which 100 pages of this volume are assigned; they were born, we believe, and should have been suffered to die and be buried in a magazine; much will be excused in poems found in such a place, of which a more rigorous account will be demanded, if the author, by collecting them, seems to assign them a positive value. One very fervent and furious piece, Stanzas to the Memory of the Spanish Patriots killed in resisting the Regency and the duke of Angouleme, is worthy of preservation for its hard words; it is levelled against "kings, bigots, and Bourbons," who "mangle martyrs with hangman fingers;" of "cowl'd demons of the Inquisitorial cell," and "Autochthones of hell," who are bid to go and—

Smile o'er the gaspings of spine-broken men;
Preach, perpetrate damnation in your den;

It was due to Mr. Campbell's name to place any poem of his on our lists — it is with pain that we have discharged our duty towards him, and we close the volume with sensations of regret. If we have not cited any passage, or any one of the smaller pieces, of which we think less unfavourably than of the rest, it has not been because we were unwilling to bestow our approbation on him, but because we remembered his former estimation, and felt that such languid praise, as we could honestly give to the very best lines in the volume, would be no compliment to one, who has ranked so high as he has. There is, and has been for some time, a growing persuasion, slowly and reluctantly entertained by the public, (for Mr. Campbell has ever found in the public a favourable and faithful audience,) that the character of his mind is to be feeble and minute. Such a poem as Theodric must impart fearful strength to such an opinion. Yet we will struggle against the conviction; literary history is not without examples of failures great as this, and there may be circumstances of mind or body which may account for them. Mr. Campbell is in the prime of life — he has placed his poetical reputation in the greatest danger — we cannot suppose him insensible to the peril, or careless of the issue; let him, then, withdraw from every avocation, the tendency of which is to debilitate or dissipate the mind, and with matured faculties, and increased knowledge, make exertions commensurate with the necessity for them; for our parts, we will cheer him on his way, and forgiving, or rather forgetting, this unworthy publication, contribute gladly our help to replace him in that respectable rank from which we are sincerely sorry that he has declined.