1766 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Ogilvie

John Langhorne, Review of Ogilvie, Solitude; Monthly Review 34 (February 1766) 116-24.



In the course of Mr. Ogilvie's publications, of which this is one, we have been so attentive to the various merit of that ingenious gentleman, and so industrious to promote his reputation as a poet, that we are persuaded he will impute those strictures we may find occasion to make in the review of this slight poem, to their true motive; and conclude, when we inform him of what we think exceptionable or liable to censure, that we are only desirous of his preserving that reputation, to the establishment of which we have always, with so much pleasure, contributed our mite.

We shall, first off, give our Readers part of Mr. Ogilvie's account of his plan.

"It is the design of the following poem, to give the English reader an idea, in as short a compass as possible, of the character, merit, and discriminating excellencies of the most eminent British poets.

"In order however to give the several figures in the following piece, as nearly as possible, that just proportions and importance, the Author hath endeavoured to describe each of these in that manner which he conceived to be most suitable; and with that drapery, which he supposed to be at once the justest, and the most ornamental. With this view it was, that instead of giving simply a detail of the writings of these great geniuses, and of insisting particularly upon their separate excellencies, he hath contrived a kind of poetical Elysium as the place of their residence; and hath attempted to impress some idea of their characters upon the mind of the Reader, by adjusting the external scenery to the manners of the person who is supposed to be placed in it. After this apparatus, the bard is introduced in an attitude adapted to the strain of his composition; and he amuses himself in Elysium, by reciting to the music of the pipe, or the lyre, the different subjects of which he had formerly treated. The Author proposed indeed, at first, to have made each of the poets speak in his own person, and resume some part of his works, in a stile somewhat similar to that which we might conceive him to employ. Though this method is really taken in the case of Pope, Thomson, and Denham; yet he found upon reflection, that a constant adherence to it would not only have spoiled the reader's entertainment, by rendering the narrative part of the poem altogether disproportioned to the descriptive; but after all, the happiest execution (unless he had run the narration to a very great length) could have conveyed no adequate idea of the different species of poetical composition in which some of them excelled. Upon the whole, therefore, he determined to make use of both methods; sometimes making him insist at length, upon those which are either in themselves most important, or in which he excelled most particularly, as answering most fully the design of the work.

"Though the Author proposed, by taking the course already mentioned, to avoid an extreme on either side; yet he is sufficiently aware, that some Readers will censure him for having rendered, at least, the first part of the Poem almost wholly descriptive. They will be apt to suggest, that even the richest imagery dazzles and fatigues the mind, when the series of moral observation does not, upon some occasions, contribute to relieve it. Without disputing the truth of this general remark, the Writer would only vindicate his own conduct in the present instance from its being unavoidable. The scene with which the poem opens, the cell of Solitude, the climes through which she passed, and the Elysium into which she opened an admission; — these objects naturally require the graces of description, perhaps in a much higher degree than they are bestowed in this poem. As to the poets themselves, the Author hath endeavoured to speak of them with propriety, and to make those who recite the subject of their own writings, run into such a vein of sentiment, as he conceived to be least unappropriated to their separate professions. The moral observations which arise from particular parts, he choosed rather to throw together in a connected series at the end, than to scatter loosely through the work.

"In discussing the several parts of a plan in itself so complicated, and requiring a stile of composition so constantly diversified; in such a performance, the Reader who shall expect to see equal justice done to every character, and his own idea of it perfectly exhibited, will form an expectation which no effort whatever will compleatly gratify. Admitting that the Author of the following Attempt, may have spoke too slightly of a favourite Poet, and too warmly of one to whom his Reader will allow a less share of merit; yet surely the person who makes this remark, will be polite enough to indulge another (when he is not grossly faulty) in prejudices similar, perhaps, to those which he enjoys himself without censure. He will permit him to bestow the most lively colouring, not merely where acknowledged superiority rendered it expedient, but where he found it easiest to catch a particular manner, from some real or supposed resemblance which it might have to his own.

"Another set of Readers may probably, at first view, be offended with the order in which the Poets are arranged; Milton being seemingly preferred to Shakespeare, as Thomson is to Pope. Without enquiring into the comparative merit of these writers, which would be altogether improper here, the Author would only observe, that he placed them in their present order, to avoid that uniformity of description which must have resulted from any other disposition. The similarity of character betwixt Shakespeare and Spencer (both of whom were more indebted to nature than to education) would have unavoidably occasioned a corresponding similarity of imagery and sentiment, had the one of these immediately followed the other; an inconveniency which is wholly superseded, by placing Milton betwixt them. — The peculiar circumstances of Ossian discriminate him sufficiently from all other poets. Pope stands indeed betwixt Thomson and Dryden, as the Essay on Man affords a noble train of sentiments to sum up the illustrious detail of the most eminent British poets; and the two last mentioned differ so much, at least in point of correctness, that it was easy to diversify the scenery in which they are placed."

The poem opens with an invocation to Fancy, who soon appears, and expresses her sublime sentiments in the following stanzas:

O ye, whom Nature's genial charms inspire,
(Thus spoke the Goddess of the thought sublime)
Who nobly ardent feel diviner fire,
Whose hope o'ershoots the lingering flight of Time!

Ye noble Few! whom not the splendid pride
Of wealth allures, nor Grandeur's tinsell'd plume;
Whose hearts to bleeding sympathy allied,
Can melt o'er Virtue's unlamented tomb:

Ye, who thro' Modesty's involving veil
Can mark the features of a godlike mind,
Snatch Genius pining from the cottaged dale,
Or feeling wake to transports all refined:

O come! escaped from Folly's bustling train:
Not these have eyed bright Fancy's genial ray,
Nor felt sweet transport in each throbbing vein,
Nor died deep-pierced to Love's dissolving lay.

Th' ingenuous blush that speaks the soul sincere,
The living ardour of the mind's keen eye,
On Pity's cheek the slow-descending tear,
And stealing from the heart the tender sigh,

'Tis mine to give. Though from the starry throne,
Whence Power high-raised the rolling world surveys,
Stoops not her ear to Woe's unheeded moan,
Nor Genius balks in her enlivening rays;

Yet, where wild Solitude's resounding dome
Lies deep and silent in the woodland shade,
Sweet Peace with devious step delights to roam,
And soft-reclining rests her gentle head.

And Thou, whose feet to this deserted bower
Have stray'd; if mild Benevolence is thine,
(To me thus smiling spoke the heavenly power)
If warm thou bow'st at Virtue's sacred shrine;

If thy thrill'd heart with sympathetic woe
Hath bled (for man is destined to endure;)
If others anguish bade thine eyes o'erflow,
If prone to feel the grief thou can'st not cure;

With me retire. Lo! to the clime remote
I lead, where yet to human step unknown,
The power who lifts to God th' aspiring thought,
Rapt Solitude hath rear'd her solemn throne.

What scenes shall then thy wondering sight behold!
Yet know that toils, that perils go before:
The firm of mind, the resolute, the bold,
Brave the rude storm, and reach th' appointed shore.

In the expression of "Solitude's resounding dome" it is natural at first to doubt the propriety of the epithet "resounding"; silence being generally the concomitant of solitude: but when we reflect that in such scenes the least motion is soonest heard by means of the general silence, when we find afterwards that the cell of Solitude is in the ruins of an old tower, and call to mind the "Domus Albuneae resonatis" of Horace, we are easily reconciled to it.

Fancy, in her progress to the abode of Solitude, passes by the cave of Darkness; whose inhabitants are thus poetically described:

There pined pale Envy in the cavern dun,
There Time deep-furrowing plough'd the front of Care;
Despair with curses eyed the winking moon,
And Frenzy howling tore her tangled hair.

These, as the radiant Goddess flash'd along,
Shrunk from the ray that lighten'd o'er her frame:
Such rapid fate dissolves the insect throng,
When the black whirlwind rides the wings of Flame.

We confess that we are dissatisfied with the simile conveyed in the two last lines; — the diction and imagery are, in our opinion, infinitely too magnificent for the object; and when Flame and Whirlwind combine to kill a fly, though that were not their immediate purpose, the action is a kind of bathos.

In the description of a flowery lawn we find the following stanza:

There hung the violet its dejected head,
The lily languish'd to the sighing gale;
While daisies sprinkled o'er their velvet bed,
And painted cowslips smiled along the dale.

There is a prettiness in such expressions as these, but is there not likewise something finical? — Something that, deviating from the simplicity of nature, substitutes an artificial and affected delicacy?

Now follows a description of the cell of Solitude:

Dim as the fleeting visions of the night,
A dark tower tottering closed th' extended view;
While round its spires, illumed with feeble light,
The flitting bat and boding raven flew.

Rent was the hanging arch, the domes o'erthrown;
Nor tread was heard along the desert pile,
Save when the troubled ghost with hollow moan
Strode slowly o'er the long-resounding isle.

One only cell withstood the waste of Time:
'Twas where a turret rear'd its moss-clad brow:
Gloomy it stood, in fading pomp sublime,
And shew'd the mouldering wrecks that frown'd below.

Here, on her hand her drooping head reclined,
Wrapt in deep musing sat the lonely Power;
Pensive she sat, and heard the howling wind
Die faintly murmuring round her ivy'd bower.

In graceful ringlets fell her amber hair;
Black as the raven's plumes her mantle flow'd;
No Cupids round her fann'd the sullen air,
Nor festive Echo chear'd her lone abode.

But the wild harp that to the blast complains,
Soothed with melodious plaint her raptured ear:
Deep, solemn, awful roll'd the varying strains,
Such strains as Seraphim with transport hear.

There is something well imagined in placing the cell of Solitude in the ruins of a deserted old castle: but the introduction of the ghost wants the mark of novelty, or rather, indeed, is too trite a circumstance; for, wherever a poet has given us a description of a long isle in an ancient building, he has infallibly made a troubled ghost stalk solemnly through it.

Solitude, at the request of Fancy, conducts our allegorical Bard to the Elysium of the Poets, where he describes the situation and employments of Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton; — Shakespeare and Ossian are next introduced, singing their sublime songs alternately. — This is, in our opinion, the finest part of the poem; and, for the entertainment of our Readers, as well as in justice to Mr. Ogilvie, we shall give it entire:

But sweeter lays now charm'd the wishing mind.
I turn'd; — and eager, as they pour'd along—
What Powers, I cried, what heavenly Powers combined,
Wind yon deep stream of soul-dissolving song?

Nought spoke the Goddess; but her arm upheld
Shew'd where a beetling cliff o'erlook'd the plain:
Bloom'd from its top each flower-enamell'd field,
And rowl'd behind the far-resounding main.

Th' aereal forest clothed its ragged side:
Here spread the myrtle bower's harmonious maze;
The torrent's voice in lulling murmurs died,
And Beauty's boundless waste o'erpower'd the gaze.

Of toil no trace th' untrodden wild retain'd;
But Fancy's hand the sheltering arch had wove,
Fairer than Poet eyed, or Lover feign'd
Of clime Hesperian, or Idalian grove.

For there, obsequious to her varying call,
The Fairy region at the magic sound,
Girt with the hanging wood, or mouldering wall,
Now bloom'd a Villa, or a Desart frown'd.

And airy tenants o're the dimpling stream
Hung loose; or high in aim, in effort bold,
Suck'd hues ethereal from the dazzling beam,
To tinge the violet's velvet coat with gold;

Or spoil'd the citron of its rich perfume,
Or caught the light drop in the liquid air;
Or from the wren's breast pick'd the little plume,
To braid the tresses of the Naiads hair.

O'er all bright Ariel shone. His devious wing
Now, swept soft fragrance in the spicy gale;
Or fluttering from the dewy lip of Spring
Brush'd nectar'd balm, and shower'd it o'er the dale.

O'er the dim top a gloomy arbour bow'd,
The boughs dark-shadowing veil'd the vaulted blue;
But opening fair beneath, the vistoed wood
Gave the gay climes that radiant burst to view.

Here Shakespear sat in regal glory bright,
And mark'd spontaneous flowers around him blow,
With scenes still shifting soothed his raptured sight,
Or drunk the music of the lawns below.

Graceful he moved, and scann'd the waste of air,
As his strong arm th' avenging bolt could wield,
Or catch the Tempest by the ragged hair,
Or bid an Earthquake whelm the blasted field.

Young Fancy near her highest influence shed,
Her keen eye kindling flash'd the blaze of noon:
The peacock thus in glittering plumes array'd,
Sails, while each orient hue reflects a Sun.

Not distant far another Bard was seen,
(The place was varied, but their height the same)
Where heaved the wide deep's placid wave serene,
Oft slow, with melancholy step he came.

The Power of musing to his thoughtful mind
Had lent her eagle pinions. O'er the main
He hung: — the Spirit of the hollow wind
Waked on his harp the long-lamenting strain.

Loose fell his hoary locks; the fanning air
Sigh'd thro' the venerable hairs; — his head
A crown adorn'd; — his swelling chest was bare;
His limbs the Warrior's rougher vesture clad.

No film o'ershadowing dimm'd his piercing sight,
Nor felt his vigorous form the waste of Time;
But tall and ardent as the sons of light,
O'er the rude beech he look'd, he trod sublime.

The Muse was near, who points beyond the sky;
Whose notes divine each meaner care controul,
Sail on the wings of Harmony, and high
To scenes all-glorious lift th' expanded soul.

O Goddess of the solemn mantle, hail!
Queen of the heart, who movest its thrilling strings,
Waft'st rapt attention on thy wondrous tale
Beyond the little range of mortal things!

As Ossian once, ah! let thy genial ray
Me too illumine while to thought display'd
Flit the dim shapes that shun the eye of day,
And forms that swim thro' pale Oblivion's shade.

A Maid, yet fair in Beauty's vernal bloom,
Sat on the beech with listening ardour near;
Her eye, like dew-drops spangling thro' the gloom,
Dropt, as he sung, th' involuntary tear.

Yet then no grief had touch'd the throbbing breast:
Pure from its influence was that scene refined:
But joy's strong beam the kindling soul confess'd,
Such as alone inspires th' exalted mind.

Each Bard melodious pour'd th' alternate strain:
Rush'd the full tide of Shakespear's magic song,
From desert isles that hear the roaring main,
To climes where lightly dance th' aereal throng.

Now howl'd with shrieks of woe th' unbounded waste,
Or waved the brown wood's long-bewildering maze;
Or lower'd the blackening noon by spells o'ercast,
Or bloom'd the lawn, where sportful Fancy strays;

Or Ghosts indignant burst the marble tomb,
Or pined in silent woe the drooping Maid;
Or wail'd the Lover mid the blackening gloom
With trembling lips, and call'd on death for aid.

To thrill the Murderer's shuddering nerves, unveil'd
Thro' Night's stain'd shade the ghastly Phantom stood;
Mutter'd his livid lips, to sight reveal'd,
And on his rent throat hung the clotted blood.

Back starts the Tyrant at the threatening nod:
His loose teeth chatter, and his broad eyes glare:
The Furies o'er him shake their scorpion rod,
And Horror's grey band lifts his icy hair.

I saw where England's awful Sovereigns rose.
Gloomy they strode along the darken'd field;
This roll'd the battle o'er his prostrate foes,
That shook the burnish'd helm and gleaming shield.

Yet vain their boast, when at th' appointed hour
Fate wing'd the dart that lays the mighty low;
Vain was the downy couch, the roseate bower,
To seal in rest the weeping lids of Woe.

Nor themes sublime alone employ'd his thought,
But oft gay scenes th' unbended mind beguiled
Exulting Nature claim'd the finish'd draught,
And Care's grim front, and canker'd Envy smiled.

But deeper plain'd the Caledonian lyre:
Slow, wild, and solemn, wail'd the melting lays:
Of dying groans it sung, of combats dire,
And told the mournful tales of ancient days!

Of Ghosts dim-gliding on the Moon's wan beam,
Of feeble sounds that tell the Hero's doom,
Of Chiefs once famed, that o're his midnight dream
Lower dark, and point him to the lonely tomb.

He sung the narrow house with grass o'ergrown,
Where oft, as Night involves the dusky sphere,
The Spirit hovering o'er the moss-clad stone
Shrieks to the Hunter's pierced and startled ear.

I saw Balclutha's towers — No festive strain
Of Mirth loud-echoing shook the vaulted hall;
But there, vain hope! to feed his clamorous train
The fearless fox o'erlook'd the hanging wall.

Around was Ruin, Silence, and Despair,
Bleak wastes, and hills with rifted pines o'erspread,
Th' enormous rock whose ragged front was bare,
And trees, that nodded o'er the mighty dead.

There is a noble dignity in the description of the person of Ossian; and the effect of Shakespear's magic powers, particularly in the stanza's beginning with "To thrill the murderers, &c." and "Back starts the tyrant, &c" is painted with great force. But the stanza, where the glittering effulgence of fancy is compared with the peacock's tail, has, we are afraid, something of the Bathos. In the chain of similitude, inferior images generally produce that consequence.

Upon the whole, we are of opinion that the species of versification Mr. Ogilvie has here made choice of is not well adapted to his subject, or, at least, to the manner in which he has executed it. Perspicuity of images, and an easy simplicity of expression, are either most naturally annexed to the stanza of alternate rhyme, or by being often made the vehicle of such imagery and expression, custom has rendered it improper for any other. But Mr. Ogilvie's descriptions, however strong, are frequently elaborate; his images too, are of a very abstracted nature; and his diction sometimes acquires a stiffness and affectation, from an apparently laboured selection of compound epithets. The elegy subjoined to this poem has nothing of novelty to recommend it.