1858 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Cyrus Redding, in Fifty Years' Recollections (1858) 3:129-36.



Returning to town, one of the first friends I called upon was Campbell. It was subsequent to his return from Algiers. I was much struck with his altered appearance after two years that I had not seen him. He seemed in low spirits, and was very glad to see me again. I agreed to dine with him the next day in St. James's Street, tete-a-tete. I asked him if he felt indisposed. He replied, that he had never fell well since an attack of fever in Algiers, which had "shaken his constitution greatly." I observed that he had lost all that "spruce" appearance, as Byron characterised it, which marked him before, and he was depressed in spirits. Wine did not seem to elevate him as it did once. Some of his remarks were touching — "all things were rapidly changing, we could never be again as we once were." He was certain he should not live long. I attempted to change his mood by observing that his father and sister had lived to a very advanced age. "No matter," he replied, "I am convinced of it — you will outlive me." I remarked that I was younger, that the longevity of his family was in his favour. He became taciturn, without making reference to the cause of the silence, so unusual in his case, for before then he would combat such a state of feeling often too artificially. He still harped on the effect of the fever upon him. He did not seem to like my quitting town. I had been two years absent, he said, and now was going away for I knew not how long. He repeated his allusion to the changes time operated, and then said, "When I am gone you will write my life?" I replied, "I feared that would be as bad an affair as his own with Mrs. Siddons, there would be no materials, he had prepared no notes of his life unless he had done so recently." I knew pretty well that he had nothing by him relative to himself when we ceased our joint labours. He replied, "I will write some — I will very shortly go about it." I left him at eleven o'clock, feeling much affected with the idea that he was no longer the Thomas Campbell of the old literary time, and of preceding years. I heard that he had ceased to visit many old friends, even Lord Holland. He did "not like to dress for dinner." Then he got into company, often indifferent to that with which he had usually intermixed before. I left town again soon afterwards, with the painful impression that he was fast breaking.

The truth was that his expectations of future good had began to fail, neither the world nor his hopes of it, getting brighter. As we proceed into age this is natural with all, but Campbell's main star was here. Upon the traditions of the past and his own recollections he built little, clinging more to the probable possible to come, than to what in the past was utterly gone. He also lived more freely, too much so for his health.

Campbell always aspired after what was more perfect, and was disappointed at not finding it. Not at all romantic, he lived less than he once did in the region of fancy, as he grew older; and, in running after shadows, he become more restless and dissatisfied. He shifted the subject of his studies, when he did study. He often now left books half-perused, to seek new ones, hunting some ideal object never overtaken — ever seeking, and not finding. Often abstracted, he had never mentally travelled towards the elevated in subject, so much as towards the tranquil and beautiful. His selfishness of mind, if I may so call it, prevented him from troubling others with his joys or sorrows. He shrank from rude and stern appearances. He showed no great acquaintance with the deep things of the human heart. He lived among his own fruits and flowers — fruits and flowers of unquestionable loveliness, of which he was the creator, particularly in his "Gertrude." He once asked me which I liked best of his poems, and I replied, "Gertrude," and he replied, "So do I." His better scenes there have a Claude-like beauty, unruffled, sweet, and soothing. He rarely becomes himself identified with his subject, and yet one of his excellencies is, that he treats his subject as no one besides himself could do, in consequence of which Scott made him an exception from the modern poets, whose works, he said, he would undertake to parody. He pleases through his own perception of his subject, rather than of his reader. He delights, rather than astonishes, wooing our admiration with the graces and elegancies of his verse, and that affectionate tenderness in his "Gertrude," more particularly, which raises analogous pleasure in others, and is, therefore, more enduring in its effect. There are few salient points in his delineations to break the uniformity of their moral grace. Yet there is no coldness — no want of excitement — genius in him vindicates its power to perform what it may require, without those extensive aids, destitute of which the superficial in judgment consider it incapable of acting. The odes of Campbell, worthy of the best days of Greece, were flung off at moments of an impulse, which, from his nature, admitted not of more than momentary action.

I was again absent from London for several years, working hard for the free-trade cause, during which period, if I ran up to town, time pressed upon me so as to allow me to make only a short call upon the poet. When I came back permanently, we visited each other as before, but the poet had then lamentably changed in person, become thinner, and stricken with an unusually aged appearance. I visited him both in Lincoln's Inn Fields, where I once more met the Archdeacon Strachan, of Toronto, now become a bishop, and in Victoria Square, his latest residence in London. The poet took occasion to allude to our old breakfast scene at his house in Upper Seymour Street, West, by saying, "Here, my lord bishop is an old acquaintance of yours, I believe." The doctor was full of good-humour, though priestly as becomes one of the cloth; and the little annoyance I gave him was forgotten. He is since dead.

Before he went to Boulogne to reside, Campbell used to come up to Baker Street, North, where I lodged, to breakfast, and would generally sit for several hours — the last time, from half-past nine till four o'clock. I saw him just before his departure from England, and shook hands with him for the last time. I had promised to go over to Boulogne and see him; but was prevented. Hearing of his illness, I wrote to inquire how he was. My letter only anticipated his death by two or three days. He sent me through his niece; his "kind remembrances;" they were his last. At his funeral, in Westminster Abbey, I was struck with the recollection that, where the Rev. Mr. Millman read the funeral service at the foot of Dr. Barrow's monument, Dr. Johnson was seen weeping at the funeral of Garrick, near to whose remains those of Campbell lie, just sixty-five years before.

When I saw the poet laid in that antique locality, I thought it was not the proper place, doing all honour at the same time to the intention of those who so ordered it. His wishes in his better days would have been to lie by the Clyde, covered with the wild flowers of his natal soil. As his body lay in the Jerusalem Chamber, the recognition of those attending the funeral, interrupted the gloomy retrospections, that pressed heavily on my mind. I recalled the poet's words in St. James' Street, now verified, that he should go before me to the land of darkness and shadow, of rest and forgetfulness. While the service was reading in the Abbey, my thoughts, for they were not to be restrained by the service, so familiar, with the occasion so rare, my thoughts ran back to an acquaintance and joint labours of nearly thirty years, to labour and relaxation together in social hours, and to individuals who intermingled with all. Many of these individuals had preceded the poet. Here, then, had terminated, in the customary mode, the history of another who had made himself a never-dying name! Then came a recurrence to scenes, in relation to the perished past, some of which were now known to myself alone. There were the remembrances of conversations and incidents, that, but for such an event as the present, could never, it is probable, have been again drawn from the store-house of memory — things that before seemed nothing, now appeared to be of moment. With these feelings, the funeral spoke indifferently to the eye, on my part, for the mind was in other places and times, travelling among the wrecks of departed years, and with no little poignancy, making even shadowy images turn the past to painful realities. Campbell had once said to me he would die directly for such a fame as that of Napoleon I. I smiled, and told him it was a small temptation to a philosophic mind, to give up time for the insensibility to its gifts. What did it matter now! As the old divine wrote, what does it matter to "our wives, dead and asleep in charnel-houses, they are not troubled when we laugh loudly at the songs sung at the next marriage feast?" Such were my ideas when in the venerable Abbey, amid the dust of the wise and great, I saw the last of my old friend now insensible to fame. A crowd of all degrees in life, whom respect or curiosity had drawn to witness the interment, stood beneath the many-coloured windows, under the pointed arches, reared by the hands of generations long passed away, to witness their own antecedent.

How should I look back without sadness at such a moment — despite all my philosophy and a proper resignation to that inevitable course of mundane things, which it has pleased the supreme to allot for human destiny — how should I look back without sadness, upon a long friendship, and labours that strengthened it, with a poet of so high an order. The little failings of his human nature had perished with his body; the fruits of his inspiration were more glorious than ever; the few failings were forgotten and finite; the fruits of his mind imperishable. The burial service, the venerable Abbey, the crowd that attended, the sable bier, none fixed my attention a moment. I became abstracted. The service seemed over, when I thought it had scarcely began. The crowd was dispersing. The world's custom of forgetfulness of him who once breathed life around, had commenced, and Campbell was to be remembered only by a few in his delightful works. Poetry was to change to the fashion of the populace, and to be forgotten with the fashion of the season. Such has since become the order of custom, the science of folly and ignorance. Be it so: the educated few will still preserve the vestal fire. The multitude cannot comprehend the productions of high genius, and can no more permanently depreciate them, than it can fathom the depths of the science which is elevating the intellectual man yet higher above the counterfeit wisdom that masks its existence. By the multitude, a taste like its own motley garb, is assumed to keep up appearances, and

Savoir vivre, c'est savoir peindre.

I left the Abbey, to shut myself up for the day, that I might for a moment be out of the perpetual masquerade. The unavailing nature of the moody thoughts which haunted me, now came to my aid, and the fact that I must soon lie in the lap of earth, as well as the poet. I went to the British Museum. There I encountered that remarkable bust of C. J. Caesar, which is so striking. "Is the likeness all that remains of the greatest scholar and conqueror of antiquity?" thought I; "well may humble men bend before the reflection, and write 'Resignation' on their minds."

But I must drop the curtain, lifted prematurely, in relation to the precise order of events, and return to the details of the quick, in place of the dead.