1795 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Wilkie

Robert Anderson, in Works of the British Poets (1795) 11:23-24.



There are few books that contain more ancient learning than the Epigoniad. To the reader, acquainted with remote antiquity, it yields high entertainment; and we are so far from thinking, that an acquaintance with Homer hinders men from reading this poem, that we are of opinion it is chiefly by such as are conversant in the writings of that poet, that the Epigoniad is, or will be read. And as the manners therein described are not founded on any circumstances that are temporary and fugatious, but arise from the original frame and constitution of human nature, and are consequently the same in all nations and periods of the world; it is probable, if the English language shall not undergo very material and sudden changes, that the epic poem of Wilkie will be read and admired, when others, that are in greater vogue in the present day, shall be overlooked and forgotten.

In the Epigoniad, Wilkie has, in general, followed in the footsteps of Homer. In the Dream annexed to that poem, he has chosen Spenser for his model, and ventured to engage in a rivalship with the great father of allegorical poetry. In this small poem, in which the manner of Spenser is finely imitated, the poet supposes himself to be introduced to Homer, who censures his poem in some particulars, and excuses it in others. It is, indeed, a species of apology for the Epigoniad, written in a very lively and elegant manner. It may be compared to a well-polished gem of the purest water, and cut into the most beautiful form. He apologizes for so closely imitating and even borrowing from Homer. He alleges, that Plato and Virgil did so before him. His praise of Hesiod and Theocritus is such as might be expected from an agriculturalist and a poet. Those who would judge Wilkie's talents for poetry, without perusing his larger work, may satisfy their curiosity by running over this short poem. They will see the same force of imagination and harmony of numbers, which distinguish his longer performance, and may thence, with small application, receive a favourable impression of his genius.

His fables discover an ingenious and acute turn of mind, and a thorough acquaintance with the nature and ways of men; but they are not recommended by any great degree of poignancy or poetical spirit. Simplicity is, indeed, the greatest excellence of fable: But, in the Fables of Wilkie, there is such an excess of simplicity, that they do not sufficiently command attention. They do not sufficiently rouse and exercise the mind; and this defect is the more inexcusable, that to rouse attention is the very end of fable: For the lessons that fable teaches are sufficiently obvious, and what she pretends is only to incline men, by a species of surprise, to attend to them. If Wilkie cannot boast the ease of Gay, the elegance of Moore, or the humour and poignancy of Smart, yet he is by no means a contemptible fabulist. His Fables have the merit of an artless and easy versification, of just observation, and even, occasionally, of deep reasoning, and abound in strokes of a pathetic simplicity. The fable of the Rake and the Hermit possesses the two last mentioned qualities in an eminent degree.