1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Erasmus Darwin

Robert Southey, in "Sayers's Works" Quarterly Review 35 (1827) 198-201.



Darwin's popularity has past away as irrecoverably as poor Merry's; but the poet who studies his art will read the Botanic Garden, and profit by it; for Darwin was an artist, and if he failed to construct a monument for himself sublimer than the pyramids, and more durable than brass, it was not for want of patient labour in "building the lofty rhyme." Neither was it for any deficiency of skill, learning, or ability: he was a man of eminent talents and great attainments, and no poet ever succeeded more fully in executing a work according to his own standard of excellence. But the theory was false, and therefore it failed in practice. He thought that he could improve upon the versification of Pope, as much as Pope had improved upon the versification of a former age, and that this was to be done by giving the utmost finish to every line, superadding the highest varnish to the brighest colouring; making every word picturesque as well as significant, and the whole poem sonorous and splendid in all its parts. His own philosophy should have taught him, that such an intention would of necessity defeat itself, and that poetry, like painting, must have its relief — its shade, as well as its light. The dead level of [Thomas] Burnet's antediluvian world, (beautifully as he has imagined it,) though embellished with the most successful culture, and blest with perpetual spring, would be woefully inferior, in poetical and picturesque effect, to a land of hills and dales; still more so to one of lakes and mountains. The subject of his poem was not more judiciously chosen than the style; but it contributed greatly to the short-lived popularity which he obtained. The Botanic Garden was an attractive name for all those who amused themselves with botany, or who found, in the cultivation of flowers, what has not unfitly been called the most innocent and most healthful of enjoyments; and this includes, in our days, a large portion of those whom poets, in all ages, have been ambitious to please — the more refined and intellectual part of the female world. Pleased with a work which was designed at the same time to embellish and elevate their favourite pursuit, and delighted with the scientific information which the text, and still more the commentary, conveyed to them, in a popular and elegant form, the botanists of the conservatory and the boudoir were delighted with the episodical parts of the poem, which relate to human feelings and to real life, and they persuaded themselves that they admired the whole. The materialists of fine literature also, who always applaud most that which is most mechanical, because it is most upon a level with their own comprehension, and can be measured by rule, extolled it as the perfection of the art; and the perfection of such art certainly it was. But no poetry can maintain its ground, unless it be addressed to the understanding or the affections. An attempt was made, in the Loves of the Plants, to combine the grace of fiction with the gravity of science; and the result presents a heterogeneous mixture which neither satisfies the judgement nor pleases the fancy. The design, indeed, is neither imaginative nor fanciful; what it exhibits as poetical machinery being but laboured allegory at best, and more frequently an allegorical riddle, preposterous in itself, and wearying from its perpetual repetition. Even the better parts of the poem — the long similies without similitude — ceased to please when they had ceased to dazzle. Darwin had the eye and the ear of a poet, and the creative mind; but his writings have served to show that these are of little avail without the heart; and the heart was wanting in him.

The germ of his versification may, be traced in Prior; and it was shown some years ago in the Edinburgh Review, that the same manner was applied to the same kind of subject, long before Darwin was heard of, by Henry Brook, a man of original genius and great powers, though now better known as the author of The Fool of Quality, than for his poems.

The style which Darwin has adopted and perfected was too elaborate to find followers, even when it was most applauded. The only work in professed imitation of his manner was written by his friend Dr. Beddoes. It originated in a stratagem, "which," says Beddoes, "if not entirely innocent, can be charged only with the guilt of presumption. In order to impose upon a few of their common acquaintance, the writer, in a few passages at least, attempted to assume the style of the most elegant of modern poets, and was encouraged by some degree of success to extend his design." The poem thus produced, though originally intended for publication, was never published. The subject is Alexander's Expedition to the Indian Ocean. The book is remarkable for having been printed in a remote village, by a young woman; and, like every production of its author, it exhibits, both in the text and accompanying observations proofs of an active, and vigorous, and original mind. Mr. Fosbrooke, whose mind was more poetical, and his pursuits more favourable to poetry, has told us, that in composing his Economy of Monastic Life, he proceeded "upon Darwin's doctrine, of using only precise images of picturesque effect, chiefly founded upon the sense of vision." Without such an intimation, it would never have been discovered that Mr. Fosbrooke had written upon so false a theory. The very remembrance of "blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides" might have made him hesitate before he adopted it, and the slightest consideration will suffice for showing its futility. Except in these instances., and in some University prize-poems, Darwin appears to have produced no effect upon the style of his contemporaries, nor upon any of the rising generation.

The old fashion of introducing a poem with recommendatory verses was followed by Darwin, after it had been for nearly a century in disuse. They who are likely to have been assailed with applications for contributions of this kind may congratulate themselves that the custom has become obsolete, and, I think it "more honoured in the breach than in the observance." But it had its use: facts and notices, and intimations for our literary history, have been gleaned from such verses; they lead us into the literary society of former times, and possess, therefore, for those who converse with books, an interest above that of ordinary fugitive pieces. Among those which Darwin has published are some by Hayley and Cowper, signifying their equal and great admiration of one whose surpassing merit they willingly acknowledged. Hayley's popularity was at that time on the wane, and he could not but have perceived, that, in proportion as the highly-adorned style of Darwin was admired and applauded, his own writings would sink in the estimation of the public; but his mind in this respect was truly generous, and it seems never to have been darkened by a shade of envy. That Cowper should have expressed the same sincere admiration is more extraordinary, because he must have felt, more than Hayley was capable of feeling, the defects of a poem in which art was everywhere obtrusive, and the life and feeling of poetry nowhere to be found.