1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Emily

Robert Southey, in "Sayers's Works" Quarterly Review 35 (1827) 194-95.



A singular dearth of celebrated names ensues, for of those who should have been the flower of their generation, the most promising were nipt in the bud. To speak of Chatterton—

—the marvellous boy,
The sleepless soul that perished in its pride,

is to touch upon a name, from which time neither has taken, nor will lake any of its interest. Michael Bruce is known, thanks to good Dr. Anderson, for giving the remains of this affectionate and hopeful youth a place in his edition of the British Poets. But when Emily is mentioned, and Russell, and Bampfylde, how many are there who will ask, what have they written? and where are their works to be found? They have written little, for

In the morning of hope, in the blossom of virtue and genius,
They were cut down by death:

but little as they have left, that little will be found after many days. The single poem of Emily which remains is upon Death; it was written for a Cambridge prize, and failed to obtain it, that of Porteus (afterwards the Bishop) being successful. We should say they were the two most promising and vigorous productions which were ever elicited by a prize-subject, if we did not recollect the Aboriginal Britons of Dr. Richards. The successful piece was the better planned and fairly deserved the prize, but there was more originality and greater power in Emily's. Vicesimus Knox preserved it in the first edition of his Elegant Extracts; but it was cast out we believe from the later ones — certainly not to make room for anything better. The poems of Russell and Bampfylde were included in the collection edited by Mr. Park some twenty years ago; a collection which unfortunately was not completed according to the design of its editor, (the most competent to whom such a task has ever yet been assigned,) but which has the great merit of being the only one in which proper, or indeed any, attention was paid to the correctness of the text. There are many writers of that age from whose poems a sweet anthology might be culled, but from the remains of Russell and Bampfylde not a line can be spared.

Emily, who seems, in some degree, like Kirke White, to have had a forefeeling of his own early decease, has beautifully described the [Greek characters] of a good man falling asleep when the number of his days is full—

Thrice happy who the blameless road along
Of honest praise, hath reached the vale of death!
Around him like ministrant cherubs throng
His better actions, to the parting breath
Singing their blessed requiems; he the while,
Gently reposing on some friendly breast
Breathes out his benisons, then with a smile
Of soft complacence lays him down to rest,
Calm as a slumbering infant: from the goal
Free and unbounded flies the disembodied soul.

He might have found a topic not less suited to the best purposes of poetry, (that of soothing the heart and elevating and purifying its desires,) in the early death of such gifted persons as himself. Premature such deaths are called in common and natural language, and premature, according to the ordinary course of nature, they must needs appear, and are: but mournful as it is thus to behold the dearest, and fairest, and noblest of our earthly hopes cut off, the religious mind acquiesces in the dispensations of Providence, oven while suffering under them to the height of grief, and feels in that grief itself sufficient reason for acknowledging that happy are they who die in their youth. It was the prayer of a wise and good man, that God would be pleased to make him better, and take him when he was at the best. There are cases in which the lessons of a long life might not be so impressive as the example of a brief one. Early death invests with a peculiar sanctity the objects of our affection, and of our admiration also, which partakes of affection whenever it is worthily fixed. The strong and influential interest which has been excited by Chatterton and Kirke White arises as much from the thought of what they might have produced had their lives been prolonged, as from the remains which they have left; in, the former instance, perhaps, more so.