1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Percival Stockdale

Anonymous, in Review of Stockdale, Lectures on the truly eminent English Poets; Eclectic Review (March 1808) 220-22.



From the beginning of this work to the end, there is a total renunciation of all method and regularity; it exceeds all former examples of literary rambling. The author seems to go through the subject by a succession of purely casual motions, just as we used, when we were boys, to go through a wood picking nuts, where our turning to the right, or the left, or going forward or backward, was determined, at each step, by what happened to pop on our sight at the moment. He will go on perhaps one or two pages with tolerable propriety after some particular topic; this topic vanishes in turning the corner of some unlucky sentence; another starts up, and is eagerly pursued about the same length, when this also slides out of sight, and leaves the pursuer to chase any thing that happens to present itself next. He will begin perhaps with a flaming eulogium of a favourite poet; at the tenth or twelfth sentence, the name of Johnson may chance to come across him; this is sure to send him off in a violent invective against bigotry, the spleen, the prejudice, the want of taste, and the illiberality of the great critic; quickly the impulse takes a turn, and shoots him away from Johnson to strike impetuously against the stupidity of the age, and perhaps the flimsy works of its poets; through these he dashes in a moment, and is gone, almost before we can cry out for mercy for them, to attack booksellers, antiquarians, metaphysicians, priests, courts, tasteless ministers of state, and proud mean-spirited patrons; it is never long, however, before he reverts to himself, with new avowals of independence of judgment, of ardour for truth, and worship of genius, and with very equivocal expressions of a humble estimate of his powers to do justice to his undertaking. For fifty pages together there shall be no sign of progress, but the advancing figures at the top. We are kept in a most violent motion but cannot get on. An active boisterous kind of diction whirls the very same sentiments, praises, and invectives, in an everlasting eddy. Each eminent poet in the train is overwhelmed with a profuse repetition of the same epithets of magnificence, which are rather flung at him than applied to him. The gentle bards are actually pelted with praise; the favours of their eulogist are sent from a cross-bow, and impinge on the reverend personages with such a vengeance as to cause an echo through the whole temple of the muses. The impassioned violence of the author's manner, and his incomparably strange phraseology, prevent the continual recurrence of the same forms of undiscriminating applause and condemnation from acquiring exactly the appearance of common place. It is perceived indeed to be his commonplace; but it is so different from that of other writers, that it maintains a cast of novelty for a considerable time, and leads us further than we should have been induced to go, if the same endless repetition of sentiments so defective in intellectual force had invited us in ordinary language.

A certain expression of ingenuousness and sensibility in the author's character, makes us resist, as long as we can, the conviction that this turbulence of the language does not arise from a vigorous intellectual operation, agitating the composition by a rapid succession of new forms of energetic thought, but from an impetuosity of temperament, rendered still more vehement by a continual recurrence of the mind, in its desultory course, to the same ideas. When this conviction can no longer be escaped, we do wonder to observe with how small a portion of effectual thinking it is possible to write many hundred pages.

A constant extravagance is the most obvious feature of the performance. The author never thinks of using the sober established diction of simple criticism; his feelings are always in an ebullition, and running over with a fire and steam that drive off all other critics and admirers of poetry, who are virtually reproached with being as cold as arctic fishes. For epithets and enthusiasm, Longinus was a Scotch metaphysician in comparison.