1799 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Francis Noel Clarke Mundy

Anna Seward to Francis Noel Clarke Mundy, 6 May 1799; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 5:221-25.



Lichfield, May 6, 1799.

Your mind, then, is still sore from the tasteless reception, given by the reviewers of that period, to the youthful effusions of your poetic fancy. You tell me that you still cannot help feeling, as an injury, the solicitations you received from the late illustrious Thomas Warton and his brother, to publish them. And is not the warm applause of such men as Thomas Warton and his brother, an host of defence in poetic appreciation, that crushes to nothing the condemnation of all the reviewers that ever talked malignant nonsense about verse, since first anonymous criticism became a trade? Ought one of the most beautiful local poems in our language for ever to be detained within the limits of a partial publication, a private press, because they had condemned what the Wartons had admired?

Your Elegies to Laura, in that volume of your causeless repentance, are as natural and beautiful as the Love Elegies of Hammond, which are less original, borrowing, as they do, so largely from Tibullus.

When I was at Buxton with my dear Honora Sneyd, in the summer 1769, those elegies were first introduced to me and to her, before whose young eyes, for she was then only eighteen, no poetic grace, or defect, passed unnoticed. The present Dr. Falconer of Bath was of our party. He had a strong mind, and was then an enthusiast in the charms of beautiful verse. He repeated, by heart, not detached parts, but the whole of your Elegies to Laura, then recently published. They received no advantage from his recitation, which was not harmonious; yet they charmed us. They must have possessed no common share of poetic beauty to induce a man of taste and learning to commit them to memory entire.

Recollect that the two noblest lyric odes the world has produced, Gray's Bard, and his Eolian Lyre, were abused, on their first appearance, by all the hireling periodical critics of that period, as turgid and obscure; that the elegant Lloyd and nervous Churchill, were employed in writing burlesque parodies upon them, which were read, enjoyed, and admired by the multitude, just as the witty Loves of the Triangles are at present.

Can you take up a review, or magazine, without meeting criticism on poetry which outrages every thing like taste, feeling, or even commonsense? One lies before me at this moment. It is the New London Review for last April, the present year. I am tempted to transcribe from it the following curious sentences.

"We have little blank verse in our language which delights the ear of taste, if we except the Handel-harmonies of Milton, and that delicious music in some of Shakespeare's lines, which equally enchant us with the sweetness and beauty of the thought. The golden lines of Rowe are not to be forgotten as models of that kind of verse which approaches the language of conversation, and is adapted to the freedom and expression of dramatic and descriptive poetry. Akenside is perhaps an echo, but an exquisite echo, of the tones of Milton. Armstrong exhibits a versification condensed, terse, and didactic; but such blank verse as Thomson's has nothing of poetry but its images, its descriptions, and its expressions; it is not musical."

Now, you are perfectly aware that the abundance and variety of our fine blank verse, is the first and grandest boast of English poetry; — no two species of which demands a more different style than the dramatic and the descriptive, which this critic so absurdly couples. Akenside is a fine writer; but so far from being an echo of Milton, that no measures of blank verse can be more dissimilar. Then what a "but" about Thomson!!! It is like the Lincolnshire fen-man, who, when Mr. Sneyd asked him how he liked the country about Wolesley Bridge, said, "Not at all; here is nothing but hills, and dales, and rocks, and rivers, and woods."

Then what a Midas-assertion, that Thomson has no music in his numbers! Occasional harshness there must be in so long a composition as the Seasons, but the numbers are varied and harmonious even to luxury. It is no wonder than an ear and judgment, so dull as to be insensible of their mingled grandeur and sweetness, should forget the blank verse of Otway, of Young, of Mason, of Cowper, of Crowe, and of Jephson.

I did not recollect that Pope had ever called his muse names. In the instance you have quoted, he was as ungrateful as a certain friend of mine, who believed the reviewers rather than Thomas Warton. In respect to your question. "Can there be too much real or any affected humility in speaking of my own verses, when I think of the great poets this nation has produced?" I reply, — that in the poetic house there are many mansions — in the poetic heaven many orbits. Jupiter and Venus are not so bright as the sun, yet there is no justice in saying they are not brighter than farthing candles; — and would you blot them from the hemisphere? — I remain, &c.