1786 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charlotte Smith

Anna Seward to Miss Weston, 20 July 1786; in Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 1:162-63.



Lichfield, July 20, 1786.

Yes, truly, dear Sophia, our public critics are curious deciders upon poetic claims. Smiled you not to see the reviewer of verse, in a late Gentleman's Magazine, gravely pronouncing, "that it is trifling praise for Mrs. Smith's sonnets to pronounce them superior to Shakespeare's and Milton's? O! rare panegyrist! Such praise may vie, as an offering at the shrine of dulness, with the censure which the Monthly Review passed on Jephson's noble tragedy, the Count of Narbonne, and with that fulminated in the Critical one against the first fair blooms of Mr. Stevens's poetic talents, his charming poem, Retirement. Thus it is that the extremes of unfeeling censure, and of hyperbolic encomium, meet in one sickening point of absurdity.

'Tis such the goddess hears with special grace,
While veils of fogs dilate her awful face.

You say Mrs. Smith's sonnets are pretty; — so say I; — "pretty" is the proper word; pretty tuneful centos from our various poets, without anything original. All the lines that are not the lines of others are weak and unimpressive; and these hedge-flowers to be preferred, by a critical dictator, to the roses and amaranths of the two first poets the world has produced!!! — It makes one sick.

The allegory in this lady's Origin of Flattery, is to me wholly incomprehensible: — Why Venus should take the helmet of Mars, for a vessel in which to make the oil of flattery, I cannot understand. You will find all that is tolerable in this poem taken from Hesiod's rise of Woman, translated by Parnel.

Much, indeed very much, above every thing Mrs. Smith has published, are the poems of Helen Williams. We trace in them true sensibility of heart, and the genuine fire of an exalted imagination. Who would not forgive to their sparkling effervescence the occasional want of metaphoric accuracy, with all the other juvenile errors of a judgment as yet unripened by time?