1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Sotheby

Walter Scott, in "Living Poets" Edinburgh Annual Register for 1808 (1810) 2:431-32.



It sometimes happens, that an ancient legend is so happily conducted as to unite interesting incident with simplicity of action, and supply to a modern poet the outline of a story which he cannot improve, otherwise than by shading and colouring it according to the taste of his own times. Such was the classical fable of Psyche, and such, in Gothic times, was the beautiful legend of Huon of Bourdeaux, the ground-work of Weiland's romance of Oberon. The German poet has happily found a congenial spirit in Mr. SOTHEBY, whose version of this fanciful and elegant romance is one of the best translations in our language. Sotheby has also distinguishes himself by original composition; and his poem, entitled Saul, ranks him among the successful imitators of Milton. The tone, however, of this biblical history is indifferently suited to the taste of the age. The simple dignity of the scripture narrative is lost without any thing very valuable being substituted in its room; and saint and sinner see with regret talents and fancy wasted upon a subject, which both agree in considering as alien to decoration. That decoration, notwithstanding, evinces taste and genius in the artist, and Saul, though neglected by the multitude, will long continue a favourite study with those who love English blank verse when skilfully varied and modulated. This class of admirers is now diminished, as well as the number of those who put their faith, and rest their pleasure, upon the heroic couplet to which Dryden gave dignity, and Pope sweetness. The intrusion of a variety of rhythms, some borrowed from the German, some from the Italian, some from the middle ages, some from the loose and unregulated Pindarics of the seventeenth century; — and still more, the general misuse of the older and more classical structure of verse, by the shoal of unskilful pretenders to the lyre, have in some measure rendered them unfashionable, if not obsolete. They are, however, natural to our language, and will resume their native superiority when they shall be employed by those who can imitate the numbers which first exhibited English blank verse, and the heroic couplet, with vigour and success. Mr. Sotheby is not altogether adequate to effect this revolution, yet his efforts are not unserviceable, but resemble those of the swimmer who supports the head of a drowning person, although unable to insure his safety by dragging him to the shore.