1835 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Pinkerton

Robert Southey, in Life and Works of Cowper (1835-37) 7:297-302.



This book [Letters of Literature] which provoked Cowper's astonishment and indignation was written by Pinkerton, though it was said in the title-page to be by Robert Heron, Esq. He assumed the name of Heron because it was his mother's. An unfavourable opinion was formed of the author, from the spirit in which the book was written, and the opinions which were implied in it; and an unfortunate Robert Heron, who began his literary career about the same time, and whose sad story has been recorded by Mr. D'Israeli as an example of The Calamities of Authors, is said to have suffered by the prejudice which had been thus excited against his name.

Horace Walpole expressed a very flattering opinion of this book to the author. He says, "I scarce ceased from reading till I had finished it; so admirable I found it, and so full of good sense, brightly delivered. Nay, I am pleased with myself too, for having formed the same opinions with you on several points, in which we do not agree with the generality of men. On some topics, I confess frankly, I do not concur with you; considering how many you have touched, it would be wonderful if we agreed on all, or I should not be sincere if I said I did. There are others on which I have formed no opinion; for I should give myself an impertinent air, with no truth, if I pretended to have any knowledge of many subject, of which, young as you are, you seem to have made yourself master. Indeed, I have gone deeply into nothing, and therefore shall not discuss those heads on which we differ most; as probably I should not defend my own opinions well. I assure you I could write a letter ten times as long, if I were to specify all I like in your work. I more than like most of it, and I am charmed with your glorious love of liberty, and your other humane and noble sentiments."

George Hardinge, also, is said to have been an admirer of these Letters of Literature. They bore marks of considerable reading, and of greater pretensions; — of much ability, and of more presumptuousness. The author considered Pindar as "extravagance itself," and said that Dryden's Ode was worth all Pindar's, "as a large diamond is worth a vast heap of gold." Upon Petrarch he says, "the stated form and measure of the sonnet is so disgustingly similar, that I believe no man of genius would now write twenty in a life time." He speaks with contempt of Cardinal de Retz's Memoirs; says that Moliere, in attempting to introduce laughter into the French comedy, blundered upon mere farce; praises Jean Baptiste Rousseau as one of those writers without whom the French would have no poetry; suspects that the fame of Thomson's Seasons would not last long; and censures Goldsmith's two comedies, as being "composed of low humour and dullness and absurdity, more dull and absurd than English sentimental comedy itself." "Style", he said, "had preserved Herodotus in spite of his absurdities; and style had saved Virgil entirely, who has not the most distant pretence to any other attribute of a poet. "Indeed," said he, "I never look into Virgil but with utter disgust." Yet he was sometimes right in his critical opinions: he praised the Castle of Indolence; he vindicated Tasso against Boileau and Addison; he always found fresh delight in reading Homer. The better parts of the book, indeed, deserved the praise which Horace Walpole bestowed upon it.

The passage which most offended Cowper (and most justly) was that in which Pinkerton involved the scriptural poetry in the condemnation which he passed upon eastern writings in general. "In all ages," he says, "the poetry of the Asiatics has been strained to bombast, and glittering with all the beauties of absurdity, from the most ancient epoch down to our own times." One who is unacquainted with the Oriental languages may be inclined to agree in this opinion, judging by what has been translated, but there are large allowances to be made; and nothing is more remarkable than the difference between the Hebrew and all other Oriental poetry, — the Canticles alone excepted. Pinkerton, however, attacked those writers who, "in their fondness of enthusiasm," he said, "would fain find holy writ as eminent in composition as in sanctity. When they attempt to debauch our taste by commenting on the beautiful and grand passages of scripture, they are forced to relinquish every rule of sound sense." "But I am afraid of being tedious on a subject so clear, and shall return in observing, that for absurd and filthy imagery, (witness some parts of Ezekiel, the best of the sacred writers,) the scripture yields to no composition in any language; but of sublime or beautiful style, I can from that work produce no proofs. Writers who hold it up in that ludicrous view, do as great harm to religion as to good taste; it resembles the dressing of a pious and worthy clergyman in the garments of a hero or of a lovely woman; and then telling us he hath the sublimity of the one and the beauty of the other, whereas it only puts him in an awkward light, and brings derision and contempt upon his holy character."

The most remarkable part of Pinkerton's book is his scheme for improving and fixing the English language, — a scheme which will always secure for these Letters a place among the Curiosities of Literature. The plan was, "that the king should incorporate one hundred, or indeed all, of the most learned men in the kingdom, or they should associate themselves, under the name of The Academy for Improving the Language. The great intent should be to soften and tune the English speech as much as possible: new modes of spelling, and new uses of vowels ought to be adopted. The Academy should publish a grammar and dictionary, in which the new orthography should be used; and all the members, and indeed all the literati in the kingdom, should unite to assert their proper power over the mob. — And perhaps a thousand years hence, when the British power may be no more, the language would survive; an event, which it may be feared, cannot be effected even by Milton and Shakespeare, if the speech remain in its present rude state. The sole intention should be to improve our orthography, and give us a number of vowel terminations. The 'e' should in particular be always pronounced as in 'the.' I look upon Greek as the most perfect language, both for strength and melody, that ever was known: now in Greek, I have found that the vowel terminations of words, taken as they run in any book, are equal to one third of the language. In English they amount but to one fourth: it follows that we want vowel terminations for about eight thousand words. How are they to be supplied?

"Suppose a for all plurals instead of 's', — 'pena' for 'pens,' 'papera' for 'papers,' &c. 'O' is a fine close, and very rare in our language. Suppose it given to all substantives ending in harsh consonants, as in 'b,' 'crabo,' 'stabo,' 'webo'; in 'c,' 'publico'; in 'd,' 'commando'; in 'g,' 'flago,' 'eggo'; in 'm,' 'epigramo'; in 'p,' 'carpo'; in 't,' 'anto,' 'facto.' The 'ch' is 'shocking' and 'chocking,' and throwing out the 'h' is entitled to 'o' even in adjectives, as 'leeco' for 'leech,' 'rico' for 'rich.' The 'ck' is horrid, and must omit the 'k' in every instance, and take the 'o' in all adjectives and substantives, 'ss' 'quaco,' 'saco.' Passing over other rules of alteration, it will suffice to exhibit part of a well known paper in the Spectator, as translated by the improver himself into the improved language.

"When I waz ato Grand Cairo, I picked up several orientala manuscripta, whica I have still by me. Among othera, I met with one entitulen Thea Visiona of Mirza, whica, I have redd ove with great pleasure. I intend to give ito to the publico, when I have no other entertainmento fo them; ando shall begin with the first vision, whico I have translaten wordo fo wordo az followeth.

"On the fifth day of the moon whico, according to the customo, of mya forefathera, I alway keep holi, aftero having washen myself, ando offeren up mya mornings, devotiona, I ascended thea hia hilla of Bagdat, in ordero to pas the resta of the day in meditation ando prayero. Az I waz here airing myself on thea topa of thea mountains, I fell into a profound contemplation on the vanite of human life; ando passing fro one thote to anothero, Surely, said I, man is buto a shadow, ando life a dreamo. While I waz thuso musing, I cast mina eyea towardo the summito of a roco, tha waz noto faro fro me, where I discovered one in the habito of a shepherdo, with a letel musical instrumento in his hando. Az I looked upo him, be applied ito to hiza lipa, ando began to play upo ito. The soundo of ito waz exceeding sweet, ando, wrote into a variete of tuna tha were inexpressibly melodiouza, ando alto differenta fro any thing I had eve heard. They put me in mindo of those heavenlea aira, tha are playen to thea departen soula of good men, upo their first arrival in Paradise, to wear out thea impressiona of theira lasta agonea, ando qualifie them fo thea pleasura of tha happi place. My hearto melted away in secreta rapturea.

The Pseudo-Robert Heron received the grateful acknowledgement of one correspondent, who had often "regretted that our nervous language should be so crowded and set a-jar with harsh superfluous consonants, but never hoped to see a scheme advanced to the public effectually to refine and harmonise our northern tongue, by substituting throughout for those grating and hissing finals, melodious vowel terminations. "Every person," he said, "who hath an ear in the least attuned to harmony, and hath mastered habitude and prejudice, must be delighted with the improvement illustrated in the subjoined specimen." But he suggested some alterations in the plan, and thought that a "kinda mothera" would be more elegant than a "kindo mothero," and that the plural might be somewhat diversified, as "kindi fatheri," "kindai motherai," "honesta shepherda" and "sheperdeza," "honestai shepherdai" and "shepherdezai." The old proverb, however, was not verified in this instance, and Pinkerton appears to have made no other convert than this Cornish clergyman.

Horace Walpole had respect enough for Pinkerton's abilities and acquirements, to reason with him seriously upon so preposterous a scheme. "To change 's' for 'a,'" said he, "in the plural number of our substantives and adjectives would be so violent an alteration, that I believe neither the power of Power, nor the power of Genius, would be able to effect it. In most cases I am convinced that very strong innovations are more likely to make impression than small and almost imperceptible differences, as in religion, medicine, politics, &c.; but I do not think that language can be treated in the same manner, especially in a refined age. When a nation first emerges from barbarism, two or three masterly writers may operate wonders; and the fewer the number of writers, as the number is small at such a period, the more absolute is their authority. But when a country has been polishing itself for two or three centuries, and when consequently authors are innumerable, the most supereminent genius (or whoever is esteemed so, though without foundation,) possesses very limited empire, and is far from meeting implicit obedience. Every petty writer will contest very novel institutions; every inch of change in any language will be disputed; and the language will remain as it were longer than the tribunal which should dictate very heterogeneous alterations. With regard to adding 'a' or 'o' to final consonants, consider, sir, should the usage he adopted, what havoc would it make! All our poetry would be defective in metre, or would become at once as obsolete as Chaucer; and could we promise ourselves that, though we should acquire better harmony, and more rhymes, we should have a new crop of poets, to replace Milton, Dryden, Gray, and I am sorry you will not allow me to add — Pope? You might enjoin our prose to be reformed, as you have done by the Spectator; but try Dryden's Ode by your new institution."

These remarks, thus kindly and indeed condescendingly offered by one whose place in literature and in public opinion entitled him to respect, had probably their due weight. But follies of this kind are soon outgrown. Pinkerton became a considerable person in his day, and, notwithstanding all his faults, rendered some service to the history and the literature of his country.