1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Lisle Bowles

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 54-59.



Bowles was an inferior artist to Rogers, although taste and elegance are also the chief features of his poetry. His early reputation was founded on his sentimental and reflective verses; and these may still be ranked among his happier efforts. Probably, from old associations, I have a sort of lurking fondness for his Grave of Howard, his Abba Thule, and The Elegy at Matlock, which their intrinsic merits may not quite entitle them to; but more certain I am that St Michael's Mount and Coombe Ellen are two descriptive poems of high merit, whether regarded as the genial outpourings of youthful enthusiasm, or as elegant and tasteful specimens of versification. The Sonnets, through many years, however, were the sheet-anchors of Bowles's fame and fine though some of them must be admitted to be, it is yet difficult to account for the impression which assuredly — because we have it from spontaneous personal confession — they made on minds much more lofty and vigorous in imagination than his own. Colderidge had them by heart and not only made forty autograph copies of them for his particular friends, but declared himself "enthusiastically delighted and inspired by them:" while in the recently published Life of Robert Southey, by his son Cuthbert, we find him also saying, in a letter to their author, that "there are three contemporaries, the influence of whose poetry on my own I can distinctly trace — Sayers, yourself, and Savage Loader. I owe you something, therefore, on the score of gratitude." Bowles requires no higher credentials for the legitimacy of his mission; for no uninspired poet ever inspired others. That the flames from a small, rude Indian wigwam may carry conflagration to a whole district-embowering prairie, is quite another matter; the kindling spark alone is wanted — and in poetry genius is that sole desiderated spark. Southey and Coleridge acknowledge having borrowed fire from Bowles to ignite their tinder — ergo, Bowles must have been a poet.

The latter and more ambitious efforts of Lisle Bowles — for he wrote at least four long poems — could not be said to have been thoroughly, that is, eminently successful. In all, passages of tender sentiment and fine description abound; but, on the whole, they were more the pumpings up, than the pourings out, of genius. His mind possessed more elegance than vigour; was rather reflective than imaginative. He is deficient in variety; and he ventured not, like Crabbe, to paint things exactly as he saw them; hence there is a sameness about his outlines that savours of mannerism. His familiar walk was amid the gentler affections of our nature; but his tenderness seldom rises into passion; or it is merely the anger of the dove, "Pecking the hand that hovers o'er its mite." The Attic taste of his scholarship seemed to trammel that enthusiasm essential for the creation of high lyric poetry; and in this he resembles Thomas Warton — to whom, in his descriptive sketches, as well as in his chivalresque tendencies, he bore a greater resemblance than to any other author.

The first of Bowles's larger poems, The Spirit of Discovery by Sea — which comprehends all navigators from Noah downwards — was a daring subject, but treated with distinguished ability; and, taken as whole, is perhaps the best. The Missionary, founded on a romantic incident in South American history, is principally valuable from its many admirable pictures of that varied and gorgeous region. The Grave of the Last Saxon, a historico-romantic poem, relating to the times of William the Conqueror and the sons of Harold, is more ambitious in design, is pervaded throughout by a fine antique tone — for Bowles was somewhat of an antiquarian of the Sylvanus Urban school — and is full of chivalrous "renown and knightly worth." His last laborious effort was Banwell Hill, or Days Departed — principally to be regarded as a loco-descriptive poem, redolent of fine English scenery, which a Gainsborough might have painted and of rural manners, which in gentle beauty contrast brightly with the sterner and more rugged portraitures of Crabbe. The striking Cornish legend of The Spectre and the Prayer-Book, originally published under the fictitious name of Dr. Macleod, was afterwards incorporated with the work of which it now forms the conclusion.

Sixty years ago — "Eheu fugaces, Posthume, labuntur anni!" — many of the shorter productions of Bowles were great favourites with the young and the sentimental, ere supplanted by the more spirit-stirring lays of Scott and Byron. His Villager's Verse-Book had for its admirable object the connecting the most obvious images of country life with the earliest impressions of humanity and piety. Several of these little effusions are very beautiful, and are quite equal in poetical merit to the Hymns for Childhood by Mrs. Hemans; although it must be confessed that neither Bowles nor Mrs. Hemans quite understood the mode of writing merely for children. Both are continually shooting beyond the mark, and seem loath to sacrifice a good idea, simply because it is incompatible with the purpose in hand; and they are consequently, in that department, much inferior in success alike to Mrs. Barbauld in her Hymns in Prose, and to Anne and Jane Taylor, in their appropriately titled Hymns for Infant Minds.

Bowles was deficient in the passion and imagination which command great things; but he was, notwithstanding, a true poet. He had a fine eye for the beautiful and the true; and, although his enthusiasm was tempered, we never miss a cordial sympathy with whatever is pure, noble, and generous — for his heart was in the right place. Writers of ephemeral reputation fall with the circumstances to which they owed their rise; but no man who has been giving some measure of delight to thousands, through two or three generations — and Bowles has done so — can be altogether a deception. Casual topics may insure present success; but poetical fame is not, cannot be founded on these, however a few apparent exceptions may seem to favour such a supposition — as those of Butler, of Churchill, and of Anstey — for all these were true poets. Grand principles alone insure permanency. The human heart and its sympathies being the same front age to age, it requires only the "touch of nature to make all flesh kin;" but passing purposes are accomplished by passing means. Ere a century has elapsed, the gigantic reputation of Swift is dwarfed by that distance which extinguishes court ladies, ribanded senators, political clubs, and personal squabbles about coin and currency; and Dr. Wolcot — the Peter Pindar whose dread satires are said to have caused his being pensioned off in the reign of George the Third — is now as utterly forgotten (although scarcely deservedly so, for he wrote a few good things in quite another and higher vein) as if he had flourished in the reign of Hardicanute.

The following lines from The Grave of Howard sufficiently indicate Bowles's general manner:—

When o'er the sounding Euxine's stormy tides
In hostile pomp the Turk's proud navy rides,
Bent, on the frontiers of the imperial Czar,
To pour the tempest of vindictive war;
If onward to those shores they haply steer
Where, Howard, thy cold dust reposes near,
Whilst o'er the wave the silken pennants stream,
And seen far off the golden crescents gleam,
Amid the pomp of war, the swelling breast
Shall feel a still unwonted awe impress'd,
And the relenting Pagan turn aside
To think — on yonder shore the Christian died!

But thou, O Briton doomed, perhaps, to roam
An exile many a year, and far from home,
If ever fortune thy lone footsteps leads
To the wild Dnieper's banks and whispering reeds,
O'er Howard's grave thou shalt impassion'd bend,
As if to hold sad converse with a friend.
Whate'er thy fate upon this various scene,
Where'er thy weary pilgrimage has been,
There shalt thou pause, and shutting from thy heart
Some vain regrets that oft unbidden start,
Think upon him, to every lot resign'd,
Who wept, who toil'd, who perish'd for mankind.

In the famous Bowles, Campbell, and Byron controversy, regarding the invariable principles of poetry, I have always felt convinced that Bowles had distinctly the better of his two more celebrated antagonists, both of whom were net only indifferent logicians, but were ever arguing directly in the teeth of their own practice; for what are The Pleasures of Hope, Gertrude of Wyoming, O'Connor's Child, — what the Childe Harold, The Corsair, Manfred, — but splendid illustrative examples of the tenets which Bowles upheld? He maintained that images drawn from the sublime and beautiful in nature are more poetical than any drawn from art; and that the passions and aspirations of man's heart belong to a higher class of associations than those derived from incidental and transient manners or modes of life; — in short, that Pope's Epistle of Eloise was intrinsically loftier poetry than The Rape of the Lock, Byron's Prisoner of Chillon than his English Bards, and Campbell's Mariners of England than his Mobbiad. The battle against Bowles was maintained by his opponents shirking their main position, and attacking hum on the lower ground of his not having allotted due importance to poetic art, — that command which the poet ought to have over his materials. This may or may not have been the case at all events, it is only one of the subsidiary issues of the argument; and it was simply by ingeniously, evading the main topic of controversy, that Byron, Campbell, Roscoe, Gilchrist, and the host of pamphleteers whom they succeeded in calling into the field — by keeping up a sort of bush-fighting — brought matters at last to an ignoble truce. That Bowles was once or twice entrapped into unwary admissions, I admit; but, on the whole, he showed himself a much more expert master of fence — a far abler, subtler, and more logical disputant than any of those who attempted to answer his arguments.