Russell, as a poet, deserves to be placed among the foremost of those who, without originality of genius, have possessed an exquisite taste and discernment of what is best in others, together with the power of reflecting it in new and varied forms. His fancy had fed itself on the choicest stores of poetry, and his ear was tuned to the harmonies of Spenser, Milton, and Dryden; and fragments of their sounds he gives us back as from an echo, but so combined as to make a sweet music of his own. An instance of this may be taken in his Sonnet on Philoctetes:—
On this lone isle, whose rugged rocks affright
The cautious pilot, ten revolving years
Great Paean's son, unwonted erst to tears,
Wept o'er his wound: alike each rolling light
Of heaven he watch'd, and blamed its lingering flight,
By day the sea-mew screaming round his cave
Drove slumber from his eyes, the chiding wave
And savage howlings chased his dreams by night.
Hope still was his: in each low breeze that sigh'd
Through his rude grot, he heard a coming oar,
In each white cloud a coming sail he spied;
Nor seldom listen'd to the fancied roar
Of Oeta's torrents, or the hoarser tide
That parts famed Trochis from the Euboic shore.
The whole of this is exquisite. Nothing can be more like Milton than the close of it. When the first seats are taken by the great masters in the poetical art, we shall often be more gratified by those who are contented to place themselves and sing at their feet, than by others whose only ambition it is to have a chair of their own. If no one has been made great, many have at least been made pleasing, by skilful imitation. The first of the ancient tragedians, when he was complimented on the excellence of his works, modestly replied, that they were but the relics of Homer's feast. The avowal in his case was somewhat too humble. But, assuredly many a modern poet may be well satisfied with the praise of having provided us a slight though elegant entertainment from the table of our elder bards. Few have done this so happily as Russell. If we except Collins and Gray and Warton, it would be difficult to name one in that school of lyrical writing that sprang up in the latter part of the last century, by whom he has been equalled.
The name of Russell is still mentioned by his relatives and friends with such tenderness and regret as could be excited only by the liveliest recollections of virtues and abilities cut off in the full bloom of an exceeding promise. His knowledge of literature, ancient and modern, is described as having been extensive and various; his wit in conversation prompt and lively, but always chastened by a nice sense of decorum, and his manners so ingratiating as to have conciliated the notice and intimacy of those whose station was much superior to his own. With these endowments, and with those means of making them available, it is reasonable to suppose that, if he had lived, he would have distinguished himself in public life. He might, it is probable, have risen to the highest honours his profession had to bestow. As it is, he has left behind him that which is yet more valuable in the remembrance, the character of an amiable man and an ingenious writer. The little that remains of him entitles him to rank among the most pleasing of our minor lyrical poets.