1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. James Hurdis

Robert Southey, in "Sayers's Works" Quarterly Review 35 (1827) 201-04.



But however heartily and deservedly Cowper despised and hated the habit of imitation, his own delightful poem produced one imitator whom it was not possible for him to hate or to despise, and whom in reality he cordially esteemed and loved. Hurdis is a name now little remembered, but which does not deserve to be forgotten: for his poems, though ill conceived and carelessly composed, abound with images from nature, which show the eye of a poet, and with strains of natural feeling, which could only have proceeded from the heart of one. He was, indeed, a most amiable man, of the best and kindliest feelings, — avowedly an imitator of Cowper, but with a mind so much of the same kind and class, that, if Cowper had never written, the character of his poems would have been what it is, excepting, perhaps, that his style would have been less negligent if he had not been seduced by a dangerous, yet tempting example. He was conscious that he had fallen into this fault, and confessed that his first poem ought to have been written with more care. "Dum relego scripsisse pudet" was the motto which he prefixed; and disclaiming, at its conclusion, all desire of popular applause, which, he said, would be ill-deserved if it could be so easily obtained, he expressed a modest hope that he might one day hit some happy strain on his "time-mellowed harp," which should deserve to be remembered. A happier strain in its kind, than the following passage from that poem, would not easily be found:—

Then let the village bells, as often wont,
Come swelling on the breeze, and to the sun
Half set, sing merrily their evening song.
I ask not for the cause, — it matters not:
It is enough for me to hear the sound
Of the remote, exhilarating peal,
Now dying all away, now faintly heard,
And now, with loud and musical relapse,
In mellow changes huddling on the ear.
So have I stood at eve on Isis' banks,
To hear the merry Christchurch bells rejoice.
So have I sat, too, in thy honoured shades,
Distinguished Magdalen, on Cherwell's banks,
To hear thy silver Wolsey tones so sweet.
And so , too, have I paused, and held my oar,
And suffered the slow stream to bear me home,
While Wykeham's peal along the meadow ran.

All Hurdis's poems are defective in plan; they are desultory as The Task; but the pervading liveliness and vigour which give The Task its peculiar charm, and have made it deservedly one of the most popular productions in the English language, are wanting; and there is neither grace in the transitions, nor proportion in the parts. When he attempted a story, as in Adriano, not only genius, but good sense, seems to have deserted him; the silliness of the fable could only be equalled by the poverty and emptiness of the style, and the reader lays down the book in astonishment that it should have been possible for a scholar and a poet to have written anything so altogether worthless. For though there is a general character of feebleness which pervades his other poems, they contain passages of singular beauty, in which some natural image is vividly delineated, or some true feeling finely expressed.

His description of a smith at his forge is as elaborate as Darwin could have made it, and yet there is nothing cumbrous or bloated in the diction. This, indeed, is a mere display of language and versification — a trial of skill, in which he seems to have had Mason's rules before him:—

—Ingrateful sure,
When such the theme, becomes the poet's task:
Yet must he try by modulation meet,
Of varied cadence, and selected phrase,
Exact, yet free, without inflation bold,
To dignify that theme; must try to form
Such magic sympathy of sense with sound
As pictures all it sings; while Grace awakes
At each blest touch, and on the lowliest things
Scatters her rainbow hues.

But this is a merit to which the mere artist may attain. It is the poet only who could have observed how the owl in quest of prey,

—with sleepy wing
Swims o'er the corn-field studious;

it is only the poet who would have noted,

—the grazing ox
His dewy supper from the savoury herb
Audibly gathering:

and the redbreast, when in winter "the household bird, with the red stomacher," as an elder poet calls him, "Sits budge, a feathery bunch:" it is the poet only who would have described the sea as "Raking with harsh recoil the pebbly steep;" it is the poet only who would say of himself, when he has ascended the downs,

It shall not grieve me if the gust be free,
And to withstand its overbearing gale
I lean upon the tide of air unseen:

who looking at a churchyard, would speak of

—youth and age
And sexes mingled in the populous soil,
Till it o'erlooks with swoln and ridgy brow
The smoother crop below:

and who, in thinking of a church, could bring forward with a charm of novelty, the oldest and most familiar of all its moral illustrations:—

Say, ancient edifice, thyself with years
Grown gray, how long upon the hill has stood
Thy weather-braving tower, and silent mark'd
The human leaf inconstant bud and fall;
The generations of deciduous man,
How often hast thou seen them pass away?

Hurdis describes himself as having been "A silent, shame-faced, hesitating boy." He was a meek, gentle, affectionate spirit, in which no worldly ambition could have place; he seems not even to have felt it in the art which he loved, but to have practised poetry for its own sake, indulging in it as the natural expression of warm, and innocent, and virtuous feelings, without an aspiration or a wish for fame, contented in a humble station, and thankful for the blessings which he enjoyed in it:

Leisure and freedom, and a mind at ease,
Books, and the shady vale, and evening's walk,
Cheerful companions, and the sweet return
Of music ever various. Who needs more? &c.

This was the temper which Hurdis expressed in his verses, and it was not contradicted by the tenour of his life. The Queen was pleased with the poems of this very amiable man; and some years after his death, when such of them as were deemed worthy of being collected were re-published by his surviving sisters, (to whom he had been most affectionately attached,) it was notified to them, without any solicitation on their part, that they might be dedicated to her Majesty. With the exception of Adriano, they ought to be inserted in any future collection of the British Poets.