1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Leigh Hunt, in Feast of the Poets (1814) 69-72n.



Mr. Campbell seems to have hampered his better genius between the versification of others and the struggle to express his own thoughts in their natural language. I speak not of the Pleasures of Hope, which though abundant in promise, is a young and uninformed production in comparison with his subsequent performances: — but I am persuaded that nobody would ever have thought of comparing that poem with the Gertrude of Wyoming, or of undervaluing the latter in general, and regarding it as not answering the promise of his youth, if in quitting the ordinary versification of the day, he had not deviated into another imitation and got into the trammels of Spenser. The style perhaps is not so much an imitation of Spenser, as of Thomson, the imitator of Spenser; but the want of originality is certainly not lessened by this remove from the fountain-head. In Spenser's style and stanza there is undoubtedly a great deal of harmony and dignity, and specimens of almost every beauty of writing may be found in them; but they will hardly be pleasing now-a-days in a poem of any length, unless the subject involves a portion of the humourous or satirical, as in the School-Mistress and the Castle of Indolence, where the author looks through his seriousness with a smile, and the quaintnesses of the old poetry fall in with his lurking archness or his assumed importance. And the reasons would seem to he obvious; for not to dwell upon the inherent and unaccommodating faults of the stanza in a long English poem, such as it's tendency to circumlocution and its multitude of similar rhymes, it has always an air of direct imitation, which is unbefitting the dignity of an original seriousness; and it's old words and inversions contradict that freshness and natural flow of language, which we have a right to expect in the poet that would touch our affections. We demand, — not the copy of another's simplicity, but the simplicity of the speaker himself; — we want an unaffected, contemporaneous language, such as our ears and our hearts shall equally recognize, and such as our own feelings would utter, were they as eloquent as the poet's. The choice of this style is the more to be regretted in Mr. Campbell, because his genius evidently points to the most attractive sympathies of our nature, and his great talent lies in the pathetic. Indeed it is observable, how inevitably his own taste leads him to forget the imitative turn of his versification, whenever he has to describe some particular scene, in which the affections are interested; but the present stock of readers, who have had their ears spoiled by easy versification, will not readily consent to exchange it for one of a less accommodating description with additional difficulties. Of several styles of imitation that come before them, they will inevitably prefer that which comes easiest to their old habits; and this is one great reason why the productions of Mr. Walter Scott have outrun in popularity the coy loveliness of Gertrude of Wyoming, — the first poem, in my mind, of any length, that has been produced in the present day. — While I have been palled with the eternal sameness of Mr. Scott, and disgusted with the puerilities and affectations of Mr. Southey, I have read over and over again the Gertrude of Wyoming, and have paid it that genuine tribute, which the pride of manhood and the necessary habits of adversity are not much in the custom of lavishing.

In speaking of Mr. Campbell, his smaller pieces must not be forgotten. Their merits are very unequal, and some of them, written perhaps in early youth, seem altogether unworthy of his pen; but Hohenlinden, and the two naval songs, are noble pieces, beautifully dashed with the pathetic; and the Soldier's Dream is one of those heartfelt and domestic appeals, from which the fancy, after dwelling upon their tenderness, is suddenly glad to escape.