1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Leigh Hunt, "Mr. Campbell" Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries (1828) 274-77.



They who know Mr. Campbell only as the author of Gertrude of Wyoming, and the Pleasures of Hope, would not suspect him to be a merry companion, overflowing with humour and anecdote, and any thing but fastidious. These Scotch poets have always something in reserve. It is the only point in which the major part of them resemble their countrymen. The mistaken character which the lady formed of Thomson from his Seasons, is well known. He let part of the secret out in his Castle of Indolence; and the more he let out, the more honour it did to the simplicity and cordiality of the poet's nature, though not always to the elegance of it. Allan Ramsay knew his friends Gay and Somerville as well in their writings, as he did when he came to be personally acquainted with them; but Allan, who had bustled up from a barber's shop into a bookseller's, was "a cunning shaver;" and nobody would have guessed the author of the Gentle Shepherd to be penurious. Let none suppose that any insinuation to that effect is intended against Mr. Campbell. He is one of the few men whom I could at any time walk half-a-dozen miles through the snow to spend an afternoon with; and I could no more do this with a penurious man, than I could with a sulky one. I know but of one fault he has, besides an extreme cautiousness in his writings; and that one is national, a matter of words, and amply overpaid by a stream of conversation, lively, piquant, and liberal, not the less interesting for occasionally betraying an intimacy with pain, and for a high and somewhat strained tone of voice, like a man speaking with suspended breath, and in the habit of subduing his feelings. No man, I should guess, feels more kindly towards his fellow-creatures, or takes less credit for it. When he indulges in doubt and sarcasm, and speaks contemptuously of things in general, he does it, partly, no doubt, out of actual dissatisfaction, but more perhaps than he suspects, out of a fear of being thought weak and sensitive; which is a blind that the best men very commonly practise. Mr. Campbell professes to be hopeless and sarcastic, and takes pains all the while to set up an university.

When I first saw this eminent person, he gave me the idea of a French Virgil. Not that he is like a Frenchman, much less the French translator of Virgil. I found him as handsome, as the Abbe Delille is said to have been ugly. But he seemed to me to embody a Frenchman's ideal notion of the Latin poet; something a little more cut and dry than I had looked for; compact and elegant, critical and acute, with a consciousness of authorship upon him; a taste over-anxious not to commit itself, and refining and diminishing nature as in a drawing-room mirror. This fancy was strengthened in the course of conversation, by his expatiating on the greatness of Racine. I think he had a volume of the French Tragedian in his hand. His skull was sharply cut and fine; with plenty, according to the phrenologists, both of the reflective and amative organs: and his poetry will bear them out. For a lettered solitude, and a bridal properly got up, both according to law and luxury, commend us to the lovely Gertrude of Wyoming. His face and person were rather on a small scale; his features regular; his eye lively and penetrating; and when he spoke, dimples played about his mouth, which nevertheless had something restrained and close in it. Some gentle puritan seemed to have crossed the breed, and to have left a stamp on his face, such as we often see in the female Scotch face rather than the male. But he appeared not at all grateful for this; and when his critiques and his Virgilianism were over, very unlike a puritan he talked! He seemed to spite his restrictions; and out of the natural largeness of his sympathy with things high and low, to break at once out of Delille's Virgil into Cotton's, like a boy let loose from school. When I have the pleasure of hearing him now, I forget his Virgilianisms, and think only of the delightful companion, the unaffected philanthropist, and the creator of a beauty worth all the heroines in Racine.

Mr. Campbell has tasted pretty sharply of the good and ill of the present state of society, and for a book-man has beheld strange sights. He witnessed a battle in Germany from the top of a convent (on which battle he has written a noble ode); and he saw the French cavalry enter a town, wiping their bloody swords on the horses' manes. Not along ago he was in Germany again, I believe to purchase books; for in addition to his classical scholarship, and his other languages, he is a reader of German. The readers there, among whom he is popular, both for his poetry and his love of freedom, crowded about him with affectionate zeal; and they gave him, what he does not dislike, a good dinner. There is one of our writers who has more fame than he; but not one who enjoys a fame equally wide, and without drawback. Like many of the great men in Germany, Schiller, Wieland, and others, he has not scrupled to become editor of a magazine; and his name alone has given it among all circles a recommendation of the greatest value, and such as makes it a grace to write under him.