1845 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

George Gilfillan, in Gallery of Literary Portraits (1845) 241-43.



Campbell is par excellence the poet of the fair sex. There are no works which are more relished by cultivated females. His flight rises precisely to that pitch where they are able fully and gracefully to follow. The manly elegance, moreover, of his mental costume; the unaffected and becoming purity of his speech, so distinct from finical purism; the homage done to the private affections and gentle domestic ties, — these being the qualities which please them in a man, are sure to fascinate them in a poet. Gertrude of Wyoming has brought this enviable kind of popularity to a point. It strives to embody all the quiet, without the insipidity of domestic life; and by the picturesque accompaniments of American woods, flageolets echoing from romantic towns, war-drums beard in the distance, tomahawks flashing in the sunset, Indians bursting across the stage, it does, to some extent, relieve that tedium and common-place, through which too often "glides the calm current of domestic joy." It is not, however, on the whole, an artistically finished work. It has no story; at least the tale it tells has little interest or novelty, and is somewhat wire-drawn. The characters are rather insipid. Gertrude's father is a volcano burnt out. Gertrude herself is a pretty, romantic Miss of Pall Mall, dropt down by the side of the Susquehannah, where, undismayed by the sight of the dim aboriginal woods, she pulls out her illustrated copy of Shakspere, and, with rapt look, and hand elegantly lost in the tangles of her hair, proceeds to study the character of Imogen, or Lady Macbeth, or Mrs. Ann Page. Her lover is a "curled darling," who has gone the grand tour — has seen the world, and returned, like a good-mannered youth, from the saloons of London, and the carnivals of Venice, in search of this beauty of the woods. Of Brandt something might have been made, but nothing is. The poet thinks him hardly company for Master Henry the picturesque, and Miss Gertrude the romantic. Even Outalissi, ere qualified for intercourse with these paragons, must have his whiskers clipped, his nails pared, and become a sentimental savage, who shall go off with a fine nasal twang, (talking in his pathetic death-song, by the way, of a clock that had found out the perpetual motion; for surely more than eight days had elapsed from the departure of the happy pair to the last song of the Indian, and yet he says, "Unheard their clock repeats its hours.") Nevertheless, the poem contains some of Campbell's finest things — brief and sudden escapes of his richest vein. What can be finer than such lines as the following:—

Led by his dusky guide, like morning brought by night.

Till now in Gertrude's eyes their ninth blue summer shone.

Nor far some Andalusian saraband
Would sound to many a native roundelay;

But who is he that yet a dearer land
Remembers, over hills and far away.
Green Albyn, &c

Oh, earthly pleasure, what art thou in sooth?
The torrent's smoothness, ere it dash below.
That fled composure's intellectual ray,
As Etna's fires grow dim before the rising day.

And the exquisite words of Outalissi to his Henry:—

But thee, my flower, whose breath was given
By milder genii o'er the deep,
The spirits of the white man's heaven
Forbid not thee to weep.

The dying speech of Gertrude is beautifully tender; but a few sobbed out words, in the circumstances, would have been more natural, and far more affecting. Shakspere or Schiller would have made a monosyllable unlock the human ear as effectually as Campbell does by all the eloquence and linked sweetness of this artificial harangue. Let poets remember that the most affecting, and, on the whole, the most powerful words ever written by man, are probably those in Lear, "Prithee undo this button; thank you, sir." The opening description of Wyoming reminds us, at a distance, of that which commences the Castle of Indolence; but is less distinct in its grouping, less rich in its colouring, and unluckily, no more than it resembles any actual scenery. So, at least, declare all Americans. It were ridiculous, therefore, to speak of Gertrude as a great poem. It is only a second-rate poem containing many first-rate things; a tame and tremulous string, supporting many inestimable pearls. Its tone is feeble; its spirit apologetic; the author is evidently afraid of his reputation. With gleams of truer genius than any thing in The Pleasures of Hope, it wants its frank, fearless, and manly enthusiasm, and neither has been, nor has deserved to be, one tithe so popular; except, indeed, with those who prefer it because in preferring it they stand alone.