1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 141-53.



No poet ever made a more brilliant entree than Thomas Campbell did, in The Pleasures of Hope, written at twenty-one. In fact, it was regarded as completely a marvel of genius, and at once deservedly placed its author among the immortals; for if language is capable of embalming thought, and that thought consists of pictures steeped in the richest hues of imagination, and of sentiments which, in their splendour and directness, may be regarded as "mottoes of the heart," the poem could not possibly ever be forgotten, provided the lines of any other writer were destined to be held in remembrance. With a daring hand the young poet essayed every string of the lyre, and they each responded in tones of sublimity, or of beauty and pathos. The poem was evidently the product of fine genius and intense labour; for nothing so uniformly fine, so sustained in excellence, was ever produced without intense labour; yet so exquisite is the art, that the words seem to have dropped into their places, and the melody, "like one sweetly played in tune," flows on apparently without effort — now wailing through the depths of tenderness, and now rising into the cloud-lands of imagination with the roll of thunder. That traces of juvenility should have been here and there discernible in an effort otherwise so high and so sustained, is not to be wondered at; but, even in these exuberances, genius and taste were ever predominant, while the diction, chaste and polished, was yet instinct with spirit. An energetic eloquence, which occasionally supplied the place of inspiration, and an art which could lead Beauty in flowery chains, without depriving her step of the air and the graces of Nature, made up for all other deficiencies.

When we look on The Pleasures of Hope as a work achieved while the author yet stood on the threshold of manhood, it is almost impossible to speak of it in terms of exaggerated praise; and whether taking it in parts, or as a whole, I do not think I overrate its merits in preferring it to any didactic poem of equal length in the English language. No poet, at such an age, ever produced such an exquisite specimen of poetical mastery — that is, of fine conception and of high art combined; but if time matures talent, and the faculties ought to strengthen by exercise, Campbell cannot be said to have redeemed the pledge given by this earliest of his efforts. How could he? With the exception of a few redundancies of diction, he left himself little to improve on, either in matter or manner; for sentiments tender, energetic, impassioned, eloquent, and majestic are conveyed to the reader in the tones of a music for ever varied-sinking or swelling like the harmonies of an Aeolian lyre — yet ever delightful; and these are illustrated by pictures from romance, history, or domestic life, replete with power and beauty. What could possibly excel, in pathos and natural truth, the mother's heart-yearnings over her cradled child? — the episode of the Wanderer leaning over the gate by "the blossomed beanfield, and the sloping green," coveting the repose and comfort of the hamlet-home beside him! — the allusion to the melancholy fortunes of the Suicide? — the parting of the Convict with his Daughter? — or in power, The Descent of Brama? — the apostrophe to the wrongs of Poland? and the allusion to the consummation of all things, with which the poem magnificently concludes? It is like a long fit of inspiration — a chequered melody of transcendent excellence, passage after passage presenting only an ever-varying and varied tissue of whatever is beautiful and sublime in the soul of man, and the aspects of nature. No ungraceful expressions, no trite observations, no hackneyed similes, no unnatural sentiments, no metaphysical scepticisms break in to mar the delightful reverie. The heart is lapped in Elysium, the rugged is softened down, and the repulsive hid from view; nature is mantled in the enchanting hues of the poet's imagination, and life seems but a tender tale set to music.

From a poem in every one's memory extracts were superfluous. If any composition could combine more energy of sentiment with versification as magnificent, it is to be found in the Lochiel's Warning of the same author. From the mists and commingling shadows of the highland mountains, he has singled out and conjured up two solitary figures, a chieftain and a soothsayer. The one — a man of this world, daring, determined, and a scoffer at danger, full of heroic ardour, devoted loyalty, and quenchless faith in the success of the desperate cause he resolves to support — is brought into picturesque approximation to, and contrast with, a being who, although on earth, yet seems not of it — who is wrapt up in visionary thoughts and shadowy abstractions — whose fevered fantasies overleap Nature's boundaries, and who declares that

Man cannot cover what God would reveal;
'Tis the sunset of life gives me mystical lore,
And coming events cast their shadows before.

There is a mysterious solemnity in all he utters, as if his voice was only the response of an internal oracle, which overboils with tempestuous energy, and which has its utterance through him. His soul is illumined with the corruscations of prophetic light, by which he has glimpses into the gloom of that Futurity whose chambers shut and open before him. The resolution of the chieftain is, however, immovable

—as the rock of the ocean that stems
A thousand wild waves on the shore.

Although not unaware that Doubt, Darkness, and Ruin encompass the perilous enterprise in which he is about irremediably to embark, he scorns the adverse omens of the seer, indignantly exclaiming—

Down, toothless insulter! I trust not the tale;
For never shall Albyn a destiny meet,
So black with dishonour, so foul with retreat;
Tho' my perishing ranks should be strewed in their gore
Like ocean-weeds heaped on the surf-beaten shore,
Lochiel, untainted by flight or by chains,
While the kindling of life in his bosom remains,
Shall victor exult, or in death he laid low
With his back to the field, and his feet to the foe;
And leaving in battle no blot on his name,
Look proudly to heaven from the deathbed of fame.

Campbell has there concentrated, in a short poem, as much vigour of conception, grandeur of description, and originality of illustrative imagery as would, in ordinary hands, have been deemed adequate to replenish volumes. It is throughout sterling ore, thrice refined from all alloy in the furnace of taste.

Having achieved such a triumph as The Pleasures of Hope, and measuring himself by the high standard of that composition, it is not wonderful that Campbell was chary about hazarding his acquired reputation, or that his after appearances were, like his own "angel visits," not only "short, but far between." Yet, from year to year, some stray lyric gem attested to the public the unabated fire of his genius, and led them on to expect with delight the meridian of a day which had been ushered in by a dawn so gloriously brilliant.

It was asserted by the late Lord Jeffrey, that the great writers of this age are in nothing more remarkable than the very fearlessness of their borrowing. We could point out a cento of brilliant things in Campbell — who forms certainly no exception to this general charge — for which he has been indebted to a discriminating taste and a retentive memory; but then, as with Coleridge, he has conjoined a distinctness, an originality, and a superiority of view quite his own, together with that polish which is the peculiar charm to all his writings. He might admire excellencies in others, and imitate what he admired; but, beyond that, Campbell had a distinct path of his own, along "a wild, unploughed, untrodden shore." He possessed the invention of true genius; and sought for and owned no prototype in Lochiel's Warning, in Hohenlinden, in The Battle of the Baltic, in Reullura, in The Last Man, or in O'Connor's Child, the diamond of his casket of gems.

In this last-named poem Campbell opened up a vein of thought and imagery, to which nothing in our preceding literature has the remotest resemblance, excepting, perhaps, the lyrical tales of Crabbe — The Hill of Justice, and Sir Eustace Grey. The resemblance, however, if there be any, is very slight and it is highly problematical if Campbell had them at all in his eye during the composition of this the most thoroughly inspired of all his writings.

O'Connor's Child opens in a strain of deep but chastened melancholy; and the vague wildness of remote tradition is blent with the refinement, peculiar only to modern times, in its imagery—

Placed in the foxglove and the moss,
Behold a parted warriors cross!
That is the spot, where evermore
The lady, at her shieling door,
Enjoys that, in communion sweet,
The living and the dead can meet,
For lo! to love-lorn fantasy,
The hero of her heart is nigh!

Before the scene opens, the catastrophe has been consummated. The lovely daughter of a noble house has been left to wander, in frenzied desolation, the historian of her own sad tale. For the love of Connocht Moran, "her belted foresters," she had forsaken her palace-home to roam the wilds; while the disgraced pride of ancestry urges on her infuriated brothers to seek her lover's blood — and destruction thus comes like the simoom.

When all was hushed at eventide,
I heard the baying of their beagle;
"Be hushed!" my Connocht Moran cried,
"'Tis but the screaming of the eagle."
Alas 'twas not the eyrie's sound,
Their bloody hands had tracked us out.
Up-listening starts our couchant hound—
And hark again, that nearer shout
Brings faster on the murderers.
"Spare — spare him, Brazil, Desmond fierce!"
In vain, no voice the adder charms;
Their weapons crossed my sheltering arms;
Another's sword has laid him low,
Another's, and another's,
And every hand that dealt the blow,
Ah me! it was a brother's:
Yes! when his moanings died away,
Their iron hands had dug the clay,
And o'er his burial turf they trod—
And I beheld, oh God, oh God!
His life-blood oozing from the sod!

Such poetry requires no comment. When "The Flower of Love," shut up within the embattled turret of her ancestral castle, sees her brothers, armed for war, about to depart with the banner of her sires in the midst, she thus exclaims, in prophetic fury—

Sooner guilt the ordeal brand
Shall grasp unhurt, than ye shall hold
The banner with victorious hand
Beneath a sister's curse unrolled.
Oh, stranger, by my country's loss,
And by my love, and by the cross,
I swear I never could have spoke
The curse, that sever'd Nature's yoke,
But that a spirit o'er me stood,
And fired me with the wrathful mood;
And frenzy to my heart was given
To speak the malison of heaven.
They would have crossed themselves, all mute:
They would have prayed to burst the spell;
But at the stamping of my foot
Each hand down powerless fell!
"And go to Athunrie!" I cried;
"High lift the banner of your pride!
But know that where its sheet unrolls,
The weight of blood is on your souls!
Go where the havoc of your kerne
Shall float as high as mountain fern!
Men shall no more your mansion know!
The nettles on your hearth shall grow!
Dead, as the green oblivious flood
That mantles by your walls, shall be
The glory of O'Connor's blood!
Away! — away to Athunrie!
Where downward, when the sun shall fall,
The raven's wing shall be your pall!
And not a vassal shall unlace
The vizor from your dying face!"
A bolt that overhung our dome,
Suspended till my curse was given,
Soon as it passed these lips of foam,
Pealed in the blood-red heaven.

The greatest effort of Campbell's genius, however, was his Gertrude of Wyoming; nor is it likely ever to be excelled in its own peculiar style of excellence. It is superior to The Pleasures of Hope in the only one thing in which that poem could be surpassed — purity of diction; while in pathos, and in imaginative power, it is no whit inferior. The beauties of Gertrude, however, are of that unobtrusive kind, that, for the most part, they must be sought for. Its imagery is so select as to afford only indices to trains of thought. It "touches a spring, and lo! what myriads rise!" If we add to this, that, as a story, Gertrude is particularly defective, the circumstances will be made palpable which have operated against the popularity of a composition so thoroughly exquisite. The versification of the poem is intricately elaborate, the diction fastidiously select, and the incidents, as I have just hinted, less brought out than left to be imagined; as, for instance, where, in one stanza, Henry Waldegrave is the infantine companion of Gertrude, and, in the next, we are told of his arrival from foreign travel, ere we are dimly apprised that he had ever set out from home. Weighed, however, with the real excellencies of the poem, these and other minor blemishes — as inaccuracies in natural history — are "mere spots in the sun," and are amply counterbalanced by the Elysian description of Wyoming, with which the poem opens — although its tone occasionally more than reminds us of Thomson's Castle of Indolence, and its imagery of Wordsworth's Ruth; — the arrival of Outalissi, "the eagle of his tribe," with the white boy in his hand, "like morning brought by night;" the landscape surrounding the home of Albert, so like "the pleasant land of drowsy head;" the loves of Henry and Gertrude, so touching in their sweet sincerity, and their rapturous walks amid the shadowy majesty of the primeval Pennsylvanian forests; the gathering and picturesque grouping of the motley warriors on the fatal eve of battle; the death of the patriarchal Albert, and the dying address of the daughter to her husband, so full of pathos and nature; and the energetically sublime invocation of the Indian chief, with which the scenes close. Interspersed, there are also delineations of scenery which display the very highest powers, and that minute fidelity which indicates the fine and accurate observer. Campbell did not work like Wordsworth, or Crabbe, or Southey, by touches repeated and repeated, till the minims make up a whole, but by sweeping lines and bold master-strokes. The following few words, for instance, convey a whole and almost boundless prospect to the mind:—

At evening Alleghany views,
Through ridges burning in her western beam,
Lake after lake interminably gleam.

The following single stanza is full of a similar majesty. It is a picture not only finely conceived, but faultlessly executed:—

Anon some wilder portraiture he draws;
Of Nature's savage glories he would speak,—
The loneliness of earth that overawes,
When, resting by some tomb of old Cacique,
The lama-driver on Peruvia's peak
Nor living voice nor motion marks around,
But storks that to the boundless forest shriek,
Or wild-cane arch, high flung o'er gulf profound,
That fluctuates when the storms of El Dorado sound.

Turn from the desolation, the vastness, and wildness of this, to a delineation of morning in five lines. It has the freshness and beauty of Claude Lorraine:—

The morning wreath had bound her hair,
While yet the wild-bee trod in spangling dew;
While boatmen carolled to the fresh-blown air,
And woods a horizontal shadow threw,
And early fox appeared in momentary view.

Of Campbell's highest lyrics it would be impossible to speak in terms of exaggerated praise; and in them more especially he has succeeded in engrafting the fresh wildness of the romantic school on the polished elegance of the classic. Whether we regard originality of conception, artistic skill, brilliancy of execution, vividness of illustration, moral pathos, or that impassioned energy which makes description subservient to feeling and sentiment, it would be difficult, from the far-off days of Pindar and Tyrtaeus, down to those of Collins and Gray, to point to anything finer or grander, or, to use the phrase of Sir Philip Sidney, that more "rouses the heart like the sound of a trumpet," than his Mariners of England, his Battle of the Baltic, his Lines on Alexandria, his Hohenlinden, and his Lochiel's Warning; while, for mellow pathos, for picturesque touches of nature, for phrases of magical power, and words or single lines that, within themselves, concentrate landscapes, he has lent a charm all his own to The Exile of Erin, the Lines in Argyleshire, The Soldier's Dream, The Turkish Lady, The Grave of a Suicide, The Last Man, Lord Ullin's Daughter, Gleanra, Wild Flowers, and The Rainbow.

Campbell, like Coleridge, left utterly unfulfilled the promise of his youth for he did few things worthy of his fame after Gertrude, and that was published when he was just thirty-two. His magnificent May had no corresponding September; his Theodorics and Pilgrims of Glencoe were the mere lees of his genius, and utterly unworthy — more especially the last — of his former self. Pity they ever saw the light; and better for him had it been — knowing he had done what he had — to have hung up his harp, and silently lingered out his life in a secure consciousness of poetic immortality.

Here are a few bright droppings from Campbell's patriotic vein. The stanzas were written to commemorate Corunna, and the death-day of Moore.

Pledge to the much-loved land that gave us birth!
Invincible, romantic Scotia's shore!
Pledge to the memory of her parted worth!
And, first among the brave, remember Moore!

And be it deemed not wrong that name to give
In festive hours, which prompts the patriot's sigh!
Who would not envy such as Moore to live!
And died he not as heroes wish to die!

Yes! though too soon attaining glory's goal,
To us his bright career too short was given;
Yet in a mighty cause his phoenix soul
Rose on the flames of victory to heaven!

Peace to the mighty dead! our bosom thanks
In sprightlier strains the living may inspire!
Joy to the chiefs that lead old Scotia's ranks
Of Roman garb, and inure than Roman fire.

Triumphant be the Thistle, still unfurled,
Dear symbol wild on freedom's hills it glows,
Where Fingal stemmed the tyrants of the world,
And Roman eagles found unconquered foes!

Is there a son of generous England here,
Or fervid Erin? — he with us shall join,
To pray that in eternal union dear,
The Rose, the Thistle, and the Shamrock twine!

Types of a race who shall the invader scorn,
As rocks resist the billows round their shore—
Types of a race who shall to time unborn
Their country leave unconquered as of yore!

The writings of Thomas Campbell are distinguished by their elegance and their perspicuousness, by their straightforward manliness and their high tone of moral sentiment. They abound with original imagery, with lofty aspirations after the true and beautiful, and with ideas that, from their prominent beauty, may be almost said to be tangible. Taste, however — the perfect equipoise of his fine faculties — was the source of that mastery which controlled and harmonised all. Hence he had concentration; for his poetry was like a weeded garden, and every blossom that "dedicated its beauty to the sun" was placed in the situation most appropriate to its perfection. His nervous manliness never degenerated into coarseness and judgment ever pruned the wings of his imagination and fancy. His delicacy was free from affectation, and his enthusiasm never "o'erstepped the modesty of nature." Even when impelled by the whirlwind of inspiration, the helm obeyed his hand, and the bark ploughed on, amid the roaring of the waves, towards the haven of her destination. Few poets combined, in an equal degree, such felicity of conception with such perfect handling — such vigour of thought with such delicacy of expression; yet this delicacy was as free from mawkishness as his sentiment from metaphysical obscurity — the rock on which so many have foundered. He could not rest self-satisfied until he had placed each object in its fairest point of view — until he had harmonised all his separate materials with his general design. While in the selection of his topics he was fastidious, in his treatment of them he was alike daring and original — presenting us either with new and striking images, or with familiar ones unexpectedly placed in a novel aspect; and whatever these were, he laboured until he had imparted to them all the graces of thought and language. His usual success resulted from bold generalisations; but, when occasions offered, he descended to the minute with an elegance quite apart from tedious trifling. His genius is characterised by bursts of abrupt lyrical enthusiasm; it is like his own "Andes, giant of the western star," his "wolf's long howl from Oonalaska's shore," his "aye as if for death a lonely trumpet wailed," his panther "howling amid that wilderness of fire," his "storks that to the boundless forest shriek," his "pyramid of fire," his "death-song of an Indian chief." He took not to by-lanes, as many have done, for singularity's sake, when the fair broad highway was before him. He preferred the classical to the quaint, the obvious to the obscure; and the general sympathies of mankind to an "audience fit though few," which none, I presume, ever did, who could not help it. In the management of his subject he either grappled with it, as Hercules did with the Lernaean hydra; or tenderly blent all its elements into harmonious beauty, as if encircling it with the fabled cestus of Cytheraea.