1802 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Richard Alfred Davenport

Anna Seward to Thomas Park, 27 September 1802; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 6:42-44.



Entirely do I agree with most of your opinions on the Poetical Register, concerning almost all the individual poems you praise, and on all you censure, as to admission, and arrangement in the plan of the work; but I confess I do not find in Adeline's compositions, however tuneful and correct, the vital spark, without which verse of the most flowing numbers is but a dead-letter. Mrs. West's eight sonnets in this volume, concerning which you are silent, appear to me very beautiful. The editor, Mr. Davenport, writes with Mrs. C. Smith's elegance, but, like her's, his muse is too constantly in the lamentable strain. I have called Mrs. C. Smith's sonnets, the everlasting duns on pity; and one of my literary friends has, by a quotation, too severely, perhaps, styled her, "a puny poet, puling to the moon." That she pules with the pertinacity of a pea-hen, is certain, but we must not allow that she is "puny." Your own sonnet, in the van of that department, is a very sweet one.

There is also a lovely song, signed J. N., and Dr. Sewell's ode is pathetic. The six stanzas of W. Case's Descriptive Sketch, are very fine — the rest not equally striking. Most of Campbell's have considerable merit; and I have found more of merit and new name, than I have time to mention, and to praise.

Yet is your observation too just; the volume is greatly overloaded as to the number of the compositions; and the quaint poetry of ancient days has no business there, neither the terse decisions of review-criticism, whose praise and censure have no why or wherefore. The comparative quantity of mere verses, duller than the plainest prose, is sadly preponderant in this miscellany. To compile a metrical collection from different sources, is one of the most thorny paths of authorism. The rejection of offered verses is, in effect, to tell their authors, that they are mistaken in believing themselves poets, and to make the compiler a foe in every rejected versifier. But unless he has a fortitude equal to that disagreeable and personally dangerous firmness, he must not hope that his work will acquire lasting reputation.

Dodsley had interest to procure for his first and succeeding volumes, contributions from all the first poets of his day. Mr. D. should not have opened his compilation till he had procured them from most of the celebrated writers now living. Some of their names, added to those few of lustre which he has obtained, would, by their value, have more than supplied the place of that shoal of versifiers who have bedimmed the tome.

If, leaning on what he did procure of genuine poetry, he had, with firm hand, lopt away the load of useless and barren shoots, this, his first volume, would probably have induced, by its reputation, other rightly-touched spirits to have adorned its successors. As it is, I am afraid the herd of vapid rhymists will make the poets turn disgusted away from such fellowship.