1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 128-41.



From 1805, when the Lay of the Last Minstrel appeared, we find British poetry in its meridian splendour, with a host of distinguished aspirants in the field — Campbell, Crabbe, Wordsworth, Moore, Southey, Coleridge, Rogers, Montgomery, not to mention several other scarcely less bright names: but Scott far, and deservedly far, beyond all in the race of popularity. In 1812, however, something like a restoration of the balance of power began to show itself. Two young competitors, who were afterwards mightily to influence literature, entered the arena — Lord Byron in his Childe Harold, and John Wilson in his Isle of Palms; and it is difficult even yet to say which of the two was most distinguished for general scope of mind, for imaginative and intellectual power. Byron's was remarkable for its passion and intensity; Wilson's for its catholicity and comprehensiveness. The former concentrated its rays to a focus; the latter scattered them abroad like a mirror. Had both continued, as they began, to cull their laurels from the field of poetry alone, this question of natural capacity might have been one of easier solution. Byron, persevering to do so, accomplished wonders in the course of his unfortunately brief impassioned, impetuous, and chequered after-life. Wilson, on the contrary, in little more than four years from his appearance as a poet — for The City of the Plague was published in 1816 — and while still under thirty, maybe said to have forsaken the muse, and to have turned the Nile-like and seemingly inexhaustible current of his mind into all the variously diverging channels of literature and philosophy. With Byron, poetry was all in all; and he wrote not only with amazing power, but with amazing fluency — indeed no man, dying at thirty-seven, ever wrote so much with such an impress. With Wilson, it was only one of the phases of his many-sided mind: and, when he may be said to have left the field, that mind was in fact scarcely out of its juvenescence; as demonstrated by its subsequent more matured and remarkable achievements. On these, however, I dare not at present enter; and must confine myself merely to a few outlinear characteristics of his poetry.

Unlike Crabbe, who delighted to expatiate on the failings and frailties of our nature; or Byron, whose region of power was in the tempest and darkness of the passions; or Scott, who dazzled by the picturesque rapidity of narrative, the muse of Wilson deals only with the softer, gentler, purer feelings, with the more refined and delicate perceptions. Even in the description of human wretchedness and of depravity, he cannot help mingling some ethereal and redeeming touches; mid the roar of the troubled waters of the spirit, a still small voice is ever heard whispering "peace;" through the wind-swept masses of the heavy twilight clouds gloriously peeps out the golden evening star — an omen of faith and serenity.

Wordsworth philosophises on the aspects of nature, rather than describes them; Southey gives the landscape itself with the eye and art of a painter; Wilson's still life seems like the conjurations of a dream — soft, silent, beautiful:—

Towering o'er these beauteous woods,
Gigantic rocks were ever dimly seen,
Breaking with solemn grey, the tremulous green,
And frowning far in castellated pride
While hastening to the ocean, hoary floods
Sent up a thin end radiant mist between,
Softening the beauty that it could not hide.
Lo! higher still the stately palm-trees rise
Chequering the clouds with their unbending stems,
And o'er the clouds, amid the dark-blue skies,
Lifting their rich unfading diadems.

By the youthful genius of Wilson it seems to have been felt as something like sin to approach the confines of guilt and crime, or to delineate any of the darker and more repulsive features of human nature. His contemplations are all of the soft and serene — even his descriptions are confined to the fair and beautiful; the rugged under his touch acquires a moonlight shading; sorrow becomes sanctified; and the thunder-storm, along with its devouring lightning, has ever its fertilising shower. It is his bathing all his characters in this "purple light of love," which in some measure unfits Professor Wilson from shining as a poet of consummate dramatic power — a power which his other writings attest his boundless possession of — and which, with all the varied beauty which commanded the admiration of Byron, Moore, and Jeffrey, makes The City of the Plague read more like a poem than a drama in other words, renders it a composition embodying sentiment rather than action. Whatever may be their peculiar features, whatever the part they have to perform, his personages arrange themselves into two great classes — those dignified by virtue, and those degraded by vice the former surpassing mere men, and approximating the nature of ministers of light; the other fallen from a high estate, yet still endowed with many redeeming traits, and, after all, scarcely less than "archangels ruined."

While in the act of composition, the poet's mind seemed to have been worked up to a kind of reverie, in which he saw the material world, with its delightful valleys and magnificent mountains, its murmuring rivers and rolling oceans, its sheeted lakes and umbrageous forests outstretched before mm as on a vast map, in phantasmagorial pageantry. Nor less peculiar were his views of the moral physiognomy of man, whom, as I have said, he has scarcely the heart to paint as the victim of original sin; but as, even in infancy, returning in the visions of sleep to an ante-natal heaven. Yet he is by no means so great all exclusionist or mannerist as Wordsworth, although they have always been, and ever will be, regarded as congenial spirits, separated by their distinctive qualities of original power. In the descriptive portions of his writings, however, Wilson is much more exuberant in imagery; and thus more nearly approaches Southey, especially in The Isle of Palms, where his discursive fancy luxuriates in regions not unallied in character to those exhibited in Thalaba, and Kehama. But over Southey he has this excellence, that his style is always suited to his subject; he never clothes the trivial in the pomp of majestic words, nor debases the lofty by meanness of expression, or puerility of epithet. His pathos is always of the heart — simple, deep, and touching; and we may say of his poetry, ill this respect, as he has himself said of another, that—

The songs he poured were sad and wild;
And while they would have soothed a child,
That soon bestows its tears,
A deeper pathos in them lay
That would have moved a hermit grey,
Bowed down with holy years.

The grand characteristics of the poetry of Wilson are delicacy of sentiment and ethereal elegance of description. He refines and elevates whatever he touches; and if in his hands common things lose their vulgar attributes, they are exchanged by him for something better. There is a wild harmony and an untamed splendour in his delineation of the aspects of nature; and among its beauties he riots and revels, always preferring the soft to the sullen, the gentle to the rugged. He is consequently, beyond all other poets, the bard of moonlight, in whose "flooding argentry" his muse seems never weary of dipping her pinions, or of marvelling at

The fleecy clouds when their race is run,
That hang in their own beauty blest,
Mid the calm, that sanctifies the west,
Around the setting sun.

Wilson makes a nearer approach, in tone of thought, to the Lake School, than to any other great class of writers; nor do his ideas of the philosophical principles of composition seem widely different from theirs; but he never offends, like them, by endeavouring to extract sentiment from incongruous subjects. He may not, in any short effort, have attained the classical severity of the Laodamia, or the magic wildness of the Christabel; but perhaps neither Wordsworth nor Coleridge could have so exquisitely painted, with such consistency throughout, the portrait of Magdalen in The City of the Plague, — so seraphically pure, so profoundly tender, so nobly self-devoted of one whose path on earth is one of angel light — who, like Spenser's Una, "makes a sunshine in the shady place," and who, when hanging over her dying lover, is thus addressed by him—

—the plumes
Of thy affectionate bosom meet my heart,
And all therein is quiet as the snow,
At breathless midnight.

The great defect in the earlier poetry of Professor Wilson will be found to result from "the fatal facility" with which he found expression for his exuberant riches of thought and imagery. Life seemed to him a scene of enchantments; earth was a wilderness of sweets; language syllabled itself into music; and his imaginings thus spontaneously seemed to arrange themselves in verse. The welling fountain of his mind, instead of requiring to be pumped up, ever superabundantly overflowed; and his poems thus often read more like improvisations than compositions. It is difficult to say, therefore, whether the years of his sojourn beside Windermere were more beneficial or otherwise to his fame as a poet. Most assuredly they determined his tone of thought, and influenced, perhaps, more than he is himself aware of, his habits of looking on and regarding man and nature. This position is rendered less dubious, from his after works, in which he thought and reasoned more decidedly and independently for himself; and who can doubt, that he might not have from the first diffused through his poetry what he afterwards did through his prose, — that emphatic vigour, and ever-varying beauty of thought, that boundless amplitude of illustration, and that impassioned torrent-like eloquence — that despotic command alike over our reason and our sympathies, never conspicuous save in minds of the very highest order.

As a narrative poem, The Isle of Palms is somewhat desultory and sketchy. The story which runs through it is a mere slender thread, almost overstrung with the flowers of a luxuriant imagination. Its finer portions are the voyage, the shipwreck, and the island scenery; its faults lie in its being too ornate — reminding us of the fine line in an old poet, which Mr. Tennyson has since doubtless inadvertently appropriated — "You scarce can see the grass for flowers." The City of the Plague is more definite in outline, and more elaborately finished. Southey has thought fit to censure the selection of the subject, as being one unfit for poetry — himself having chosen several much more questionable. Otherwise thought Boccaccio, Dante, Moore, and Shelley. Such antecedent cavilling is quite absurd; for praise or blame is almost entirely attachable to the mode in which subjects are handled and while a "Sofa" becomes a great moral engine in the hands of a Cowper, a Pedlar shines out a subtle philosopher in The Excursion of Wordsworth, — the bee having instinct to extract honey even from foxglove and nightshade. So fastidious, on the contrary, was Wilson's taste, and so great his horror at revolting details, that the principal objection to the poem in question is its too uniform tone of almost pastoral gentleness. So much so, indeed, that we are often inclined to wish that he would plunge into some more troubled element; and had it remained to be written by him in the after maturity of his intellectual strength, I doubt not his capability of having amazed as much by his power in awakening terror, and in picturing remorse, as he has done in this exquisite youthful effort in subduing to his mastery all our finer and gentler sympathies. As a narrative, The City of the Plague is much better proportioned and brought out than The Isle of Palms. From having therein subjected himself to the trammels of regular versification, his besetting demon — the discursive faculty — has less scope, and a feeling is consequently conveyed to the reader's mind of more elaborate and sustained composition. We have less of that tone of deliration which, in common with the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth, pervades The Isle of Palms, together with a diction more classically pure and severe — yea, transparent as crystal.

In none of his multifarious writings is the peculiar genius of Wilson more exquisitely developed than in his Lays from Fairyland, where, in a region of spotless innocence, ethereal beauty, and serene repose, it is allowed to luxuriate "at its own sweet will." His fairies are not those of Michael Drayton, nor Ben Jonson, nor of Shakspeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, nor of Bishop Corbett's Farewell, nor of the Young Tam Lane of Carterha', nor of John Leyden's Brown Man of the Muirs, nor of James Hogg's Old David, nor are they Herbert's elves of the Scandinavian mythology,

A tiny race, on mischief bent,
Making men's woes their merriment;

nor the Peris of Thomas Moore's Oriental Paradise; but a distinct creation of his own, beautiful "as atoms of the rainbow fluttering round," and pure as the dew in the cup of the harebell; a species of angelic natures, sympathising with the sorrows, soothing the ills, and rejoicing in the moral triumphs of humanity. Over these lays Wilson has poured out the whole exuberant riches of his fancy; and he leads us through labyrinths of dazzling beauty, where all is innocent, calm, and pure — "Like a cloudless eve in a sinless world." The whole are fine, but perhaps the finest is that entitled Edith and Nora, which contains separate pictures of Morning and of Evening, as glowing and original as any descriptive passages in British poetry.

This is the morning picture in its serene beauty:—

She hath risen up from her morning prayer,
And chained the waves of her golden hair,
Hath kissed her sleeping sister's cheek,
And breathed the blessing she might not speak,
Lest the whisper should break the dream that smiled
Round the snow-white brow of the sinless child.
Her radiant lamb and her purpling dove
Have ta'en their food from the hand they love;
The low deep coo and the plaintive bleat
In the morning calm, how clear and sweet!
Ere the sun has warmed the dawning hours
She hath watered the glow of her garden flowers,
And welcomed the hum of the earliest bee
In the moist bloom working drowsily!
Then up the flow of the rocky rill
She trips away to the pastoral hill;
And, as she lifts her glistening eyes,
In the joy of her heart, to the dewy skies,
She feels that her sainted parents bless
The life of their orphan shepherdess.

'Tis a lonely glen! but the happy child
Hath friends whom she meets in the morning wild!
As on she trips, her native stream,
Like her, hath awoke from a joyful dream,
And glides away by her twinkling feet,
With a face as bright and a voice as sweet.
In the osier bank the ouzel sitting
Hath heard her steps, and away is flitting
From stone to stone, as she glides along,
Then sinks in the stream with a broken song.
The lapwing, fearless of his nest,
Stands looking round with his delicate crest;
For a love-like joy is in his cry,
As he wheels and darts and glances by.

Is the heron asleep on the silvery sand
Of his little lake? Lo! his wings expand
As a dreamy thought, and withouten dread
Cloud like he floats o'er the maiden's head.
She looks to the birch-wood glade, and lo!
There is browsing there the mountain roe,
Who lifts up her gentle eyes, nor moves,
As on glides the form whom all nature loves.
Having spent in heaven an hour of mirth,
The lark drops down to the dewy earth,
And a silence smooths his yearning breast
In the gentle fold of his lowly nest;
The linnet takes up the hymn, unseen
In the yellow broom, or the bracken green;
And now, as the morning hears are glowing,
From the hill-side cots the cocks are crowing,
And the shepherd's dog is barking shrill
From the mist fast rising from the hill,
And the shepherd's self, with locks of grey,
Hath blessed the maiden on her way!
And now she sees her own dear flock
On a verdant mound beneath the rock,
All close together in beauty and love,
Like the small fair clouds in heaven above,
And her innocent soul, at the peaceful sight,
Is swimming o'er with a still delight.

Among the other more elaborate productions of Professor Wilson, are Unimore, a dream of the Highlands; The Convict, a dramatic sketch; The Scholar's Funeral; The Angler's Tent; and an Evening in Furness Abbey. The finest of his lesser poems strike me as being the Address to a Wild Deer; Lord Ronald's Child; The Village Desolate; Lines in a Highland Glen; and The Sleeping Child.

The following very beautiful extract, from the Evening in Furness Abbey, is given as a specimen of Professor Wilson's blank verse.

—The day goes by,
On which our soul's beloved dies the day
On which the body of the dead is stretched
By hands that decked it when alive; the day
On which the dead is shrouded, and the day
Of burial; — one and all pass by! The grave
Grows green ere long; the churchyard seems a place
Of pleasant rest; and all the cottages,
That keep for ever sending funerals
Within its gates, look cheerful every one,
As if the dwellers therein never died,
And this earth slumbered in perpetual peace.
For every sort of suffering there is sleep
Provided by a gracious Providence,
Save that of sin. We must at first endure
The simple woe of knowing they are dead—
A soul-sick woe, in which no comfort is,
And wish we were beside them in the dust!
That anguish dire cannot sustain itself,
But settles down into is grief that loves
And finds relief in unreproved tears.
Then cometh sorrow like a Sabbath! Heaven
Sends resignation down, and faith; and last
Of all, there falls a kind oblivion
Over the going out of that sweet light
In which we had our being; and the wretch.
Widow'd and childless, laughs in his old ago,
Laughs and is merry, even among the tenths
Of all his kindred. Say not that the dead
Are unforgotten in their graves for all
Beneath the sun and moon is transitory;
And sacred sorrow, like a shadow, flies,
As unsubstantial as the happiness
Whose loss we vainly wept!

Unimore is, in some respects, the richest of all its author's writings and in it his ideas seem to have poured upon him like the flood of the Solway. Indeed, we know not its equal anywhere, in Niagara-like copiousness of imagery and diction. Probably this is its defect, for it is somehow felt not to be altogether a successful poem. There is a lavishness of wealth about it, a pomp and prodigality of power, which mars its definiteness of tone, as well as its distinctness of outline. We look on its landscapes as through a summer haze, or through the silver of moonlight and thus its personages seem too remote and Ossianic. It abounds in magnificent passages; and visions ninth and tenth — "Expiation" and "Retribution" — are replete with pathos and solemn beauty. The Evening in Furness Abbey is more chastened and severe, and is, throughout, perhaps the finest specimen of Professor Wilson's blank verse, which has nothing of the ruggedness of Young, or the verbosity of Thomson, but breathes a music of its own — "a linked sweetness long drawn out" — which rivets the ear by its varying cadences tones of persuasive softness, now lively, like the breeze in the summer tree-tops — now mournful, like the far-off thunders of the waterfall. His aversion is the boisterous and the bustling, whether these are to be gleaned from themes high or low — from the modernising of chivalrous romaunts, or from the fables of classical mythology. His delight is in the poetry of still life, — the blind man sitting on the wayside stone-the effigies in a mined abbey-the solitude of the midnight mountain-ridge — the waveless lake — the autumnal moonlight, with the hawk sleeping on the sepulchral cairn, among the hoary cannachs of the moor. He allows nothing sinful or sullying to mar

The radiance of his gifted soul,
Where never mists or darkness roll;
A poet's soul, that flows for ever,
Right onwards like a noble river,
Refulgent still, or by its native woods
Shaded, and running on thro' sunless solitudes.

In gazing on the picture of a patient "Ass in a snow-storm," a thousand bright and beautiful ideas awaken to his imagination, of patient suffering and endurance — of heroic fortitude in adversity, of serene faith amid the evils of life; and, in describing the cottage of a pious and resigned old dame, we are characteristically told that

—The wreath that stole
From the rose-tree and jasmine clustering wide,
O'er all the dwelling's bloomy side,
Tells that whoe'er doth there abide
Must have a gentle soul.
Then gently breathe, and softly tread,
As if thy steps were o'er the dead
Break not the slumber of the air
Even by the whisper of a prayer,
But, in the spirit, let there be
A silent Benedicite!

To Professor Wilson we owe the introduction into our literature of a style of criticism at once more philosophical and more genial — of a criticism which combines analytical subtlety and precision with amazing powers of imaginative illustration, and which renders his essays on Homer, on the Greek Anthology, on Spenser, on Milton, (yet in MS.,) on Wordsworth, on Scott, on Burns, on Moore's Byron, and on the English Satirists — all written in the same catholic spirit — among the finest things in our language. As a delineator of Scottish pastoral life — say rather of primitive life and manners, as contradistinguished from conventional or town life — his Lights and Shadows, his Trials of Margaret Lyndsay, and his Foresters, seem destined to remain unapproached in their peculiar excellencies; but, were it allowable to say so, that eloquence, which Hallam has designated as "the rush of mighty waters," is nowhere to be found in such magnificent power as in the Recreations of Christopher North, and in the Shakspearean Noctes Ambrosianae, and Dies Boreales.