1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Russell Mitford

John Mitford, Review of Poems, by Mary Russell Mitford; Quarterly Review 4 (November 1810) 514-18.



Many of the ladies who have been candidates for celebrity, have, we fear, been influenced more by necessity than choice; and that timidity, which shrunk at the idea of subjecting its productions to the eye of the world, has been goaded forward by motives which admitted no retreat. In such cases, criticism became but a secondary duty; for his feelings would not be much envied, who could pause to examine the construction of a sentence, when not the pursuit of fame, but the fear of distress, evidently dictated the production. Such, however, we believe not to be the case with the writer before us. Indeed, the poems themselves signify that they were composed with the applause of many friends; and that the author's chief motive in their publication was to shew how skilfully the lyre might be swept by a lady's hand. The subjects on which her talents are exercised are of a very miscellaneous nature, and such as we should not have supposed peculiarly attractive to a female mind. They are chiefly of an epainetic or commendatory nature, and praise Doctors Mitford and Valpy, Mr. Wardle a "Patriot," Maria a prize Greyhound, Lord Folkstone, also a patriot, Zosia a Pole, Mr. Pratt the Gleaner, Maria again, and Jehuda Charizi.

The first and longest poem in the collection is called Sybille, a Northumbrian tale, the catastrophe of which is taken from Mr. Southey's beautiful episode of Laila in Thalaba. Of the neatness and precision of the execution, the following stanza is no unfair example:

The modest mansion on the hill,
Beams in the brightening ray,
Mitford's proud turrets crown the rill,
And all the vale is gay.

The next poem is employed in celebrating the young ladies who were educated at Mrs. Rowden's academy, Hans Place. One of these ladies is said to be delightful—

Whether she join in converse gay,
With arch and playful naivete,

and the whole of them seem to have spent their time very pleasantly indeed, but not with sufficient attention to the true use of the preterperfect tense.

While some, reclined in verdant bowers,
With tales amused the passing hours,
And some their fav'rite flowers attend,
I roamed with my selected friend.

Some verses soon after occur, discoursing largely in praise of "dandelions," by the side of which powerful herb, the poetess, not without danger to her muse, moralizes at leisure, and revolves its various properties. Primroses and violets have been praised so much of old, that our modern poets and poetesses are fain to look out for flowers "which have not been blown upon." Thus "elder blossoms," "celandine," and "cuckoo pint," are now finding their tuneful admirers; and when dandelions have had their day, we should recommend the immediate adoption of "touch-me-not," "treacle-mustard," "swine's succory," and "Robin-run-in-the-hedge." The dandelion has indeed been noticed once before, but then it was in a different stage of its existence, and with far other powers of eulogy. The reader will excuse the quotation for the beauty of the passage:—

Here she was wont to go, and here, and here
Just where those daisies, pinks, and violets grow!
The world may find time spring in following her.
For other print her airy steps ne'er left,
Her treading would not bend a blade of grass,
Or shake the downy blow-ball from its stalk. — Sad Shepherd.

We have then a poem on a glow worm, which we should feel more disposed to commend, if we could overlook the false fire in the two first lines of the following stanza—

Though forked light'ning round thee play,
Though brilliant meteors wildly glare,
Still may thy pale and modest ray
Shed em'rald lustre through the air.

Poetry, politics, and coursing are blended in some verses on Maria, the aforementioned greyhound, winning the cup at the Ilsley meeting. Of them it is sufficient to observe, that Miss Mitford has caught the jockey's pronunciation, and pronounces "Arbutus" with a prosody that can only belong to the turf—

The sad Arbutus drooping pale.

Apollo is next presented to us in a papilionaceous character, as, father of the butterflies. The following stanza is however pretty:

Oh! lovely is thy airy form,
That wears the primrose hue so fair;
It seems, as if some passing storm
Had raised the beauteous flower in air.

In page 94, Mr. Wardle and Lord Folkstone are introduced, "with all their blushing honours thick upon them."

Unknown to fame, to faction unallied,
Folkstone and truth his only aid supplied, &c.
Still England rings with Wardle's honour'd name,
Still Scotland's hills re-echo to his fame, &c.

Miss Mitford has probably heard that a prophet has no honour in his own country; which accounts for her silence respecting the triumph of Wales on this grand occasion: but what shall we say to her omission of Ireland, where the object of her admiration is much better known than either in England or Scotland, and where the "ringing to his honour'd name" must consequently be more distinct and audible? To be serious, however, and very serious, Sir Hugh Evans himself could not possibly feel more disgust at seeing a "oman with a peard," than we experience at seeing a young lady splashing through the mire, and huzzaing at the tail of a mob procession. In the present case, we must take the liberty of hinting to Miss Mitford, that in selecting the objects of her admiration, she has manifested as little female delicacy as judgment.

In a subsequent poem, Mr. Pratt is informed, (for he probably never dreamt of it,) that he inherits the lyre of Goldsmith. If this be true, the lyre is much the worse for wear; and, for our parts, we would as soon take the bequest of a Jew's harp, as the reversion of so worthless an instrument. This is the third instance we remember of living poets being complimented at the expense of poor Goldsmith. A literary journal has thought proper to extol Mr. Crabbe far above him; and Mr. Richards (a man of genius also, we readily admit) has been said, in a note to a late sermon, famous for its length, to unite "the nervousness of Dryden with the ease of Goldsmith." This is all very easily asserted. The native grace and ease of Goldsmith's versification has probably led to the deception; but it would be difficult to point out one among the English poets less likely to be excelled in his own style than the author of "the Deserted Village." Possessing much of the compactness of Pope's versification, without the monotonous structure of his lines; rising sometimes to the swell and fulness of Dryden, without his inflations; delicate and masterly in his descriptions; graceful in one of the greatest graces of poetry, its transitions; alike successful in his sportive or grave, his playful or melancholy mood; he may long bid defiance to the numerous competitors, whom the friendship or flattery of the present age is so hastily arraying against him.

In our cursory examination of this little volume, we have noticed several unpoetical and ungraceful, and not a few ungrammatical lines. It must be apparent, we think, to every one, that Miss Mitford's taste and judgment are not yet matured; that her poems ought to have been kept back much longer, and revised much oftener, before they were submitted to the public; and, above all, that she wanted some friend who, without wounding her feelings, or damping the fire of her genius, would have led her to correcter models of taste, and taught her more cautious habits of composition. That such instruction would not have been thrown away, we judge from many pleasing passages scattered through her little volume, which do no discredit to the amiableness of her mind, and the cultivation of her talents. When she attempts to describe the higher passions, as in Sybille, she fails from want of strength for the flight. But in the description of natural scenery, or the delineation of humbler and calmer feelings, she is more successful. The following lines form part of a poem written in a favourite arbour, and are a pleasing imitation of the style and subject of Grongar Hill:—

How slowly swells the limpid flood!
How calm, how still the solitude!
No sound comes wafted from the gale,
Save the sweet warblings of the vale.
No curling smoke waves on the breeze,
Hemmed closely in by circling trees,
Save, where o'er yonder rustic gate,
The tall oak twines in Gothic state,
And through the arch in lustre gay,
The landscape spreads its bright array;
The woodland wild — the cultured plain,
Its lowing herds, and fleecy train—
The cottage by the green wood side,
With blooming orchard spreading wide—
The village school — the farm — the green—
The ivied tower, at distance seen—
And the soft hills, that swelling rise,
Mingling their grey tops with the skies,
Illumined by the western beams,
How fair this living picture gleams! p. 45.

Passages of equal or superior merit might be collected from the volume, amply sufficient to show, that with better advice, and more mature deliberation, Miss Mitford's muse would not sing unheard or unattended; but we can have little hope of this, if she does not for ever forsake the thorny and barren field of politics, so unfavourable to the laurel of Parnassus.