1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Clare

Edward Phillips of Melksham, "Remarks on the spontaneous Display of Native Genius" Gentleman's Magazine 91 (January, April 1821) 32-35, 308-12.



It was finely said by Akenside,—

—from Heaven descends
The flame of Genius to the human breast;

and it has been generally acknowledged that the aspirations of true Genius, if they have been regulated by, have not been dependent upon the advantages of Education, or the light of Learning.

It has, on the contrary, been thought, that although Education, including all the means of intellectual culture, has afforded facilities in calling forth and directing the fine suggestions of Genius, — yet her native and indigenous creations of fancy, the teeming images of a mind finely oppressed by a generous enthusiasm, will burst forth in spite of the rustic garb and the inauspicious circumstances which, perchance, environ and obscure it; although capricious fortune has thrown her numerous obstacles, — of poverty, want of education, and want of patronage around it.

The exquisite paintings of a mind, tuned by nature to the mental enjoyment of vivid impressions of imagery, or of fine and illimitable prospects of imaginary existence; — the bursts of feeling and of sentiment which gains utterance, — not perhaps in the chastised and measured flow of eloquence, which distinguishes the man of extensive intellectual cultivation, and refined habits of thought, — which attends the periods of the student long inured to polished numbers and academical honours, — but rather in the simple, but plaintive language and thoughts which is understood in every age and every nation, which commands respect and admiration among every class of society whose "mind's eye" is capable of opening to pleasure beyond those of sense, — of feeling a sympathy with passion and sentiment abstracted from mercenary views and sordid joys, — these artless but fervid emanations of a mind alive to "gentlest beauty" must be ever read with peculiar interest and avidity, by all descriptions of mankind, who can appreciate the generous flow of a heart cast in a fine mould, and fired by emotions far above those of his own level and occupation.

Whether it is that the child of Nature, in her rude unlettered character, has peculiar appeals of his own, and that his beauties, from their intrinsic pleadings, find their way at once to the hearts of all; — or from the benevolent wish to foster and animate to still greater things the humble but aspiring swain, in whom dawns the fire of Genius, — it is certain, that all ranks feel a sudden impulse within them (although that impulse may possibly never realize any active or permanent display of patronage), to eulogize, and render honours and assistance to him whose productions gild, with a new radiance, the intellectual horizon.

The appearance of these literary phenomena or anomalies in the moral and mental world may likewise give birth to speculations to their existence and formation.

The philosophic investigator on the subject of mind, — its laws, its component principles and its stimulative mediums, might, perhaps, find scope for theories variously connected with the openings of the human faculties.

Whether from his birth, the peasant who rises to literary honours and immunities, possessed a secret power and propensity, which led him to poetry and to song; or whether certain associations in early childhood or infancy opened, at once, his perceptions and his taste to a range of thinking vastly superior to the standard of his ordinary compeers, has been a question, which, in the opinions of many, is still undecided.

Whatever be assumed as the operative cause, or whether there be any cause which way be termed operative or secondary, (thus referring this disparity to the immediate decree of the Deity,) the fact has repeatedly of late been sufficiently evident to the world, — of Genius, in the more refined studies of the human mind, rising, as it were, from the clods and the dunghill, and attaining, from it own native stores of imagery and force of sentiment, eminence, and justly-merited fame among the productions of those higher lucrubrators, who, from the appointment of nature, or certain favourable circumstances connected with their moral being, retain, in general, an exclusive dominion in the empire of mind.

It is certain that the powers of mind or of understanding are as unequal among subordinate and labouring classes, as among those where mind is cultivated, and endowments carefully expanded.

Observe two peasants of equal birth and fortune, perhaps the one appears stupid and dull as the clods which his industry attempts to fertilize and animate, and his sordid soul revolves in a narrow circle of gross enjoyments, whilst the other enjoys his faculties in far brighter vigour, — thinks with greater precision and correctness, and looks upon men and things with more acute and aspiring views. — But he may be equally far from seeing nature, and nature's scenery, through the delightful medium of Poetry; or of measuring the fitness of things, material and immaterial, through the subtle, and profound theory of metaphysics. — His faculties, so far as the finer operations, necessary to render him a proficient in these pursuits, were concerned, remained equally barren and deaf to every outward solicitation.

Many instances have occurred in which peasants have evinced an acuteness and sagacity in mechanical invention, — have made discoveries far beyond any thing which their rank and level would warrant an expectation of, but still the association of wind here argued, are of a subordinate description to the mental standard of thought which shall view nature and mankind as the common materials by which its Genius should rise to the attainment of new truths, or by which it should create fresh systems of intellectual delight.

This vast disparity, however, in the thinking conceptions of individuals of the same rank and occupation, must be assumed to militate very powerfully against the hypothesis of Helvetius, and others, who have taught that it is education alone, combined with certain favourable circumstances and moral temperaments, which constitutes the sole difference between the understandings and capacities of men.

The passions, which the French philosopher speaks of, as the constant excitements to Genius, can hardly be reconciled with a sober examination of facts, as clowns may be often observed, whose animal passions and temperaments are ardent, and easily excited, whose mind and imagination seem, yet, wholly dead to the finer intellectual passions, incapable of exercising abstractions, and of creating, in idea, an associated thought, or a poetical image, — while, on the other hand, those who have drawn the eyes of their contemporaries from their extraordinary conceptions and endowments of mind, have often been of a retiring disposition, and have been by no means distinguished by the warmth or impetuosity of their animal passions.

The capabilities, in this last case, seem to depend, not upon the passions or the moral temperament, although these are often useful in aiding the flow of mind, and although certain circumstances, often, considerably facilitate their expansion, — but, rather upon a decided, and peculiar pre-disposition implanted originally by the Author of Nature, for these pursuits, and these associations. Indeed it may be thought that sufficient grounds exist for concluding that, although the intellectual perceptions are often elicited and determined by extrinsic means, a settled bias for this or that pursuit is always originally latent in the human mind previous to its actual developement.

The Literature of our Island may be said to have, of late years, exemplified the truth of reflection of this nature, as it may also be said to have been fruitful in generating Poetical talents, of no inferior order, emerging from plebeian rank and station, and the actual progress which they achieved in polite literature and sciences, when this genial principle of mental emancipation has struggled into birth, surrounded by poverty, and by every other deteriorating circumstance in the shape of coarse and sordid minds in those to whom they would naturally look for example, for patronage, and support.

Generous and emulative spirits, — emulative of that high and heaven-born genius which disdains to be fettered by the dull range of thoughts, which circumscribes the souls of those among whom they were bred, — they have, at length, risen to a standard of excellence which has extorted the suffrage of honourable eulogium, even from the fastidiousness of criticism.

This may, perhaps, be said with justice of Chatterton, of Burns, of Bloomfield, of Drew, of Gifford, of Clare, and of Kirke White.

The fate of Chatterton, — his advantages in early youth, — the wonderful powers which could, whilst so young and so destitute of every gift, except alone that of Nature, imagine the poems which, it is generally acknowledged his genius had a great share in composing, — together with the standard and merits of his labours, — have long been before the public, and have, perhaps, been sufficiently analyzed to enable criticism, in all after ages, to form a fair and correct judgment.

Burns has likewise passed his ordeal, — flattering, on the whole, it must be said to be, since almost every author of eminence and of weight, has joined in eulogizing his powers, and the delicacy of his sentiments. Sprung from obscurity, he rose to distinction and notice by the strength and variety of his poetical conceptions, and quickly drew the patronage and flattering caresses of the rich, and, if his career had not been tarnished y profligacy of life, and a course of vices, unworthy, at once of the resources of his mind, and the reputation to which he aspired, might have sustained a character correspondent, to his mental rank. The variety and copiousness of his genius will not be disputed; the beauty, the vigour, and the grace of his Muse have, generally, likewise been the subjects of the highest encomiums, especially of late, since, as it seems, the fashionable suffrage of criticism has discovered that high rank which Scottish phraseology and thinking ought to occupy in human literature.

Bloomfield has had a large share of public acknowledgment, — his productions have been favourably received at the tribunal of criticism, whilst all who could feel, and all who could appreciate pathos of sentiment, and simplicity of description, have admired that mind which, having submitted to the menial drudgery, and all the servile offices of a rustic, could enroll them in the annals of Harmony and Song.

The two next whom we have mentioned are Gifford and [Samuel] Drew, although their class and character of genius are widely different, — the one a Poet, and a man of polite literature, and the other a Metaphysician, they were yet, in their birth and origin, pretty similar to each other. Of mean parentage, and, during the period of childhood, not only destitute of the common means of instruction, Gifford, however, afterwards experienced the advantages of education, and was admitted to the immunities which letters afford, and has proved, by the ardour with which be attached himself to these pursuits, and the works he actually accomplished, that there was originally implanted in him a native sympathy for the more refined exercises of intellectual converse.

Drew, although characterized by similar circumstances of life, wanted perhaps the advantages which distinguished Gifford. Condemned to labour with his hands for his subsistence under the controul of a sordid and ignorant master, he at length, as he tells us, accidentally, in his boundless thirst for imbibing literary knowledge from any thing in the shape of books which fell in his way, met with Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding. Upon beginning to read, he was struck with utter astonishment. It seemed to treat of subjects of which, before, he had no conception, and to endeavour to fathom matters beyond the bounds of human comprehensibility. Filled with a train of new ideas, which seemed altogether above the standard of his former thinking, — his energetic genius received an additional stimulus, and, although before turned to the pursuit of knowledge, they were now prompted by a curiosity and ardour which knew no bounds. Having, at length, surmounted the obstacles which seemed so formidably to oppose themselves in this new science, he, at length, thought deeply for hmself, and crowned his labours by the production of the "Essay on the immateriality and Immortality of the Human Soul;" a work which, without pronouncing its critical rank in lucubrations of this class, certainly argues a depth of thought, a patience of investigation, and a display of talents considerably above the common standard of those who have written on these abstract subjects, who have, nevertheless, enjoyed the early advantages of education.

Of the genius of Clare and Kirke White we may, without incurring the charge of tediousness, go a little into detail.

The Poems of Clare, a Northamptonshire peasant of the lowest order, which have recently been given to the world, may be thought well calculated to generate the reflections in which we just now indulged. It is not too much to say that the genius of their author, for poetic imagery of a genuine class and character, stands high among his contemporaries, while his means of intellectual culture were unprecedentedly low; — such indeed as, without very extraordinary energy of mind and imagination, aided by every parsimony of time and attention, he could not have succeeded in giving his embryo conceptions intelligible utterance to the world....

It has been observed of Thomson, that in his admirable descriptions — where he appears equally original and obvious, — that, whilst he selected those appearances alone most characteristic in the things which he describes, he imparts the air of novelty to objects, which, when pointed out by the exquisite colouring of his pencil, appear sufficiently known and familiar.

It may be said of CLARE, and without the imputation of bestowing unmerited praise, that, while from the constant opportunities, which his manner of life afforded him, in common with all other peasants, of observing Nature under all her forms, and with all her accompaniments, he was capacitated to delineate her minutest beauties, — these opportunities were not neglected, and he has happily illustrated her more trivial phenomena.

We are tempted to rank among the number of Poetical images, things which, until touched by his creative and fertilizing pencil, had appeared devoid of any thing which could impart dignity or grace to a literary description. — His invocations and descriptive tales usually bear the genuine stamp of a heart kindled to action and sentiment by the pure emotions of her own dictates, unschooled by the polish of art, but giving utterance to those ideas which Nature, with all her sublime and interesting garniture, is capable of inspiring.

Warm with the grateful acknowledgments of the swain looking around on all about him with generous enthusiasm, responsive to the call of piety, — and minutely descriptive, from the habitual views which his occupation enabled him to take at once of all the phenomena which characterize the revolution of the seasons, and the incidents which diversify the life and employments of a rustic, — these compositions must always obtain that dominion over the heart and sensibilities, which Poetry of far higher classical pretensions often fails in exciting. They may be said to call forth that feeling of mental delight, generated we know not why, but that they seem to have a secret affinity with certain sympathies and affections which dwell within us.

Clare, as his Editor has observed, had numerous difficulties to struggle with, unknown to almost all others, whose minds have opened to the power and perceptions of Genius.

Nursed in the lap of poverty of the most chilling description, he was long unable to acquire even the commonest rudiments of education, — until, by excessive parsimony, coupled with unwearied assiduity, he attained some knowledge of reading and writing, and, hence, was proportionately facilitated in giving utterance to the pictures which "imagination bodied forth." — Hence arises his occasional unpleasing collocations of words, — which indeed he, doubtless, it may be presumed, found most intelligibly expressive of his ideas, but, from the scanty limits of his vocabulary, he was unable, in his phraseology, to make those selections of copiousness which would have imparted a more modulated flow of harmony to his periods.

The minor deficiencies of this kind, however, do not materially deteriorate the Poetry of Clare, — they even add to its general effect, as the heart, while it feels the power of vigour, and artless beauties stealing over its susceptibilities, so far from regretting the absence of a more elaborate diction, is tempted to rank that writer in a higher class who can accomplish the ends of Poetry without using all those weapons which skilful practitioners often employ, with success.

Among the many specimens of beauty, of imagery, and pathos, and tenderness of sentiment, which Clare has given us in the small volume which has called forth the present animadversions, several may be quoted as pre-eminently indicative of ardour of feeling and elevation of thinking, certainly vastly above the general standard of his own rank and occupation.

In description and vigour of imagination, "Summer Evening," "Sumnmer Morning," an "Address to Plenty in Winter," "Harvest Morning," "Evening," "Noon," may be adduced as Poems which, for the felicity and propriety of the images employed, possess claims upon the reader of taste and sensibility which will not be neglected, while it may be said with equal justice, that "Helpstone," an "Address to a Lark singing in Winter," "Elegy to the Ruins of Pickworth, Rutlandshire," and "The Dawnings of Genius," may, for the fine tone of their sentiment, the dignity, and, withal, the warmth, tenderness, and simplicity of their style, vie with the admired productions of many, who have long ranked deservedly high in the annals of Poetical fame.

In the "Ruins of Pickworth," the measured and solemn flow of numbers happily illustrate the melancholy tinge of sentiment and of feeling which seems to animate the author, and swells his soul to something like sublimity. Although to the reader, impressed with classic veneration for names hallowed by the high suffrage of criticism, it may appear bold to mention him in connection with Gray, justice will not refuse to acknowledge that there is, in the general flow of sentiment and style which pervades this Elegy, much that forcibly reminds us of the sublime and impassioned moral painting which characterizes the "Church-yard."

The following may be taken as a specimen:

While vain extravagance, for one alone,
Claims half the land his grandeur to maintain,
What thousands, not a rood to call their own,
Like me, but labour for support, in vain.

Here we see luxury surfeit with excess,
There want bewailing, beg from door to door,
Still meeting sorrow where it meets success,
By length'ning life that liv'd in vain before.

And again:

There's not a rood of land demands our toil,—
There's not a foot of ground we daily tread,
But gains increase from time's devouring spoil,
But holds some fragments of the human dead.

Many pictures of genuine beauty strike the reader in the "Sonnets," of which it must be said generally, that they proclaim a high degree of delicacy of thinking in their author, and exhibit much warmth of colouring, expressed with simplicity and purity of language. It may not be thought exaggerated commendation, to say, that they sometimes unite dignity with force of feeling and of passion, and discriminative thought with quick sensibility. — Of these, "The Setting Sun," "The Moon," "The Gipsey's Evening Blaze," "To Hope," "Evening," "To the Glow Worm," "To Religion," and "Expectation," may be esteemed the best. Indeed those on the subjects of "Hope" and to "Expectation," when read under a full impression of the circumstances of the author's life and occupations, must certainly be pronounced extraordinary effusions, and argue powers of thought and combination of a standard with those who have been long admired for their genius, exhibited under far more auspicious circumstances, rather than the artless and plaintive strains of a peasant.

For instance, what can be finer, of its kind, than the following:

Ah, smiling Cherub! cheating Hope, adieu!
No more I'll listen to your pleasing themes,
No more your flattering themes with joy renew,
For, ah! I've found them all delusive dreams—
Yes, mere delusions all, therefore adieu.
No more this aching heart shall you beguile,
No more yon fleeting theme will I pursue,
That mock'd my sorrows when they seem'd to smile,
And flatter'd tales that never will be true;
Tales only told to aggravate distress,
And make me at my fate the more repine,
By whisp'ring joys I never shall possess,
And painting scenes that never can be mine.

The Ode "To Religion" has very powerful claims to notice, from the fine view of sentiment and of piety which characterizes it, and the well-imagined arrangement of its style; — and the conception may be esteemed singularly happy. But we must pass on to some consideration of the remaining character whom we have selected as the subject of the present critical remarks.

Of the genius of KIRKE WHITE, it may seem, at the present period, when his writings have been long before the world, that not much of novelty is easy to be advanced, as its real standard and rank has probably, long ere this, been decided upon in the breasts of his literary readers.

His Poetry, however, offers a rich and exuberant field of critical lucubration. Of a higher rank and order, in the range of his thought and the extent of his invention, than that of Clare, the genius of Kirke White may be said to have embraced a wider field of observation, of sentiment, and of moral reflection, than that of the latter. — His extended observation (extended for his years,) and knowledge of men and things, was keener, and the sources from which he studied life, under its varied modifications, were far more enlarged; consequently his speculations assume a stronger cast and tone, — he surveys man with a more profound aspect and severe feeling of morality, from his acquaintance with the past records of his frailty.

Of all the writers whose native and untutored genius have risen triumphantly above the restraints which a life of sordid occupations imposes, to deserved literary eminence, Kirke White presents a name which has not unjustly been the subject of very flattering encomiums. — Of mean parentage, — mean, for the circle in which nature had destined him to move, — he early, whilst employed in the menial duties of his station, felt the tide of Genius rising strong within him, and distending his breast with the generous emotions which, among men, form the only distinction that nature knows.

Although he soon attracted the notice of gentlemen whose munificence and generous patronage enabled him, both at school and college, to gain access to the immunities of learning, and although he consequently enjoyed, in this respect, privileges considerably above some others, who have excited a similar display, of talent in early youth, he, before he was scarcely conscious of his own superiority, gave signs of imagination and sentiment at once vigorous and fertile. For an individual who had scarcely completed his 21st year, his literary attainments, amidst the multiplicity of other avocations, were truly extraordinary.

The ardour of acquiring knowledge of a multifarious kind, connected with arts and with science, was as conspicuous as the native lustre and brightness of his genius. His genius alone, however, unaccompanied by his indefatigable perseverance, would have rescued his name from oblivion, and enrolled it in the list, of literary worthies. — Possessing a fine and impassioned mind, alive to the tender susceptibilities of our natures, — that could be wrought upon by the ills which afflict life, he was at the same time capable of severe thought, and a high range of lofty and sublime disquisitions. Rising with the generous ardour of inspiration to the melody of numeral composition, the flow of his numbers, and the sweetness of his modulation, seems only the genuine language which nature spontaneously suggests for the utterance of his sentiments, — not the language of painful study, — that has been subject to elaborate correction. His Poems, in general, indicate a fervour of feeling, and a tone of thinking, a talent for imagery, and at the same time for grave and deliberate discussion, which decidedly place their author upon a rank with some of our most admired Poets, especially when it be considered that, had not the stroke of death cut short his mortal career, his powers would have expanded to a more correct standard of thinking, and a more powerful display of intellectual vision, than can be said to be indicated among his posthumous lucubrations.

His is not the cold unanimated eloquence of the florid declaimer, incumbered with a weight of learning; his speculations rather abound with pathos and tenderness, generally tinged with a certain soft melancholy, (the natural consequence of his peculiar case, operating upon a piously disposed mind,) accompanied withal, with a richness and play of fancy which pleases the taste, while it reaches the heart.

To these high endowments of nature, heightened by industry, Kirke White eminently superadded others of a still more estimable nature; that is, he was characterized by the purest moral and religious principles, — his writings delineate a heart grateful for the blessings, and devoted to the praise of his Maker, and imbued, alike, with sentiments of benevolence towards all mankind, — qualities which are, by no means, the constant attendants upon a bright association of the intellectual endowments.

The quotations which follow may be said, in some degree, to illustrate the truth of these remarks. The reader, whilst perusing the "Remains" of this deeply-to-be-lamented youth, will find himself in a pleasing wilderness of Poetry, abounding with beautiful images, — with noble and tender sentiments; — but if he more critically analyze the complexion of his Genius from his writings, he will find that it partook alike of the tender and pathetic in description, — of the light and sportive play of fancy, — of a talent which delighted to lose itself in high and abstract speculations, — and of the ardent enthusiasm of the Poet of deep feeling and glowing imagination.

His high pretensions in the former of these characters, may, among numerous others, be illustrated by the following beautiful passage from his poem entitled "Time."

—Behold the world
Rests, and her tir'd inhabitants have paus'd
From trouble and turmoil. — The widow now
Has ceas'd to weep, and her twin orphans lie
Lock'd in each arm, partakers of her rest;
The man of sorrows has forgot his woes;
The outcast that his head is shelterless,
His griefs unshar'd. — The mother tends no more
Her daughter's dying slumbers, — but surpriz'd
With heaviness, and sunk upon the couch,
Dreams of her bridals. — Even the hectic, lull'd
On death's lean arm to rest, in visions wrapt,
Crowning with Hope's bland wreath, his shuddering nurse;
Poor victim smiles.

From this fine and successful attempt to pourtray the influences of night upon the various classes of the unfortunate, — we turn with different feelings to the perusal of the following lines, indicating, in an equal degree, the richness and sprightliness of vagrant fancy, in his "Ode to Contemplation," which combines all the airy and fantastic features of Milton's L'Allegro:

I will meet thee on the hill,
Where, with printless footsteps still,
The Morning in her buskin grey,
Springs upon her eastern way,
Playing with the gossamer;
And on rudder pinions borne,
Shake the dew-drops from the thorn;
There, as o'er the fields we pass,
Brushing, with hasty feet, the grass,
We will startle from her nest,
The lively lark with speckled breast,
And hear, the floating clouds among,
Her gale-transported matin song;
Or on the upland stile embowered,
With fragrant hawthorn snowy flowered,
Will sauntering sit, and listen still,
To the herdsman's eaten quill,
Wafted from the plain below;
Or the heifer's frequent low.

In a still different mood, and with different feelings, will the reader contemplate the following passage, which may be thought in its general complexion to be not much unlike Milton, in his greater moments, and certainly to substantiate our author's eminence in the sublime and elevated style of Poetry:

Him, who august,
Was, 'ere these worlds were fashion'd, — the sun
Sprang from the East, or Lucifer display'd
His gloomy cresset in the arch of morn,
Or Vesper gilded the serener eve,
Yea He had been for an eternity;
Had swept unvarying from eternity
The harp of desolation, ere his tones,
At God's command, assum'd a milder strain,
And startled on his watch, in the vast deep
Chaos's sluggish sentry, and evok'd
From the dark void the smiling universe.

That Kirke White possessed the ardour of Poetic enthusiasm in its genuine character of inspiration, many of his "Sonnets" and "Fragments" may be thought abundantly to shew. The following, "The Winter Traveller," if it be not one which discovers the most fire of conception, is among the most pathetic delineations of his fancy:

God help thee, Traveller, on thy journey far,
The wind is bitter keen, the snow o'erlays
The hidden pits and dang'rous hollow ways,
And darkness will involve thee. — No kind star
To night will guide thee, Traveller, — and the war
Of winds and elements on thy head will break,
And in thy agonizing ear the shriek,
Of spirits howling on their stormy car,
Will often ring appalling — I portend
A dismal night, and on my wakeful bed
Thoughts, Traveller, of thee will fill my head,
And him who rides where winds and waves contend,
And strives, rude cradled on the seas to guide,
His lonely bark through the tempestuous tide.

We ought not, perhaps, to dismiss this highly-endowed and interesting Poet, without remarking that the various and enthusiastic tributes to his merit which the uncommon beauty of his writings extorted, at the epoch of their publication, were not undeservedly bestowed, but were his just award. The reflection, likewise, will powerfully strike his discriminating readers, — that, had it pleased the Supreme Disposer of human events, whose purposes of wisdom are not comprehensible by us, to have allotted a longer term of years to the maturer expansion of his powers, he would have taken his station in a very high, perhaps the highest rank amongst the Poetical luminaries which, in our own age brightens the intellectual horizon, and which, if it does not, as certain critics have very unwarrantably assumed that it does, shine with a more cloudless radiance than at any former period, certainly comprehends many Poets of genuine and capacious power of invention.