1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alaric Alexander Watts

Anonymous, "Bob Tickler on Watts' Poetical Sketches" Newcastle Magazine NS 3 (June 1824) 276-79.



The little volume of poetry which I am about to notice has had a fate quite singular, I think, in modern literature. It has obtained the praise of most of the leading periodicals — praise which seemed the less equivocal, that it came from writers of all parties. From Blackwood to the New Monthly, from the Literary Gazette to the Magazine of Constable, not forgetting the smaller fry of newspapers, metropolitan and provincial; all were warm and eloquent in commendation of the poetry of Mr. Alaric Watts. — The effect of all this on me was a burning desire to read a publication which had been the object of so many encomiastic effusions, and which had drawn into one focus the favourable rays of Tory, Whig, and Radical. I read the work — and I was satisfied.

Satisfied of what? you ask. Why of this, that Mr. Watts, though possessing some genius for poetry, by no means merits the praises that have been lavished on him; and that the whole of the respectable periodicals above-mentioned have been guilty, in his case, of bare-faced puffery. This is a serious charge against the said periodicals; but it is not the less true, and a little consideration will enable us to see the reasons for their conduct. Mr. Watts, then, has, if I am rightly informed, been what is called "a gentleman of the press," one who contributes to magazines, no matter of what party or principles, for the laudable purpose of obtaining a livelihood; one of that class who, according to Pope, will "turn a Persian tale for half-a-crown," or write critiques at the rate of five shillings a sheet. In the capacity he has, I believe, favoured almost all the magazines of the day with his lucubrations in prose or verse — I, Bob Ticker, have met with them both in Constable's and the New Monthly Magazine, both in the Literary Gazette and Blackwood. Mr. Watts is deep in the intrigues of publishers. He saw his opportunity, and seized it. He collected these fugitive performances and, as he kindly informs us, had them printed for "private circulation." — This private circulation, however, turns out to be public circulation! He sent copies to his "friends," but these friends happen to be all editors or publishers, who necessarily lauded his poetry. I say "necessarily," because their credit depended on their doing so. They could not indulge in a laugh, a sneer, or even an undergrowl, without giving occasion to their readers for exclaiming — "This is not fair! If Mr. Watts' verses be trash, you have heretofore made us pay for trash, knowing it to be such." The editors, aware of this inference, ran to the other extreme, and hailed this mediocre poet as if he had been a star of the first magnitude! But the event has proved that books cannot be forcibly crammed down the throat of the public. The poetry of Mr. Watts has been but coldly received after all. A new edition was announced almost immediately subsequent to the appearance of the first; but, though nearly a year has elapsed since that time, no second edition has yet left the prudent publisher's. Tell it not in Prince's-street! Publish it not in High Holborn! lest Campbell turn pale, lest Christopher North tremble, to witness the inefficacy of their applause....

To conclude. Mr. Watts must not think to take his place with even the least of our great masters of British song. He must not presume to touch the hem of a garment that wraps Scott, or Byron, or Moore, or Southey, or Wordsworth. His literary attainments would rank him above Clare, or Bloomfield, or Burns; but these have bursts of natural and overwhelming passion that leave him far beneath them. His own ambition would probably set him by the side of Montgomery; — but no! He must down — down. After the most mature consideration, the irrevocable sentence of Bob Tickler fixes him in the midway space betwixt John Keats and Bernard Barton.