1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Wilson

J—y, "Literary Sketch on John Wilson's Poems" Living Poets of England: Specimens of the Living British Poets (1827) 2:85-91.



Mr. JOHN WILSON is now a professor of philosophy in the University of Edinburgh.

Professor Wilson, as a poet, is a new recruit to the company of lakists. He has the same predilection, indeed, for engrafting powerful emotion on ordinary occurrences; and the same tendency to push all his emotions a great deal too far — the same disdain of all worldly enjoyments and pursuits, — and the same occasional mistakes, as to energy and simplicity of diction, which characterise the works of his predecessors. But he differs from them in this very important particular, that though he does generally endeavour to raise a train of lofty and pathetic sensations upon very trifling incidents and familiar objects, and frequently pursues them to a great height of exaggeration, he is scarcely ever guilty of the offence of building them upon a foundation that is ludicrous or purely fantastic. He makes more, to be sure, of a sleeping child, or a lonely cataract — and flies into greater raptures about female purity and moonlight landscapes, and fine dreams, and — flowers, and singing birds — than most other poets permit themselves to do, — though it is of the very essence of poetry to be enraptured with such things: — But he does not break out into any ecstacies about spades or sparrows' eggs — or men gathering leeches — or women in duffle cloaks — or plates and porringers — or washing tubs — or any of those baser themes which poetry was always permitted to disdain, without any impeachment of her affability, till Mr. Wordsworth thought fit to force her into an acquaintance with them.

Though Mr. Wilson may be extravagant, therefore, he is not perverse. The objects for which he seeks to interest us, are all objects of natural interest; and the emotions which he connects with them, are in some degree, associated with them in all reflecting minds. It is the great misfortune of Mr. Wordsworth, on the contrary, that he is exceedingly apt to make choice of subjects which are not only unfit in themselves to excite any serious emotion, but naturally present themselves to ordinary minds as altogether ridiculous. We have the greatest respect for the genius of Mr. Wordsworth, and the most sincere veneration for all we have heard of his character; but it is impossible to contemplate the injury he has done to his reputation by this poor ambition of originality, without a mixed sensation of provocation and regret. We are willing to take it for granted, that the spades and the eggs, and the tubs which he commemorates, actually suggested to him all the emotions and reflexions of which he has chosen to make them the vehicles; but they surely are not the only objects, which have suggested similar emotions; and we really cannot understand why the circumstance of their being quite unfit to suggest them to any other person, should have recommended them as their best accompaniments in an address to the public. We do not want Mr. Wordsworth to write like Pope or Prior, nor to dedicate his muse to subjects which he does not himself think interesting. We are prepared, on the contrary, to listen with a far deeper delight to the songs of his mountain solitude, and to gaze on his mellow pictures of simple happiness and affection, and his lofty sketches of human worth and energy; and we only beg that we may have these nobler elements of his poetry, without the debasement of childish language, mean incidents, and incongruous images.

Mr. Wilson is not free from some of the faults of diction, which we think belong to his school. He is occasionally mystical, and not seldom childish: but he has less of these peculiarities than most of his associates and there is one more important fault from which, we think, he has escaped altogether. We allude now to the offensive assumption of exclusive taste, judgment and morality which pervades most of the writings of this tuneful brother-hood. There is a tone of tragic, keen and intolerant reprobation in all the censures they bestow, that is not a little alarming to ordinary sinners. Every thing they do not like is accursed, and pestilent and inhuman; and they can scarcely differ from any body upon a point of criticism, politics or metaphysics, without wondering what a heart he must have; and expressing, not merely dissent, but loathing and abhorrence. Neither is it very difficult to perceive, that they think it barely possible for any one to have any just notion of poetry, any genuine warmth of affection or philanthropy or any large views as to the true principles of happiness and virtue, who does not agree with them in most of their vagaries, and live a life very nearly akin to that which they have selected for themselves. The inhabitants of towns, therefore, and most of those who are engaged in the ordinary business or pleasures of society, are cast off without ceremony as demoralized and denaturalized beings; and it would evidently be a considerable stretch of charity in these new apostles of taste, and wisdom, to believe that any one of this description could have a genuine relish for the beauties of nature, could feel any ardent or devoted attachment to another, — or even comprehend the great principles upon which private and public virtue must be founded. Mr. Wilson, however, does not seem to believe in the necessity of this extraordinary monopoly; but speaks with a tone of indulgence and open sociality, which is as engaging as the jealous and assuming manner of some of his models is offensive. The most striking characteristic, indeed, as well as the great charm, of his poems, is the spirit of warm and unaffected philanthropy which breathes over every page of them — that delighted tenderness with which the writer dwells on the bliss of childhood, and the dignity of female innocence, and that young enthusiasm which leads him to luxuriate in the description of beautiful nature and the joys of a life of retirement. If our readers can contrive to combine these distinguishing features with our general reference of the author to the school of Wordsworth and Southey, they will have as exact a conception of his poetical character as can he necessary to prepare them for a more detailed account of the works offered to their perusal. The Isle of Palms is a strange, wild story of two lovers that were wrecked in the Indian Sea, and marvelously saved on an uninhabited, but lovely Island, when all the rest of the crew were drowned; — of their living there, in peace and blessedness for six or seven years — and being at last taken off, with a lovely daughter, who had come to cheer their solitude — by an English ship of war, and landed in the arms of the lady's mother, who had passed the long interval of their absence in one unremitting agony of hope and despair. This, in point of fact is the whole of the story, — and nearly all the circumstances that we detailed in the four long cantos which cover the first 180 pages of one volume; for never certainly, was there a poem, pretending to have a story, in which there was so little narrative, and on which the descriptions and reflections bore such a monstrous proportion to the facts and incidents out of which they arise. This piece is in irregular rhymed verse, like the best parts of Mr. Southey's Kehama, to which indeed, it bears a pretty close resemblance, both in the luxuriance of the descriptions, the tenderness of the thoughts, the copiousness of the diction, and the occasional harmony of the versification, tho' it is perhaps still more diffuse and redundant.

The first canto describes the gallant ship, in the third month of her outward bound voyage, sailing over the quiet sea in a lovely moonlight evening, and the two lovers musing and conversing on the deck. There are great raptures about the beauty of the ship and the moon, — and pretty characters of the youth and the maiden in the same tone of ecstasy. Just as the sky is kindling with the summer dawn, and the freshness of morning rippling over the placid waters, the vessel strikes on a sunken rock, and goes down almost instantly. This catastrophe is described, we think, with great force and effect; — allowance being always made for the peculiarities of the school to which the author belongs.

The second canto begins with a very absurd expostulation to the moon, for having let the good ship be lost after shining so sweetly upon it. After this wild fit, however, has spent itself, we are conducted to a little sea-beat rock, where the unhappy lover finds himself stretched in horrible solitude; and where, in a sort of entranc'd slumber, he has a vision of a blissful land, over which he seems to wander with his beloved. On opening his eyes, he finds her actually leaning over him; and, by and by, the ship's pinnace comes floating alongside, with its oars and sails ready for immediate service. They embark with holy hope and confidence; and, at the close of evening, reach a shady and solitary shore, where they kneel down and return thanks to providence. — The third canto is filled almost entirely with the description of this enchanted island, and of the blissful life which these lovers lived in its beautiful seclusion; and, certainly, a more glowing picture of Elysium has not often been brought before us, than is contained in these pages: such shades and flowers — and wooded steeps — and painted birds — and sunny bays and cascades — and dewy vales and thickets — and tufted lawns!—

On the first sabbath day, they take each other for husband and wife; and five or six years pass over, the reader does not well know how; — And still we find them enraptured with their flowers and their birds, and their own prayers, songs, and meditations; — All at once a fairy child comes singing down a mountain, in a frock of peacock's feathers; — and we find they have a lovely daughter. The blessed babe comes to tell of a strange sight she has seen on the sea; and her father soon discovers it to be a ship steering towards their shore.

The fourth and last canto carries is hack to England, and to the woes of the despairing mother, whose daughter had embarked so many years before, in that ill fated ship, of which no tidings had ever reached her home. After pining in agony for years in her native Wales, she had been drawn by an irresistible impulse to take up her abode in the sea-port from which she had seen her beloved child depart, and to gaze daily on the devouring waters in which she believed her to be entombed. As she is lingering one sunny day on the beach, a shout is raised for the approach of a long expected vessel; and multitudes hurry out to meet their returning friends and relations. The unhappy mother flies, sick at heart from the joyful scene of congratulation; but strange murmurs pursue her in her retreat.

Dark words she hears among the crowd,
Of a ship that hath on board,
Three christian souls, who on the coast
Of some wild land were wreck'd long years ago,
When all but they were in a tempest lost;
And they are speaking of a child,
Who looks more beautifully wild
Than pictured fairy in Arabian tale;
Wondrous her foreign garb, they say,
Adorn'd with starry plumage gay,
While round her head tall feathers play,
And dance with every gale!

She turns in breathless impatience, and sees the sailors rushing eagerly to the embraces of their wives and children but—

—No sailor, he, so fondly pressing
Yon fair child, in his arms,
Her eyes, her brow, her bosom kissing,
And bidding her with many a blessing
To hush her vain alarms.
How fair that creature by his aide!
Who smiles with languid glee,
Slow-kindling from a mother's pride!
Oh! thou alone may'st be
The mother of that fairy child,
Those tresses dark, those eyes so wild
That face with spirit beautified,
She owes them all to thee.

Silent and still the sailors stand,
To see the meeting strange that now befel:
Unwilling sighs their manly bosom, swell,
And o'er their eyes they draw the sun-burnt hand,
To hide the tears that grace their cheeks so well.

They then all retire to the romantic shades of their native Wales; and the piece concludes with an apostrophe to that fairy child, who seems to have chiefly possessed the raised imagination of the author. — We are rather unwilling to subjoin any remarks on a poem, of which, even from the slight account we have given of it, we are aware that the opinion of different readers will be so different. To those who delight in wit, sarcasm, and antithesis, the greater part of it will appear mere raving and absurdity; — to such as have an appetite chiefly for crowded incidents and complicated adventures, it will seem diffuse and empty; — and even by those who seek in poetry for the delineation of human feelings and affections; it will frequently be felt as too ornate and ostentatious. The truth is, that it has by far too much of the dreaminess and intoxication of the fancy about it, and is by far too much expanded; and though it will afford great delight to those who are most capable and most worthy of being delighted, there are none whom it will not sometimes dazzle with its glare, and sometimes weary with its repetitions.—

"The Angler's Tent", is a description of an afternoon's visit which the author had the pleasure of receiving from the simple inhabitants around Wast-water, when he and Mr. Wordsworth and some other friends had pitched their tent on the banks of that sequester'd lake, one beautiful sunday, in the course of a fishing excursion among the mountains. It is one of the boldest experiments we have lately met with, of the possibility of maintaining the interest of a long poem without any extraordinary incident, or any systematic discussion; and, for our own parts, we are inclined to think that it is a successful one. There are few things, at least, which we have lately read, that have pleased or engaged us more than the picture of simple innocence and artless delight which is here drawn, with a truth and modesty of colouring far more attractive, in our apprehension, than the visionary splendours of the Isle of Palms. The novelty of the white tent, gleaming like an evening cloud by the edge of the still waters, had attracted the curiosity of the rustic worshippers, it seems, as they left the little chapel in the dell, and they came in successive groupes, by land and by water, to gaze on the splendid apparition. The kindhearted anglers received them with all the gentleness and hospitality of Isaac Walton himself; we sincerely compassionate the reader who is not both touched and soothed with the following amiable representation.

And thus our tent a joyous scene became, etc., etc.

The picture of the mountain damsels is equally engaging. The delighted guests depart by moonlight; and while they are climbing the shadowy hills, their entertainers raise a splendid bonfire to light them on their way, and hear new clamours of acclamation ring round all the awakened echoes.

The same tenderness of thought and warmth of imagination are visible in the lines addressed to a sleeping child; Mr. Wilson's blank verse, seems to us to be formed, like that of all his school, on the model of Akenside's, and to combine, with a good deal of his diffuseness, no ordinary share of its richness and beauty. Mr. Wilson has written a sweet and touching monody on the death of Grahame, the much lamented and most amiable author of the "sabbath" and other poems; the moral character of Mr. Wilson's poetry is, throughout, very much the same with that of the friend he here commemorates; and, in this particular piece, he has fallen very much into his manner also.

One lays aside Mr. Wilson's poetry with regret: for though it has many faults, it has a redeeming spirit, both of fancy and of kindness, about it, which will not let them be numbered. It has, moreover, the charm of appearing to be written less from ambition of praise than from the direct and genuine impulse of the feelings which it expresses; and though we cannot undertake to defend it from the scorn of the learned, or the ridicule of the witty, we are very much mistaken if it does not afford a great deal of pleasure to many persons almost as well worth pleasing.

The most important piece of Mr. Wilson's poetry since he published the isle of Palms was the City of the Plague, (a dramatic poem) by which is meant London, during the great sickness of 1666. There are many dramatic beauties in that work and a very great number of passages that are both pathetic and poetical in a very high degree.