The poems of Mrs. Barbauld are chiefly written in the elegant pseudo-classic style of the close of the last century. She expresses herself clearly and with grace; a certain artificiality of manner harmonises with her choice of subject. Her poetry is without deep thought or passion; but it is free from blunders of an avoidable kind. The spirit of self-criticism which prompted her to destroy all her juvenile verses, never permitted her to include with her published works any ill-considered thought or unsuccessful effort. "I had rather," she declared, in answer to remonstrance, "that it should be asked of twenty pieces why they are not here, than of one why it is." The bulk of Mrs. Barbauld's poetry is inspired by the trivial occasions of domestic life; and when she quits the personal vein, it is of Delia and Damon, of Sylvia and Corin, that she sings; pretty shepherdesses and tuneful shepherds, whose delicate pretence of loving claims no relation to the passions of reality. Such fancies move her to an airy playfulness, a charming feminine kind of humour. She is gay, but her gayest mood is without abandonment. Frequent allusions to the classic poets, quoted lines of Virgil, remind us that the poetess is also a learned Lady, a schoolmistress, and an authority on education.
The fame of Mrs. Barbauld's hymns has outlived the rest of her work. Yet with the exception of her charming Hymns in Prose for Little Children, they seem, to a modern reader, deficient in fervour and in religious emotion. They are pure in tone and lofty, but often singularly cold. There can be no doubt, however, of their sincerity.
Mrs. Barbauld essayed her strength in one or two serious poems and epistles on political subjects. In the treatment of such themes she was not happy. It is only in her lighter moods that she is free from a certain complacent shallowness of sentiment which lessens the value of her work. This fault is less noticeable in her later poems, when age and sad experience had overcome her: yet even here, in only one of her lyrics, in the close of the Ode to Life, do we meet with much real beauty of feeling. Towards the end of her days she composed the longest of her poems, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven. Her subject is the decline of British power, the transfer of European prestige to America; and it is not surprising that it was received with much disfavour. Nor were the public to be soothed by hearing that the "ingenuous youth from the Blue Mountains or Ontario's Lake," forerunners of Lord Macaulay's New Zealander, should, making duteous pilgrimage to London's faded glories, enquire "Where ill-accomplished Jones his race began."
Mrs. Barbauld could not forgive the public its ingratitude. She took a mild revenge in publishing no more poems, and the step, it may be, was a wise one. In the heyday of the Georgian revival, her academic little verses must have missed their accustomed praise. Her vaunted immortelles had already faded; I fear they will bear no more their golden flowers in any possible future.