Campbell's poetry is by no means voluminous, and yet the greater part of it has ceased to be much read. Two or three admirable ballads are well known to the present generation and will probably continue to be known beyond it, and a few lines out of his other poems have taken the place they so well deserve to hold among current quotations.
His first poem, The Pleasures of Hope, published in 1798, was modelled no doubt upon The Pleasures of Memory, published in 1793, and though Rogers was nearly thirty years of age when he wrote, and Campbell only twenty-one, there are finer passages to be found in the work of the younger poet. But there is the same fault of a prevailing didactic tameness in the one poem as in the other, and Campbell had to learn and to listen for a year or two more before he caught the livelier spirit of song which rang in the new century.
It was at this point of time that our poetry was about to "breathe a second spring." Wordsworth said that Coleridge "was in blossom from 1796 to 1800." Southey wrote in 1837 — "Many volumes of poems are now published every year without attracting public attention, any one of which, if it had appeared half a century ago would have obtained a high reputation for its author."
The Pleasures of Hope did obtain a high reputation for its author. It passed through four editions within one year of its publication. And on that reputation, and on its merits rather than its charms, it lived for half a century more or less; and if it is now in a way to be dead and buried, there will be no small amount of poetic material to be buried with it. As in the case of its predecessor and model, it is the dull movement and desultory design which brings it in peril of its life.
When his songs took the place of what may be called poetical lectures, Campbell's diction was no longer so scrupulously correct. Perhaps absolute correctness of diction is less to be insisted upon in what is ejaculated than what is concocted: and Campbell's ballads have so much life and animation in them that the reader who is happy enough not to be a critic may well overlook one or two trifling faults of grammar, — carried away by their salient metrical effects and the force of the feeling that inspires them. Faults of sound, it is true, cannot so easily escape notice, and the rhymes are not always what they should be.
Of the ballads, Hohenlinden and Ye Mariners of England were written in 1800, and The Battle of the Baltic in 1809. In the latter year was published Gertrude of Wyoming, a narrative poem of ninety-two Spenserian stanzas, divided into three parts. If this poem had been the first to appear it would probably have taken and kept a higher place than The Pleasures of Hope in popular estimation. There is no search after something to say in this, and the story is told with a simple and pathetic as well as poetical sweetness which could scarcely have failed to take effect if the field of narrative poetry had not been preoccupied by poets of more varied powers. And though the Spenserian stanza is commonly supposed to be the most difficult in the language, it is written by Campbell with such a graceful fluency that it seems like the poet's natural way of expressing himself, and the difficulty is to suppose that it costs him any trouble.
One disadvantage that it had to contend with was the "locus in quo." The scene is laid in America. Now there is no people on the face of the earth who have a quicker sense of what is poetical and romantic than the Americans. But they themselves would desire to forget their own country when their imaginations we to be invoked and they are to lose themselves in the regions of romance. They are affected quite as much as we are, if not more, by what is old and unfamiliar.
Campbell may have assumed, perhaps, that the same unfamiliarity which makes an old country most interesting to the natives of a new one, will make the new one most interesting to the natives of the old. Socially and politically it may be so, but in its relations with poetry and romance it is otherwise. "On Susquehana's side fair Wyoming" may be as beautiful as it is beautifully described in the opening of the poem, but the picturesque effect would have gained in imaginative associations if Wyoming had been in the old world instead of the new. There is however one impressive figure of the new world which the old could not have afforded — that of the Indian Outalissi. He brings into the story at his first, and still more at his last appearance, a element of wildness which is employed with excellent effect.
Campbell wrote one other long story, Theodoric by name, which he calls "domestic," and in which he resumes the old heroic couplet (why called "heroic" it is hard to understand), stumping along as if with two wooden legs. It is a commonplace tragedy of real life prosaically related, into which a plainness of speech not usually met with in poetry is occasionally introduced, with a view no doubt to give the effect of reality and truth. Such language might have fulfilled its purpose had the story been written in prose; but being in verse of a stiff and pompous form, the effect is that of incongruity, combining two affectations, an affectation of poetic elevation with an affectation of simplicity. In short, the poem is altogether unworthy of its author.
And if anything could show how unworthy, it would be the poem next in succession, O'Connor's Child; for this is the very soul of song — tragic, romantic and passionate. Nor are there wanting among the minor poems a few more tales — The Spectre Boat, Glenara, The Ritter Bann, Lord Ullin's Daughter — which have a like, if not an equal chains; and others, good of their kind, short, well told in ballad metre, but with epigrammatic rather than poetic effect. Those which are not good of their kind are songs or ballads which Dame Nature seems to have intended for ebullitions, and which probably were so in their birth, but which Stepdame Art has laboured to improve.
For the rest, the complete editions of Campbell's poems, like those of most poets renowned in their day, contain a proportion of juvenile and senile efforts which might have been spared with advantage to the collection as a whole; and the same may be said of certain occasional poems written because they were wanted. Some verses on Marie Antoinette, of no very great merit in themselves, are remarkable in having been written at fifteen years of age. And there is another poem, included in the edition published by Moxon in 1837, which is remarkable amongst Campbell's poems for not being Campbell's. It is Wordsworth's well-known poem beginning "There is a change, — and I am poor." It is singular that such a misappropriation should have happened when both the poets were still living.