The fame of Peacock as a prose humourist of incomparable vivacity has tended to overshadow and stunt his reputation as a poet. It is time, however, that his claims in verse should be vindicated, and a place demanded for him as an independent figure in the crowded Parnassus of his age, — a place a little below the highest, and somewhat isolated, at the extreme right of the composition. He has certain relations, not wholly accidental, with Shelley, who stands above him, and with such minor figures as Horace Smith and Thomas Haynes Bayly, who stand no less obviously below him; but in the main he is chiefly notable for his isolation. His ironical and caustic songs are unique in our literature, illuminated by too much fancy to be savage, but crackling with a kind of ghastly merriment that inspires quite as much terror as amusement. In parody he has produced at least one specimen, "There is a fever of the spirit," which does not possess its equal for combined sympathy and malice. When we pass to his serious and sentimental lyrics, our praise cannot be so unmeasured. Peacock possessed too much literary refinement, too little personal sensibility to write with passion or to risk a fall by dying; yet his consummate purity of style seldom fails to give a subdued charm to the quietest of his songs. The snatches and refrains which are poured over the novel of Maid Marian, like a shower of seed pearl, are full of the very essence of spontaneous song, as opposed to deliberate lyrical writing; while the corresponding chants and ballads in The Misfortunes of Elphin show with equal distinctness Peacock's limitations as a poetical artist. Once or twice he has succeeded in writing a lyric that is almost perfect; "I dug beneath the cypress shade" would, for instance, be worthy of Landor in Landor's best manner, but for a little stiffness in starting.
Twice in mature life Peacock attempted a long flight in poetry, and each time without attracting any serious attention from the public of his own time or from posterity. In one of these cases I hope to show that this neglect has been deeply unjust; for the other I find an excuse in the extreme languor which it has produced on myself to read once more The Genius of the Thames. This poem, written just before the general revival of poetic style, may almost be called the last production of the eighteenth century. It contains all the wintry charms and hypocritical graces of the school of Collins in its last dissolution; it proceeds with mingled pomp and elegance along the conventional path, in the usual genteel manner, until suddenly the reader, familiar with the temperament of Peacock, starts and rubs his eyes to read an invocation of
Sun-crowned Science! child of heaven!
To wandering man by angels given!
Still, nymph divine! on mortal sight
Diffuse thy intellectual light.
from the man to whom the whole spirit of scientific enquiry was entirely hostile.
Rhododaphne, which Peacock published eight years later, is a performance of a very different kind. While somewhat indebted to Akenside for matter, to Byron for style, to Shelley for phraseology, the essential part of this poem is as original as it is delicate and fascinating. There is little plot or action in the piece. A youth Anthemion loves a mortal maiden Calliroe, but is courted and subdued by a supernatural being named Rhododaphne, who exercises over him the poisonous spell of the rose-laurel. Calliroe dies and Rhododaphne triumphs, but in the end the doom is reversed, Calliroe returns to life, and the charms of the rose-laurel are evaded. It is curious to compare Rhododaphne with Endymion, which was published in the same year. Peacock leaves Keats far behind in knowledge of English language and of Greek manners, in grace and learning of every kind, but Keats, as by a diviner instinct, is led by his very ignorance into a mood more truly antique than Peacock attains by such pedantries as—
The rose and myrtle blend in beauty
Round Thespian Love's hypaethric fane.
Still Rhododaphne is a poem full of eminent beauties and touches of true art. It would be absolutely and not comparatively great were it not that the whole structure of the work is spoiled by a tone of Georgian sentiment which we should scarcely have expected from so genuine a Pagan as "Greeky-Peeky." The ethics of the poem are not merely modern, they are positively provincial. In short, Rhododaphne may be best compared to a series of charming friezes in antique story carved by some sculptor of the beginning of the present century, some craftsman less soft than Canova, less breezy than Thorwaldsen. The marble is excellently chosen, the artist's touch sharp and delicate, the design flowing and refined, but the figures have the most provoking resemblance to those in the fashion-books of the last age but one.