1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Lisle Bowles

Leigh Hunt, in "The Rev. William Lisle Bowles" The Examiner (15 July 1821) 445.



Mr. Bowles is a poet of that minor branch of the school of Collins and Gray, which was set up by the Wartons, and which is rather negative than positive in its departures from the artificial system which they opposed. It feels it's way timidly into nature, and retains most of the commonplace dressing in versification as well as fancy. Critics, partly from the natural progress of change, and more from the new track of reading into which they were led by inquiries into the old drama, had begun to feel that Pope was overrated as a poet. Collins, who was a man of genius; Gray, who had a genius reflected from Greece and Italy; and the Wartons, who may be said to have had a taste for genius, all contributed, in their several degrees, to unsettle the notion that poetry was a thing of wit and breeding about town. But the first, whose temperament was morbid and over-sensitive, was confessedly awe-stricken at the new world he had re-opened; — Gray, whose most original powers lay on the side of humour and the conversational, wrote exquisite centos rather than any thing else, and reminded us at least as much of the scholar as the poet; — and the Wartons took up the same cause, more like amiable disciples, accidentally and easily impressed, than masterly teachers who knew the depths of the question. To be bred up therefore in the Warton school was to become proselytes and proselyte-makers, a little too much in the spirit of young men educated at a dissenting college. There was more faith than works, and an ungenial twist to the controversial. Mr. Bowles came a little too soon. He was helped to his natural impulses by the critics, instead of to his critical by nature. It remained for the French Revolution to plough up all our commonplaces at once; and the minds that sprang out of the freshened soil set about their tasks in a spirit not only of difference but of hostility. But more of this when we come to speak of Mr. Wordsworth. As to poor Cowper, he stood alone, "Like to the culver on the bared bough." The same misery which rendered him original in some things, made him too feeble to be so in others. He was alone, not because he led the way, but because he was left on the road side. His greatest claims are higher and more reverend things — claims on the higher state of existence; and we trust they have been made up to him.

The reader may now guess the nature of Mr. Bowles's poetry. It is elegant and good-hearted, with a real tendency to be natural, but pulled back by timidity and a sense of the conventional. Talking much of nature, it shews more of art, and that art too more consented with itself than it might be, for one that is so critical upon art in others. No man, however, with a heart in his body, and any poetry in his head, woos nature for nothing. Mr. Bowles's most popular publication is his Sonnets, written during various excursions which he took to relieve his mind under the loss of his first love. They were his first publication, and whatever he or others may say, they are his best. They were his first love. There are good passages scattered here and there in his other works, but even in those we think we can trace the overflowings of this earlier inspiration. The rest is pure, good-natured common-place. He had real impulses and thoughts upon him when he wrote his Sonnets. His other works rather seem to have been written, because he had a reputation for writing. He may even boast, as we believe he does, and ought, that his Sonnets connect him in some measure with the greater sources of living genius; for Mr. Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria, has recorded the effect they produced upon him in youth, when we understand he and Mr. Lamb used to go spouting them up and down the cloisters of Christ's Hospital.