1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hayley

Q., Review of Hayley, Memoirs, in Literary Examiner (5 July 1823) 13-15.



We are not aware of any possible position, in relation to the general estimation of society, more equivocal than that of an aged literary veteran, who has lived to witness an entire revolution of opinion in respect to the character and merits of the school in which he has been an ardent if not a leading student, — an amusing, and amiable writer, if not one of the lights of his age. Such a person was Hayley, who, but for his life of Cowper, we apprehend a great number of readers of the present generation would scarcely know by name. To the great success of the latter's biography, we shrewdly suspect we owe the ponderous volumes before us, which, if compiled with a view to publication, and such was doubtless the case, exhibit as fine an illustration of the importance of a man to himself as we ever beheld. Hayley was a gentleman and a scholar, but nothing less than a successful author, even at a period when Poetry, generally speaking, with a few honourable exceptions, aimed at little beyond trim classicality; Humour, to a variation of the sketches of the Spectator and its progeny, (Fielding and Smollet were past) with the occasional "sauce piquante" of a New Bath Guide, or an epistle to Sir William Chambers; and Wit, to, now and then, a sprightly comedy, an abundance of epigrams and "such small deer." His dramas in rhyme, at this time of day, can scarcely encounter the perusal of persons exceeding the age of fourteen; and his Triumphs of Temper, considering its former popularity, in this age of more forcible appeal and varied association, appears to us inexpressibly mawkish. His best works, in our estimation, are his "Young Widow," which few people read when it was published, and scarcely any body since; and his "Essay on Old Maids," which naturally producing no small portion of anger in a very irritable class, met with general attention. As for his "Vers de Societe," which he appears to have thought very highly of himself, they are of the usual stuff of which such things are made, — eulogy of course is abundant; and most people recollect the wicked wit of Porson, in relation to the too lavish exchange of panegyric between him and Miss Seward. His compliment, congratulation, and condolence, found vent chiefly in octosyllabic verse, which could excite no vast deal of posthumous interest, even at a time when such composition was fashionable; but what can render it palatable some thirty years after the taste has expired? We know of nothing more difficult than to revive a relish for associations which have attained their natural period of decay, in the production of mental satiety. If something of this languor be perceptible even in the spirited resuscitation of Geoffrey Crayon, how little is to be expected from the tame and spiritless muse of Mr. Hayley. Two ponderous quarto volumes, half filled with defunct matter of this nature, are too much. Such a freightage might sink a seventy-four, to say nothing of a cockboat.

But this is a life, it may be said — a piece of auto-biography; and a man of longevity like Hayley, moving in a respectable sphere, tolerably widely acquainted, and moreover, eternally with a pen in his hand, may write a very pleasant account of himself and acquaintances, without any great claims of his own; as for example James Boswell and others. Nothing can be more correct; but it unfortunately happens, that owing to the very recluse and retired habits of Hayley, — habits which seem to have led to a separation from both his wives — excluded almost always in his beautiful family and village retirement in Sussex, with a determined resolution neither to visit or be visited, what is such a life to present? Lastly, as if every thing should conspire to make the work dull, the deceased has written his narrative chiefly in the sketchy way of note and memorandum, and in the unnatural and constrained form of the third person. A recipe for the production of ennui could scarcely have prescribed a method more appalling.

Are these volumes, then, entirely destitute of interest? Certainly not; but it is far too little to inspire so ponderous a mass of matter. There are, doubtless, some contemporary venerables existing, who will wade through it with satisfaction; and some of a succeeding generation, who, from connection, acquaintance, or other reasons, may also feel interested. The hop-skip-and-jump tribe may also dip and try their fortune, with now and then the possibility of bringing up a stray anecdote or sexagenary incident worth remembering.

Hayley was a neighbour of Gibbon, and in consequence of a weakness in his eyes, as he never attended public worship personally, some people suspected his orthodoxy. We are happy to add, on the testimony of the Editor, the Rev. John Johnson, Rector of Yardham in Norfolk, substantiated by the very important document of a creed in his own handwriting, which is judiciously supplied, that this very ominous imputation was unfounded.