1817 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

B., "Of the Modern Poets — Mr. Campbell" The Literary Gazette (19 April 1817) 196-97.



Much as I admire the pathos, strength and correctness of Mr. Campbell's poetry, I am sorry that I cannot place him in the same rank either with Lord Byron or Mr. Scott. To deny that he has equal powers with these writers, would seem somewhat invidious towards a living author, but certainly he has not yet equalled them in their best productions. Perhaps this proceeds from the unhappiness of his subjects, or from a certain timidity, which makes him fearful of venturing on a bolder wing, lest he should become food for critical Cynicism. Hence it is, that he nurses up his performances with such assiduous dotage, and takes such syllabical care of every line. Any thing bordering on the confines of absurdity, he is certain to reject; and thus, I fear, often erases some of his most sublime conceptions; for there is no doubt, that sublimity itself often borders on absurdity, and, in many cases, one can scarcely separate bombast from grandeur. The faults which spoil the poetical effect of his writings, are of a directly opposite nature to those which displease us in Lord Byron. Mr. Campbell is too correct, or rather, he corrects himself into incorrectness. The artist is visible, when he ought to be concealed; and amidst all the joys and sorrows of Gertrude, whether she is roving wild among the mountains, or recognizing her lover, or weeping over her father, or in the agonies of death, Mr. Campbell is still her assiduous gentleman usher, and hands her about, from grief to grief, with a formal bow at the end of every misery. Those faults which arise from too little care in revision, are, in one respect, less displeasing than those which are produced by an overwrought style. They bear a stamp of nature and of ease, which the latter have not. If a man falls into a brook by inadvertence, we pity him, but if he takes a run at it, for the purpose of leaping to the opposite bank, we laugh heartily when he has plunged up to his middle.

A writer, then, who is too anxious about correctness, naturally aims rather at avoiding errors, than at inventing beauties. His principal object is his language, and to render this perfect, he frequently weakens or obscures, or else strengthens beyond the occasion, the thoughts that lie smothered underneath. Thus he always seems as if he had been obliged to search for his epithets, through the whole alphabetical parish, before be could find them. The more obvious mode of expression he rejects as vulgar, and gives us in its stead something which is so new, that we cannot understand it. All this is more obvious in his Gertrude of Wyoming, than in his other poems; and I shall give some instances.

Perchance, along thy river calm at noon,
The happy shepherd swain had nought to do,
From morn till evening's sweeter pastime "grew";
Their "timbrel," in the "dance of forests" brown,
When lovely maidens "prankt in flowrets new;"
And aye, those "sunny" mountains "half way down,"
Would echo flageolet from some romantic town;

By the forced and inverted position of the words in this passage, one is at a loss to know whether the poet meant that the river was generally calm, or calm only at noon. Then in the third and fourth lines, the "dance of forests," is rather too violent an expression for the "dance in forests;" and it is quite necessary to inform the reader, that "timbrel" is the accusative case to "prankt," and that "prankt" is not a participle passive, but a verb in the subjunctive mood. Lastly, whether "the sunny mountains half way down," means, "the mountains sunny half way down," or what it means, I should be sorry to decide without a jury of poets.

That want's stern edict "e'er," and feudal grief.
When fate had reft his "mutual heart" — But she
Was gone — and Gertrude "climbed a widowed father's knee."

I must apprize all those whom it may concern, that "fate had reft his mutual heart," means that his wife was dead. The picture of Gertrude climbing a widowed father's knee, is forced, because it does not naturally appertain to the immediate subject. It is one among the many examples, of Mr. Campbell's extreme anxiety to express himself in an emphatic manner, and to throw superfluous and embarrassing thought into places where plainness and simplicity alone are required.

I dwell the more strongly on this fault, so obvious in Mr. Campbell, of over-polishing his performances, because I have already animadverted on the opposite failing, in the cases of Lord Byron and Mr. Scott, and am anxious to evince, that in decrying a loose style, I do not uphold over-precision and outrageous terseness.

Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines
Quos ultra citraque nequit consistere rectum.

The fact is, that in censuring correct writing, men argue from abuse to use. For though he, who has not a sound judgment, will, in the revision of his works, hack and hew without discrimination, and often blot out beauties instead of faults; yet, when a man of judgment corrects, he must improve, not mutilate, else how can he be called a man of judgment?

I would, therefore, advise Mr. Campbell to give his natural talents, whatever they are, (for, I repeat, that he has hitherto taken most lamentable and unnatural pains to conceal their real extent from the public,) full scope and trial, without bestowing one uneasy thought upon what the reviewers may say of his temerity. Let him be assured, that write as he may, he, and every other author, must still have faults of some kind or other; which the critics will not fail to honor with due notice; and after all, it is but a petty sort of ambition, (with all due respect for ourselves and our fraternity,) which aims only at escaping the lash of the censor, by a sedulous extirpation of blemishes, instead of aspiring to the more noble glory of securing popular applause, by bold, decisive and uncompromising originality.