1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bernard Barton

Anonymous, in Review of Barton, Poems; Blackwood's Magazine 12 (December 1822) 767-74.



We have been told, by good authority, that in several Cockney Coteries, various speculations have been sported respecting the causes of our silence towards the productions of Mr. Bernard Barton, the Quaker Poet. One is, that we have neglected him altogether, and are determined always to do so, because he has contributed to the London Magazine; and another, equally original and true, is, that we hate the sound of his very name, because he has been favourably noticed in the Edinburgh Review. With regard to the first bold and daring theory of our silence, we can only say, that so ignorant are we of what is going on in the London literary world, that we did not know, till very lately, when we were told of it, the important fact that Mr. Barton had contributed a copy of verses to the above respectable Miscellany. That by doing so, he should have kindled our deadly animosity, is a supposition that could only have entered into the chink of a Cockney's skull. We heard the circumstance announced with the most unruffled equanimity of mind, and did not feel ourselves defrauded out of a poetical contributor, because the worthy Quaker had paid his court to the Lady of Ludgate. Long may he live to contribute to the happiness of every mistress who may be disposed to receive his chaste addresses! Maga, we know, will not be jealous, and will even look with kindness on the fruit of his connexions, as long as, as in this case, they are full-formed and legitimate, and marked by the sensible and amiable features of both parents.

As to his favourable reception from the Edinburgh Review, it is greatly to his credit; few absolute numskulls having been lauded by that captious Periodical. To be praised by the Edinburgh, is a presumption, certainly, in favour of an author's talents and acquirements; and its treatment of Mr. Barton was creditable to both parties, the approbation being, we believe, sincere, judicious, and well-deserved.

We have alluded to these speculations, as illustrative of the despicable spirit of Cockneyism. Knowing that no Cockney can ever hope for mercy with us, and that we have damned, in this world, a pestiferous crew who have no belief in another, they strive to get hold of any easy-natured man of worth, whom we have not chanced hitherto to have been in the mood of noticing, and to embitter him against us, by which means they suppose that they may gain him to themselves, and so strengthen their flimsy and fainting phalanx. They know that a few words from us are enough to embalm or putrefy a man. Truth, they well know, is a libel — the only one we are ever guilty of, — and thus they charge our very silence with a sentence of excommunication or death, and cry upon those whom we have not meddled with at all, to join the shrieks of those miserable wretches whose ears we have nailed to the pillory, and made everlastingly infamous. A Cockney — not an ape — is indeed the link which connects man with the brute creation.

Now, it is somewhat hard to he forced to ransack our memory in search of reasons for not having reviewed Mr. Bernard Barton; but since we must do so, we have discovered the following: First, for a long time after he appeared as a writer of verses, we never saw any of his compositions. — Secondly, when we did see some of them, they did not happen, somehow or other, greatly to delight us. — Thirdly, there was something in them, indifferent as they seemed, that determined us not to cut them up. — Fourthly, we cherished hopes of his doing better things, of which we thought him easily capable — And fifthly, having much to do, — in getting up this Magazine, in setting our countrymen right on a vast variety of important subjects, and in eating, drinking, and sleeping, Mr. Bernard Barton did as utterly desert the receptacle of our past impressions, as if he had never been born into this wicked world. We beg his pardon, and have no intention of being rude, but we as utterly forgot him and his poetry, as any old woman who may have sold us plums in our boyhood. There is nothing like being candid — plain dealing is best — and besides, great wits have short memories, which must be our excuse for unintentionally consigning many a worthy man to oblivion.

But the mist and vapour have rolled away from our remembrance, and up starts the decent and demure Quaker. Friend, give us thy hand, and be not afraid. We are glad of this opportunity of being introduced to you, and have no doubt that, with the admiration, or even reverence, which you have long felt for Christopher North, will soon be mingled the kindness of friendship and affection. We are apt to be a little gruff now and then in our gout; but never have we wounded, never shall we wound, the feelings of an unpretending, amiable, and enlightened man.

But let us, if possible, be serious for a few minutes, and tell the public precisely what they ought to think of Mr. Bernard Barton.

In the first place, he is a Quaker. Prodigious is the mass of Cockneyism which has been uttered and muttered in the peculiar lingo of that land, on the connexion between the poetical character, and the character of that peculiar religious persuasion to which our author belongs. It seems, that because a man wears a drab coat, he must therefore see all external nature under a drab light. This is the Cockney theory. Pray, does a clergyman, because he wears black clothes, see all nature black? Does a sailor, because he wears blue clothes, see all nature blue? Does a soldier, in the British army, see every object red? and do sharp-shooters opine that snow is green? Surely not. Let then the idiots hold their tongue.

If the question is thus put — pray what sort of people are Quakers? Then, on the answer depends our opinion of the probable merits of their poetry. Were we to speak from experience, we should say that Quakers are somewhat heavy, bigotted enough, narrow-ranged, selfish, purse-fond, greasy, and sectarianishly exclusive in their sympathies. All that is unpromising for good poetry.

On the other hand, their feelings are under control, and therefore not likely to be wasted and frittered away; they do not squander either their money or their emotions; they observe in others passions riotous and turbulent, which in themselves they keep down by a stout system of internal police; they are in no danger of attaching undue importance or weight to any of those mere accidental circumstances extrinsic to the human being, which it is the foundation of their faith to despise; and their spirits, pent in within limits described distinctly, are content with the room assigned, and may be quiet without being tame, calm without being cold, and slumber without being torpid. A common Quaker is, indisputably, a very absurd and hopeless case of a human being; but a Quaker, as good as he may be, is not to be sneezed at, and possesses, we are assured, capacity and power of feeling, thinking, acting, speaking, and writing, like a man.

Certainly an outrageously wicked Quaker is almost an impossible conception. The sect will never produce a Byron, nor a Napoleon Bonaparte, nor a Jack the Painter, nor a Thistlewood, nor a Caesar Borgia, nor a Mrs Brownrigg. No Quaker, we lay a thousand pounds, will ever wade through slaughter to a throne. — Very few Quakers indeed have been hanged. When they are, they always pretend to be merely Unitarians. Now, great crimes and first-rate poetry seem in nature to be indissolubly inked together in the potentiality of the human soul; and we, for our single selves, shall never believe that any absolute bona fide Quaker can ascend to the top of Parnasus, till we have seen a few mount the scaffold in front of Horsemonger lane. The sect may produce pretty lines and petty larceny; but we shall not credit a great poet among them, till with our own eyes we have seen them produce a first-rate murderer.

We are disposed to think, that by taking a Quaker and stripping him of the most exclusive and idiotical of his sectarian peculiarities and principles, and leaving untouched his simplicity, (if he has any) and the other really excellent qualities essentially inherent in his substance, a very passable poet might be the result. Now, perhaps, Mr. Bernard Barton is one of this description. Perhaps he is not a very broad-brimmed Obadiah — haply his drab is doubtful, and his speech spurious. If so, and if a corresponding leaning to liberalism is in his mind, then why should he not be able to produce poetry worthy of being lauded in this Magazine? He has done so, and we are about praise.

We cannot, however, deny that we have some difficulty in bringing ourselves to praise him as much as we wish, and as he must very naturally wish likewise; and, accordingly, he will no doubt be teazed by seeing us going about and about the bush, and not plumping at once upon our panegyric. But a Quaker ought not to be impatient; so, if he be at all a wet one, let him put down the Magazine, turn up his little finger, draw breath, and at it again.

Mr. Barton will find the subject of the following discourse in a passage which we beg leave to quote from his Preface:—

"The writer is well aware, that the power of absolute talent displayed in this volume, cannot bear comparison with those examples of high poetical genius, which are afforded in the works of several of the popular poets of the present day. He had never imposed upon himself by believing that he could enter into competition with these in point of ability; but he did think, nevertheless, that it was possible his humble productions might be usefully and not unfitly permitted to take their chance for public favour.

"They have found this in a degree beyond his anticipation; and their success, without altering his original estimation of his own talent as a poet, has given him pride as an author beyond what he could have experienced in the assurance of owing that success to genius of the first order. — The indulgence with which these pieces have been received proves to him that the most poignant temptations, and brilliant seductions, addressed to the public taste and moral sentiment, have not yet extinguished, in the public breast, a genuine attachment to the sober and simple exercise of the gentler faculties of the muse; and that, even under the disadvantage of inferior power, readers willingly welcome those lays that appeal only to the pure, and quiet, and conscientious feelings of the heart.

"He does not scruple to confess, that his delight in this conviction is increased by what is personal to himself in the testimony just mentioned; but he can most sincerely declare, that the pleasure of finding his compositions generally praised for the absence of all deleterious moral quality, and their tendency to strengthen impressions favourable to virtue and to religion, has far outweighed other considerations in his mind."

This is a very well-written passage; but let us think a little on its assertions — And, first, what does he mean by being surprised that there is still unextinguished in the public heart a genuine attachment to the sober and simple exercise of the gentler faculties of the muse, and so forth? Does he absolutely so grossly deceive himself, as to think that his poetry is remarkable, in any way whatever, above the rest of the poetry of this age, for purity of moral sentiment? With the single exception of Byron — a great genius — all the poetry of this age is full to overflowing of the best — finest — purest — brightest — simplest — and indestructible emotions. There is not, indeed, in the whole range of English Poetry, one poet who may not he said to be a benefactor to his species. When, therefore, Mr. Barton speaks of his own compositions as meeting an unexpected reception, it is absurd for him to wonder that the purity or gentleness of their spirit had the charm of novelty. Nothing of the kind. In that respect, he is just as far inferior to the best living or dead poets, as he is inferior in reach and grasp of thought, in power of passion, and in winged imagination. As to Byron's poetry, it never would have prevailed as it has done by mere pictures of ferocity or wild wickedness — it is charged with beauty, tenderness, and pathos, and often thrills to the inmost heart, by the power of one line or word, more delightfully than all the verses Mr. Barton ever wrote, or ever will write, till the extinction of Quakerism.

Secondly, Mr. Barton rates his "power of absolute talent" below that of "several of the popular poets of the present day." Now, he ought to be told, that it is below that of at least thirty writers of verse. Yet, notwithstanding, if he rank only as thirty-one, or forty-one, or fifty-one, he has no need to be ashamed, at a time when there are living, to our certain personal knowledge, about two thousand very respectable poets — not one of whom, any more than Mr. Barton, has ever been reviewed in Blackwood.

Thirdly, Mr. Barton declares that it gives him more satisfaction to think that his poetry is innocent and useful, than it would give him to know that he was a great and original genius. Now, confound us, if we can believe that. No doubt the honest Quaker speaks what he thinks the truth; but he is quite mistaken. If he really were a man of genius he would be miserable, unless the world allowed it; and although doing good to our fellow-creatures, by writing amiable verses, must be highly gratifying to every good Christian, yet Mr. Barton may depend upon it, that he would exchange that consciousness, and that reputation, for the conviction and the fame of being a sad fellow indeed, but a great poet. Would he rather be BARTON than BYRON? We hope not — not only for his own sake, but for that of Quakerism and human nature at large.

It appears, however, that Mr. Barton's volumes have met with considerable success; and, in our opinion, they deserve it. There may be something in the novelty of a Quaker Poet, though he is not the first of that sect who has wooed the muse with tolerable credit. Scott of Amwell was, we believe, rather a popular versifier in his day; but he was far inferior to Mr. Barton. He was rather given to drivelling, and did not fully and freely exercise the little power he possessed, owing to a perpetual fear of dying of the small-pox; which, we understand, he absolutely did at last, in verification of his own prophecies. This was being a Quaker with a vengeance. There is a Mr. Wilkinson living somewhere about Penrith, who tunes his rustic reed not unmelodiously — the same whom Wordsworth celebrates in an Address to a Spade — "Spade with which Wilkinson has tilled his land, and dressed these pleasant walks by Emont's side." — And there is Mr. Wiffen, who writes both with elegance and feeling, and to whom we must devote a few pages some day soon, when we have seen his translation of Ariosto. A translation of Ariosto by a Quaker is rather apt to startle the imagination; but we have been told by a good judge that Mr. Wiffen's translation is both faithful, and spirited.

Having thus spoken freely but kindly of Mr Barton, we shall do him ample justice, by quoting some of his best poems....

One word, therefore, at parting with this author. He possesses much sensibility, and his mind has a strong tinge of poetry. Every now and then he surprises us with glimpses of something infinitely better than the general tone of his conceptions. We think him capable of improvement, by closer study of his own thoughts and feelings, and by a more intent direction of his cultivated faculties on the proper expression of his thoughts and emotions. He has really a spring in his heart that occasionally sends up fine feelings — we had almost said original ones; and if he would never begin to write till he had a strong and vivid conception of what he intended and wished to produce, we think it probable that he may yet write far better things than any in this volume. There are too many weak and trashy things in it — weeds and faded flowers mingle with the bouquet — but it possesses, notwithstanding, both sweet fragrance and bright colours, and we shall cordially congratulate him on the appearance of a volume which we can conscientiously praise more highly, and with less reservation than the present; although it is extremely creditable to his taste, talents, and feelings, and has, perhaps, on the whole, been rather under than overrated by us: But such is often our way with people we like, so Mr. Barton will take our strictures in good part, and accept the assurance of our regard and esteem.