1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Thomas Barnes, "Portraits of Authors. Mr. Campbell" The Champion (30 January 1814) 39.



"Song is but the eloquence of truth."
Gertrude, Cant. I. Stan. 27.

The motto here selected from Mr. Campbell's best Poem, expresses, in fewer and stronger words than any which occur to me, the peculiar character of his own poetry, and the system on which it is written. It cannot be unjust to measure him by a standard of his own framing: if the definition which he gives be full and complete in all its parts, and his poetry satisfy all the terms of his own proposition, he may then take rank with the first bards of ancient or modern days: — if, on the contrary, his description be partial, and exclude some of the essential properties of the art, while his writings are in exact conformity to his principles, in that case he must be content with only so much praise as belongs to the difference of the included and excluded qualities. If the ingredients omitted are trifling, small also will be the defalcation of his fame: if they are great and vital elements, his poetic glory must sink in exact proportion to their importance. I certainly think, though with unaffected submission to a man who has evidently a more than usual right to be heard on such a subject, that his idea of poetry is not only deficient in comprehensiveness, but that it is not sufficiently particular even as far as it goes. The very hastiest reference to the celebrated poets of all ages, will shew that they can hardly be styled poets according to a strict observation of this rule. It must also be discovered with equal readiness, that writings which were never supposed to have the the least connection with Helicon, — such as the treatises of Burke, the speeches in Tacitus, nay, even the unnumbered harangues of Demosthenes, — must yet in fairness be called poetry, if the above-mentioned canon be correct. It would indeed be a matter of no slight difficulty to frame such a definition as should apply to every great poem; any system, however, out of which fancy should be excluded, would, I think, be immediately scouted by any person at all conversant with the question. Eloquence, considered alone, is so far from being the same with poetry, that it is in some measure uncompatible with it. Its objects and its means are totally different. The orator (I speak of the best) wishes to make a decisive impression upon the heart or the understanding: he is treating a real subject, and he looks about him for such topics as from the constitution of man are most likely to affect or convince. All that is exalted in passion, all that is magnanimous in sentiment, he may freely adopt, because the noblest intrepidity and generosity are recognised by every man's experience, as appropriate features of our nature. Let him however beware of fiction: his object being simple, his means must be simple likewise: even exaggeration will look like want of sincerity, and every metaphor or image will weaken the desired impression in the same degree with which it recedes from the intelligible business of life. Very superior is the aim of the poet. He does not address himself to man, as the ephemeral being of limited capacities and temporary enterprises, but as the immortal image of an immortal Creator, whose boundless wishes and unconquerable energies mark its grand origin and eternal destinies. How shall such a being be satisfied? Eloquence may afford delight by its glowing pictures of heroic action and dignified thinking: but much more will be demanded to fulfill the longings of the immortal spirit. And here begins the peculiar province of the muse: she opens to the mind her ideal world, where all is perfectly wise, or perfectly beautiful, or unlimited in power, or eternal in duration. She prepares different wonders for different temperaments: fairies, genii, angels, dreams, and enchantments, are created as food for those various ardent passions and fancies which would pine and waste away amid the ordinary occurrences of daily life. Such at least was the notion of poetry entertained by perhaps the greatest of philosophers, Lord Bacon: an opinion which is justified by reference to the finest poems. Why has Homer thus in all ages been the delight and admiration of all who read him? No doubt his animated and eloquent sketches of life and character have been a partial cause of this universal feeling: but may not a better reason be found in that graceful mythology, rendered more beautiful by his lively imagination, — in the terrible grandeur of his archer Apollo, in his awful Jove, at whose nod the world trembles, in the irresistible cestus of Venus, in the magic spells of Circe, and in the immortal loves of Calypso? Virgil is almost equally eloquent and poetical: yet surely we are more touched with the visionary Dido in the shades, than with her passion when alive, finely as that natural passion is painted: the mind must also be more transported by the enchanting scenes in the feigned Elysium, than by the real horrors of the sack of Troy. Our Shakespeare and Milton are transcendentally eloquent; but could eloquence alone ever venture to create the Oberon, and Ariel, the witches and the Caliban of the one: the Sabrina, the Comus, the Satan of the other? The Italian poets scarcely ever deigned to leave the ideal world, which they found so much superior to "this firm spot which men call earth:" and perhaps there are no poets of any country, except that name be allowed to the versifying dramatists of France, who have cultivated passionate declamation to the exclusion of the peculiar graces of fancy, and have preferred the delineations of customary life to the unreal sublimities of an inspired vision.

If the poetry of Mr. Campbell be referred to this standard, it will be found, I think, to belong rather to the French school, than to the best Italian and English systems: and one might almost venture to pronounce that his favourite models are Corneille and Racine. Like the former, he is fond of lofty sentiments, vehement emotions, magnificent diction, with all the pomp and circumstance of declamatory energy: like the latter, he can sometimes melt the heart with gentleness and tenderness, and seem born alone for love and sorrow. Yet, whether it be that his mind is not quick or docile enough for the fabrications of the imagination; or whether a stern taste leads him to reject whatever is untrue, certain it is that one should in vain look through his writings for any fanciful inventions, for any instance where, in the phrenzy of creative power, he has given "to airy nothing a local habitation and a name." He seems a man of strong passions, fond of dwelling rather on the sad or grand realities of life, than of forming for himself an ideal system of beauty, which to a person so constituted can afford little to agitate the heart, or to awaken the slightest sympathy.

Prone as the human mind is to revel in existences less limited than its present confined allotment, it yet may be so tamed by its perpetual intercourse with trifling on corrupt concerns, as to lose the relish for its original pleasures: or it may be so absorbed by the overwhelming interest of some powerful passion or engrossing object, as to hold every thing light and worthless that does not promote its desired end. Thus the gay and the dissipated have no poetic taste beyond "the lascivious pleasing" of a love-song: — the busy and the politic care for little but stimulating descriptions of battles, or noisy tirades about loyalty or liberty. Mr. Campbell has too proud a taste, too elevated a mind to cater for the unmanly desires of the indolent and the profligate: but he seems to have no aversion to give dignity and grandeur to those thoughts and feelings which influence the great movements of society. In other words — I think he could feel no greater delight than in accompanying the progress of a champion of rational liberty, or in triumphing in songs of swelling exultation over the downful of despotism. Had he lived in the age of Augustus, he would rather have celebrated Cato with energetic truth, than have flattered the Emperor by a poetic fiction: in olden times he would rather have written odes to freedom with Alcaeus, than have exhausted and new-modelled a national mythology, to suit the praises of an Olympic victor.

His poetry is characterized by boldness rather than by enlargement of thinking, by energy rather than by discrimination in his characters, by strength rather than by nicety in the language. His first work, The Pleasures of Hope, though the most popular, is certainly the least likely to secure his fame with posterity: it is a splendid effort of a young mind to dress its common-places in gorgeous array: every thing is expressed with a disproportionate pomp, and trifling thoughts are almost overlaid with the incumbrances of the diction. It is, however, redeemed with a few passages of exquisite pathos, and some of very picturesque description. Mr. Campbell's songs rank next; and certainly for energy of expression, and simplicity of feeling, they are unrivalled. They are just what they ought to be: they enforce some common and generally recognizable topic with all the force of which language is capable. But the great work of Mr. Campbell, on which his character rests, and which with all its defects may be considered as the best poem of the day, (for Wordsworth has written nothing of sufficient length to be called a poem), is the Gertrude of Wyoming. His taste is here seen purified from all the puerile strut of his early poems: his pathos is refined into all the touching delicacy of some of the best parts of Shakspeare: his sentiments have all the dignity and unworldliness of the best ages, and the characters are drawn with all the eloquent enthusiasm of a mind entirely conversant with all that is good and great. There is indeed no fancy, even in this work; yet he has selected such beautiful parts of real nature, that they have almost the freshness and spirit of the beau ideal. His language here is grand without pomp, and tender without the slightest symptoms of whining. Its only defect is the want of skill apparent in the management of the Spenserian stanza: none but a man of the most musical ear should attempt the complicated harmonies of that elaborate fabric; and if one may judge from Mr. Campbell's versification, he has no taste or ear beyond the simplest melody. He can manage a song: but the palling monotony of The Pleasures of Hope shows that he can do no more. It might, therefore, excite some surprise that Mr. Campbell should dream of rivalling the infinitely various modulations of Spenser: it was a matter of course that the failure should be complete and almost ridiculous. Indeed the stanza is so clumsily built, that it grates a perpetual discord on the ear; nor is it till towards the end of the poem, that the mere force of imitation and practice have produced so much facility of execution, that one may venture to read aloud without fear of grinding the teeth. Mr. Campbell has yet much to learn on the score of versification.