1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges

Anonymous, in "Sir Egerton Brydges's Recollections" Blackwood's Magazine 17 (May 1825) 505-11.



We know not well in what way to satisfy all our own feelings in reviewing these volumes. The author is a high-born and high-bred gentleman, of unspotted character, amiable we cannot doubt in all really important matters, and entitled unquestionably to respect as the possessor of very considerable talents, and various extremely elegant accomplishments. He is now well-stricken in years, and complains that he has been ill used by the world. Our inclination, therefore, would lead us, if he only were concerned, to speak of his work with nothing but kindness and respect. But we are constrained to say, that he who writes a book must be contented to have it considered in more points of view than one, and to add that the publication of Sir Egerton Brydges appears to us to be calculated to produce much more of evil than of good among those who are likely to read it.

These, to be sure, are not very many; but Sir Egerton is one, and perhaps stands at the head, of a class of persons, who, without having much influence individually, affect to no inconsiderable degree the general mind of the public, by the pertinacity of their united exertions. Above all, such authors as this are extremely dangerous to young minds. Youths possessing some share of natural sensibility, but nothing like the strength of original genius or even talent, are induced to take up the views of persons who write in a tone extremely flattering to their self-love, and encouraged by their idle talk to make literature the business of their lives, to the total ruin, not of fortune merely, but of all peace of mind. The eternal cant, in other words, of Sir Egerton and his associates, is, that the public voice affords no rule whatever as to the real character of new works of literature — that criticism is nothing but mockery and malignity — that every one must rely entirely upon himself. To this is generally annexed some enunciation of a theory, than which nothing we conceive is more dangerous to young, sensitive, and imbecile minds: the theory, namely, that the only thing of real value in literature is the expression of what one actually feels in consequence of what one actually meets with in the world, and that art, arrangement, condensation, patient elaboration, revision, and correction, are only so many names for the trickery by which second-rate beings attempt in vain to hide their deficiency in genius.

That one word "genius" has done more harm than anything in the vocabulary. It has been prostituted till it has lost all meaning. Not a beardless driveller in the land who does not expect, if he produces a sonnet on a rose-leaf, that we shall see genius in his bauble. Genius, so help us, inspires the leading articles of our newspapers — the small print of our Magazines is redolent of genius!

Sir Egerton himself is very superior in talents to those who run the greatest risk of being misled by his speculations, and ruined by following his example. He, moreover, although he rails at Lady Fortune, in good set terms, was born to a competent estate, and succeeded in middle life to a splendid one. It is no great matter, therefore, to him and his, that he has occupied himself from twenty to sixty-two in writing and publishing works, not one of which ever paid, we honestly believe, the paper-maker and the printer. But this is not the situation of many of those who, in opening manhood, feel the movements of literary ambition in the absence of that sort of power of mind and talent which alone can enable any man to gain anything like Fortune, or anything like Fame, worthy of the name, by devoting himself to the pursuits of literature as his occupation. We are sickened when we think of the multitudes of naturally amiable tempers that have been for ever soured and embittered by the indulgence in such dreams.

Sir Egerton's primary object seems to be to show that what he calls genius is a thing that of necessity incapacitates a man for mixing in the ordinary society and business of the world, and that is injured and degraded exactly in proportion as the possessor suffers himself so to blend in the common stream of life. Now this is a doctrine exceedingly acceptable, no doubt, to many young persons who prefer lounging in a green lane over a Coleridge or a Collins, to the ignoble fatigue of copying briefs or pounding medicines. These are all, in their own estimation, lads of genius, and Sir Egerton Brydges, and all his knot, assure them that they will play false to God and Nature if they do not set their faces decidedly against the shop. We must quote a few of the passages in which this sort of thing is inculcated, and see whether a few plain hints of our own may not rob them of their poison. Thus,

"Common business is but the conflict of, or with, shufflers and gamblers who play with loaded dice."

Again,

"I am only fit for the calm of domestic society; for solitude, musing, reading, writing, and a short and quiet stroll in the open air. If these are proofs of want of talent, or of inutility to life, I must submit. In the course of my life, I have been drawn at times a good deal into the vortex of business; but I have been as constantly its victim, as I have been engaged in it; the most stupid fellow always beat me; — and he beat me perhaps more easily in proportion to his stupidity: the sharp edge of my temper was always blunted, or turned back upon me by his callousness. I wish it had been my fate never to have mingled with the world."

Again,

"Men of business and professional men have no conception of anything done for general purposes."

Again,

"In the course of a long life, a strenuous author of genius accumulates a mass of golden ore, which puts him beyond much fear of being removed from the eminence that he has raised; loose, careless gatherings may slide from under his feet, or be shaken by the winds of caprice, or slights of thoughtless negligence; but perseverance will settle his labours into a firm and large consistence, sufficient both in size and strength to become durable.

"I have not the presumption to suppose myself one of this order; but I still go on to do my best; and by the uninterrupted performance of my daily task, to swell, though slowly yet with certainty, my not unvirtuous labours into something, which, by their quantity at least, shall have some weight. (!!) I cannot believe that many would have toiled with a spirit so unbroken under such mighty trials, as it has been my lot to endure. I cannot reason on my ardour for literature, — my reason would have abandoned it thirty years ago; but it is somehow a part of my being; I cannot separate it from me; I live for it, and in it; I rise to it in the morning; I go to my rest with it; and think of it at midnight, and in my sleep. I have, however, at last, almost laid books aside, and am conversant only with my own thoughts. These thoughts never fail me; every day presents them in abundance; and I hope with some diversity and novelty. I know with what anxiety I apply my thoughts, how much of intenseness is spent upon them; and how deeply and sincerely I search for truth.

"It is human nature to find fault; and my endeavours have yet met with but sparing and rare encouragement."

Again,

"I do not think that men of the world can be poets."

Again,

"If nature does not implant the faculty and bent in us, we cannot be poets; and if it does, we cannot be men of the world. A wit is commonly a man of the world, because his field of action is placed in watching, elucidating, and exposing what lies upon the surface of human manners; but he has scarce ever any heart, any fixed opinions, or any deep judgment.

"I never yet read with the smallest emotion or favour the life of any poet, who had not a character marked, peculiar, or over-ruling. I can forgive eccentricities occasionally perverse; I can forgive some fitful indulgencies even of absurdity or folly; but I cannot forgive a cold, cautious, calculating, sneering, scornful prudence — what is vulgarly called shrewd sense: but it is nothing but an ungenerous, selfish, plotting, fraudulent, ambushed cunning; it never was, and never will, it cannot be, united, to imagination and feeling. There are those who would have everything treated lightly, as if it was to be admired or neglected at will or convenience; gone through with indifference, as it were for fashion; and played with, in a tone and manner as if it was done by a civil condescension from secret and mysterious greatness. — if poetry be a solid fruit of the mind, if it be an imbodiment of truth, then the pleasures and feelings in which it deals cannot be inapplicable to actual life."

Now what does all this amount to? Let us see who are the real great Geniuses of the world. Homer — does any one read him and believe that he was a man only fitted for, and accustomed to, a quiet fireside, and a stroll among the daffodillies? Aeschylus — was he not a stirring politician and valiant soldier through life? Pindar — was he, not a politician and a high priest? Thucydides — was he not an active soldier and statesman? What was Julius Caesar? — Tacitus? — Cicero? — Sallust? Juvenal? — Was Dante a moper? — Was Bacon nothing but a man of contemplativeness? — Was not Milton a schoolmaster and afterwards a Secretary to Cromwell? — Was not Shakspeare himself a merry good-natured player, who framed the very greatest works of human genius in the mere intervals of his professional labours? — Was not Swift a busy churchman and politician all through life? What was Clarendon? — What was Burns himself, (of whom Sir Egerton Brydges is so fond of speaking) — a ploughman, a farmer, an exciseman! — What is Scott? — has he not been all his life a lawyer, and is he not at this moment both a law-officer, occupied in that capacity the best part of the day, during the greater part of the year, and a great farmer and planter to boot, to say nothing of living eternally in company?

The only answer which THE MOPING SCHOOL can bring to all this, is an assertion that these men of genius have done what they have done in spite of their situations, and would have done much better things had they been merely men of genius. Now our rejoinder is not far to seek. Produce, ye of the quiet stroll, the names of the first-rate authors who belong to your school. Take the world from Adam to Macadam, and show us what you can bring forth.

You have, you admit, no first-rate. That you have, notwithstanding, a few men of real genius, we admit. You have Collins, Wordsworth, and one or two more; but it is our opinion, and we venture to say it is the opinion of all mankind, that all these would have been worth fifty times more than they are, had they been compelled to take a hearty part in the active business of life. As for Byron, we cannot permit you to claim him as a subject of triumph. He permitted some wounds of vanity (inflicted by base hands) to drive him out of the society for which he was born, and from the duties which his rank entailed on him. But even as it was, he only went from good company to bad, and bestowed on eternal journeyings, pistol-practisings, and gin-twist, the time which might have been, with at least as much advantage to his genius, bestowed upon the proper occupations of an English landlord and legislator. Do you suppose that his genius was more benefited by his secluded intercourse with Miss Guiccioli, than it would have been by a flirtation of equal intensity, carried on in Kensington Gardens, &c.? Do you seriously opine, that he wrote better poems by drinking toddy with Medwin, &c., than he would have done, had he staid at home to imbibe sound constitutional port in Albemarle Street, or balmy Lafitte in Whitehall? Was Hollands safer for a man of genius than Holland house? Is the solitary indulgence of chewing more suitable to a man of genius than the soul-soothing conviviality of the cigarium? — But these refined people will not look whither their own theory would carry them.

Having in this way done their utmost to persuade young persons of the class we have indicated, to cut themselves off from the ordinary occupations of life as unworthy of genius, the next thing is to protract their delusion, by leading them to undervalue entirely the reception which their efforts in the walk to which they have thus exclusively devoted themselves, may happen to meet with from the public. This, however meant, is, in its effects, the most genuine cruelty. But let us see how the Leader (too good for the place) of the MOPING SCHOOL enunciates his dogma:

"There is something so perverse in our human destiny, that it seldom happens that the attainment of our desires satisfies us, even when they are rational. We wish for honourable fame, it seldom comes; but if it comes, we find scarce any enjoyment in it; it turns out to be a shadow. The absence of it is a grief, its presence is no happiness.

"It does not always fall on those who deserve it; witness Milton, who was very little noticed, and still less praised by his contemporaries, a neglect for which it is idle to attempt to account, by ascribing it to the prejudices entertained against his political character, because, till the Restoration, his politics would have recommended, not depressed, him; and yet the neglect of his poetry was always the same, though his Comus, &c. had been published at least twenty-five years before the return of Charles II. At the same time, numerous contemptible versifiers on both sides were in possession of great celebrity."

Again—

"He who has not the public with him will not have friends sincerely with him: he must be everything to himself. I dare say that Milton had not a friend in his own day who thought him equal to Cowley, or even to Waller; and that he looked down upon them, when such opinions were unguardedly let out, not perhaps directly, but by inference from the tone of their conversations, with calm but pitying complacence."

Again—

"Sometimes fame falls where it is merited, as in Lord Byron's case; but not often! Lord Byron had, perhaps, a greater excess of it than ever happened to a real poet in his life; and it was the more extraordinary, because it was unwilling and extorted fame."

Again—

"Collins burnt all the copies of his inimitable Odes, because they would not sell; and Warton's History of English Poetry, after forty years, is not yet reprinted; and was long, I believe, a drug in the market. At the same time, Hayley's Triumphs of Temper went through several rapid editions."

Again, more concisely still:—

"If the vox populi be the vox Dei, then the vox Dei is as uncertain as the blowing of the wind, which blows from the north to-day and from the south to-morrow."

Or thus:

"On what true genius has fame come in his lifetime equal to his deserts?"

Now, let us look for a moment at the examples which Sir Egerton has produced. Milton, in the first place, was, it seems, nobody in his own time. On the contrary, his intellectual power was acknowledged by everybody who was capable of understanding anything of the matter. He was known and celebrated all over Europe as one of the first of men, and he held in his own country the high office of conductor of all the foreign correspondence of Oliver Cromwell! But the Paradise Lost was not popular when it was first published, and therefore no poet ought to reverence the opinion of the public! Did it never occur to Sir Egerton, that the age in which Milton's poetry was overlooked was an age in which everything that had any connexion with the imaginative faculties of man was despised by those who had the guidance of the public mind in England? Was he ignorant, that if Milton, as a poet, was little thought of, then Homer, Shakspeare, every great poet the world had ever known, was equally the object of contemptuous indifference to the sour and malignant spirit of predominating fanaticism? Did he not know that that was the time also in which the Parliament of England sold by auction, to foreigners, the most magnificent collection of pictures and statues that England has ever yet possessed, because they preferred a few paltry thousands to all the works of genius that humanity had ever treasured? As for Cowley and Waller, they were never popular until after the Restoration; they were both genuine poets, moreover, at the worst; and if it be true (which we prodigiously doubt) that they were more popular poets than Milton even then, what would this prove, except the intensity to which political feelings predominated, in an age which witnessed the decapitation of an English king, by the hands of a cold-blooded faction, from which all Milton's genius had not been able to keep him aloof? What lesson can any poet of these peaceful days gather from this obvious anomaly?

Collins is another of his examples. It seems his Odes did not sell well just at first, and he burnt the lumber-copies! The fact is, that Collins died at thirty-six, within a very few years after his Odes were first published. Considering the very small extent of his poetical productions, and the very small class of readers for whom they were, or ever could be adapted, we think it no wonder at all that he should not have become in a moment the possessor of any very high and commanding degree of popularity. He was admired, however, by Samuel Johnson, and by all the best judges of his time; and we beg to ask whether he is now, or whether it is at all likely that Collins ever will be, a popular author with more than a very small circle of highly refined readers. He did not play for the great game, and he did not win it.

But "sometimes fame falls where it is merited, as in Lord Byron's case, but NOT OFTEN!" Here is the thunderbolt indeed. Not often! — Did Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Pindar, Aristophanes, Menander, Aristotle, Plato, Demosthenes — did none of these men deserve the instant and consummate fame which their works brought them? Were Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Caesar, &c., &c., all neglected classics? Was Dante — was Petrarch, "the friend of princes" — Was Ariosto — was Tasso neglected? Was not Chaucer the favourite of Edward? — Was it not "the sweet swan of Avon" that winged

—those flights upon the banks of Thames,
That so did take Eliza and our James?

Were Dryden, Pope, Swift, Addison, Johnson, Burke — were they all mere exceptions to the rule, that contemporary fame falls "not often" on those who merit it?

The fact is, that all our great English authors have been, as authors, eminently successful, with, at the utmost, the one exception, already (if it be one) sufficiently accounted for, of Milton. Chaucer made a fortune — the best test of fame; so did Spenser, (though he lost it afterwards.) Shakspeare died the richest man in Stratford upon Avon, and in the best house thereof. His grand-daughter was a great heiress, and married into a great family; and it was in "the house that Will built" that Maria Henrietta held her court when she stayed at Stratford. Dryden was an imprudent man; yet even he made by his writings, upon an average, 500 a-year, from the time he commenced authorship till the day of his death; and that, if one thinks of the time, was no inconsiderable sum. In fact, it was quite equal to 1500 at present. Pope died as rich as a Jew — Swift ditto. Addison became a secretary of state through his literature only. Johnson did not make a fortune, only because he was the most indolent great man that ever the world saw.

At all events these men, and an innumerable company besides, had abundance of contemporary fame; and is it against this cloud of witnesses that we are to have a single, at the best second-class, poet like Collins, ay, or fifty Collinses, set up, as proving that the public may be right occasionally, but is almost always wrong?

We believe the fact to be, that the public has, in all ages of the world, erred touch more on the generous side than the other; and that for any one given example of under-rated merit, we could, if it were worth our while, produce, at half an hour's notice, a hundred examples of overrated merit. Pause, ye young men of genius, ere ye lay to your souls the flattering unction of Sir Egerton. Believe, if ye will, in the general, that

"There is nothing more magnificent than that calm self-confidence which, judging rightly of its own powers and merits, goes calmly on, not only without a cheer, but in defiance of daily impediments and unappeasable opposition;"

but do not quite so easily set it down that there is anything of the "calmly magnificent" about those efforts of your own genius which nobody cheers, those aspirations which meet with nothing but "daily impediments and unappeasable opposition."

We mentioned in the outset, that one of their favourite notions was, that a poet could do no good except by painting directly from himself. This is continually recurred to.

"Had Lord Byron's mind been only accustomed to a narrow extent of scenery, instead of what was at once most varied and most magnificent, his poetical inventions could never have possessed the splendour and sublimity which show such astonishing powers. Action and interest characterize his poetical inventions, as they characterize his life; all he writes is vivid emotion, and often burning passion. The figures come forth from the canvass, and stand embodied, with breath on their lips, and the blood trembling through their veins. The author knew by experience so much of what he painted, that his imagination always raised something like reality."

Now, what does all this come to? Are Lord Byron's murders, &c. a bit more Vraisemblables, horrible, black, appalling, than those of Shakspeare, who, honest man, never, that we know of, saw anything even of happy old England but what lies between Warwick Castle and Ludgate Hill? Is it not obvious that the intended compliment, were it merited, would turn out to be a virtual sneer? Is he not the greatest poet who can from imagination alone achieve the most? But, after all, what did Byron ever see of the characters that he has represented? He wrote about blood and daggers — but we doubt if ever he witnessed the shedding of anything more deadly than champagne. He enjoyed himself extremely in the Levant, for he was very fond of fine scenery, pretty women, pretty horses, and a real quid of tobacco.

The high contempt professed by our author and his friends for the vox populi, is naturally accompanied on the part of Sir Egerton Brydges with a sovereign disgust for almost everything that happens, in our own particular time, to be excessively popular. Lord Byron (and he is dead) seems to be the solitary exception; and novels are par excellence the objects of utter scorn. Take the following specimen, which, but for other things to be hereafter noticed, might almost, we think, convict the writer of lunacy—

"What novel has outlasted the manners of its age? Who now reads Fielding, Smollett, Richardson, Mackenzie, Burney, Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith? Who reads Boccacio, Don Quixotte, Gil Blas, Gulliver, Robinson Crusoe? Pompous editions of them are sometimes printed to look handsome on library shelves; but nobody looks into them, unless to inspect a new set of illustrative engravings. Nothing continues to be read for generations (not even history) but standard poetry of pure and rich ore."

Who reads Cervantes, Fielding, Gil Blas, Gulliver, Boccacio, Julia de Roubigne, or Robinson Crusoe? But in truth this is too solemn folly. Who does not, except the Mopers?

WIT is popular, it seems; and wit itself falls under the ban of Balaam.

"Edward Phillips calls EPIGRAM the fag end of poetry; and we were always taught at school to consider Martial in the meanest class of genius; but it is always found, even among boys, to be the taste of those who have sharp practical understandings, and are adapted to the collision of society.

"There is no reason why a good thing should not be told in the most effective mode. But all literature, and all experience, prove that the worth and integrity of the matter is always sacrificed, where there is this sort of attention to the manner. Truth is never regarded, nor the genuineness of the ore, which is worked into these artful shapes. An inferior class of literati are thus brought forward, and given a sway which ought not to belong to them, — and men of the world are substituted for men of genius. These may be clever men, men of quick abilities, and lively adroit use of their abilities, but this does not constitute genius. Sheridan was a man of most extraordinary cleverness and pointed wit; what proof has he left of his genius?"

Did Sir Egerton ever read the Critic? But take him with his own men. Was not Homer the founder of comic satire, (if Aristotle maybe believed?) Did not Euripides write the Cyclops as well, as the Medea? Who drew Benedick and Falstaff? Who wrote Candide? Who wrote Don Juan? We are almost ashamed of ourselves.

But upon what principles do those who never read Cervantes, Swift, and Boccacio, write in their own proper persons? The whole of this book is full of such things as the following. Look back to the title of the work as we copied it, and pray consider them.

"My headach continues, but my task must not be abandoned. The mind, however, is at the mercy of this frail material tenement, and can work but imperfectly when the frame is deranged. The instant the intellect becomes clouded, a feeling of degradation falls upon the sensitive spirit."

Again—

"Positive illness has not often interrupted me in these letters, — but it has come upon me yesterday and to-day. My hand trembles, and I cannot make distinct syllables but slowly and with difficulty. A burning fever has been upon all my frame for six-and-thirty hours: it is a little abated; and I return to my task, lest the spell should be broken."

What think ye of this for a whole letter?

"For twenty successive days I have continued to write these letters. I must not break the spell, — and therefore register these few lines; though so much otherwise occupied that I cannot spare time for more."

The following is, if possible, still more exquisite.

"I have often spoken of myself in these letters, because self-knowledge is professed in the title of them to be one of the subjects treated: many will reject such a subject as inadmissible; but they who entertain it will probably think that I have said too little, rather than too much on it. I consider Montaigne's Essays, with all their faults, to be one of the golden books of literature: they are almost all about himself, his own opinions, sentiments, speculations, and habits." (O, modesty!)

But we really begin to feel that we have quoted too much nonsense from a book, which, after all that we have said, we have no wish whatever to represent as utterly valueless. It is indeed the greatest of all blessings that few can write much in this way from themselves, without writing something that the world will prize. But in spite of all his ridiculous theories, Sir Egerton Brydges is a man of talents, and having had the fortune to be born in a high station, and in spite of himself and his system to have mingled a good deal in the course of his life with men of acknowledged eminence in the world, he has not been able to write a book under the title of recollections without giving us some chapters such as none can read without interest. In a late paper on Lord Byron, we had occasion to say some things about Sir Egerton which we would hope may serve as a sufficient introduction to certain passages which we are now about to quote from this, the really valuable portion of the present work. In point of fact we consider Sir Egerton to be exactly like Don Quixote, (but he will not understand us, since nobody reads Cervantes,) a madman upon one subject, and an extremely sensible person upon all others. Take him off his theories about genius, and poetry, and wit, and the vox populi, and Sir Egerton, restored to himself in a twinkling, thinks and talks in a style calculated to do him much honour. We do not mean to say that he talks so that every one must agree with him, or even so that we agree with him, (though we often do;) but that he always talks so as to be well worthy of a hearing.