1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Bryan Braintree, "British Poets edited by Thomas Campbell" Gentleman's Magazine 91 (January 1821) 6-7.



During the last thirty years the press has gradually yielded such an extraordinary increase of works under the multifarious names of Selections, Beauties, Minstrelsy, Extracts, Fugitive Pieces, &c. &c. gathered from our established poets, that the sixteens, twelves, duodecimos, octavos, and imperial octavos, might form an extensive juvenile library, had any school-boy a smattering of ambition to be dubbed "a collector." Fortunately the compilers, while they have increased the mass by "pouring out of one phial into another," have also crushed the young bibliographer's rising passion, by their tedious sameness. They possess only one generic character, and duplicates of modern works that only vary in the unimportant features of paper and type, are of little or no estimation. The stripling that has imbibed a taste for poetry, will read Milton, Gray, or any other standard poet, in a sixpenny edition with equal enthusiasm as if embellished and hot-pressed by Da Roveray or Sharpe.

It was my chance sometime since to be invited by an eminent city publisher to become editor of a few choice morsels of English poetry, or in the language of business, "DO a work for the Row." Unfortunately for the speculation, the announcement of my long-respected friend Mr. Murray, of a similar publication, made us dread the curse of rivalship, and the being crushed by a long and widely puffed forestalment. Such a compilation was well adapted to a pedagogue whose little leisure is stealing one hour a day from my scholars, and it required only a smattering of taste, a small portion of judgment, and very little research. The materials I depended upon seemed ample. There was Dr. Anderson's and Mr. A. Chalmers's British Poets, with those useful selections by Ritson, Ellis, and Southey. As to biographical or critical notices, they were easily flung together by pilfering from the History of English Poetry, Censura Literaria, British Bibliographer, Restituta, and other modern works of similar character. Besides these sources I was assured of the covetable assistance of two gentlemen, well known for their literary attainments, and deeply read in antient poetic lore (which I know little about), who were to aid with the loan of a dozen or score elder authors of rather a rarer order, and who also undertook to dog-ear certain leaves of curious matter, fearful I might not hastily discover the same; with a caution to be particular if two poems were on the same leaf not to adopt the worst. Such was the outline of the plan, and my SELECT specimens would certainly have been completed in TWENTY portly octavos — But Mr. Murray announced, and has since published, Specimens of the British Poets; with biographical and critical notices, and an Essay on English Poetry, By Thomas Campbell; or, as the label expresses it, BRITISH POETS, by T. CAMPBELL, 7 vols. 3 13s. 6d. — Seven volumes! although the works above noticed as sufficient to supply materials for twenty, have rendered copious assistance, and some acute readers have fancied there may be traced the assistant hand of a friend; yet has the whole been rammed, crammed, and jammed, into only seven volumes! — Certainly, however Mr. Campbell is justly entitled to his well-earned eminence as a poet, he must excuse a little blunt honesty in announcing that he is not quite UP to the art of book-making, notwithstanding the reports circulated so opportunely before the appearance of his seven volumes. — Then it was rung through echo's trump that the Specimens were the result of a close application of eight years, which can scarcely be correct, for there are many instances of haste discoverable, and so little time is necessary for cutting down the bulk of an author into a trite specimen, that the last six volumes might as well have passed the press in eight months, as in as many years. Indeed I strongly suspect, from some traits of negligence, the whole work was hurried forward from the spreading buzz of my own project. Another groundless assumption was, that the labour, if such light amusement may be designated labour, was to find a remuneration of 1000. Surely it cannot be. Booksellers do not now barter for "the whistling of a name," and Mr. Murray's purse, on this occasion, would be sufficiently lightened if it bore the evaporation of a cool 100, which a puny wit may argue is subtracting nothing. Lastly, Mr. Campbell was to supplant all that had been done by Headley, Ellis, Ritson, and Southey. — Now to the truth: Is all this extravagance of bruit accomplished? Can Mr. Campbell take credit for more than his "Essay on English Poetry," and his "Biographical and critical Notices:" articles of high merit, and had those parts been given in a moderate sized volume, then those sketches would have found a run of several editions, and which would, to an extensive circle, be even now acceptable. If the SEVEN volumes were intended to be worthy the closet of the literary man, why tax him to load his groaning shelves with extremely long extracts from poets of most common reference; but Mr. Campbell to secure praise should not have suffered any one poet, found in the volumes of Anderson or Chalmers, to have occupied by specimen more than a single leaf. He has also erred if he believes any kind of finger-post necessary for the man that reads to discover the nervous passages in our standard poets. On the other hand, if it was calculated as a fit work to disseminate a love of poetry and better knowledge of our domestic writers, among the junior branches of society, who may have outgrown the longer-needing nursery varieties and the polished pages of Harris and Godwin, why eke out to seven volumes what might have been given in a double-columned octavo?