1818 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Anonymous, "Estimate of the Literary Character of Thomas Campbell" The Monthly Magazine 44 (January 1818) 489-90.



We are disposed to think that the highest kinds of poetical genius may be divided into two classes — the creative and the formative; and that it may even be asserted that the compositions of the latter are in general the most interesting and delightful.

The creative endeavours to awaken particular trains of associations, by allusions never employed before; while the formative addresses our ordinary sympathies, and makes use only of those allusions and images which experience has fitted to them, with as much truth and certainty of effect, as the keys of the piano-forte are adapted to the strings. The productions of the one are justly called original; but the epithet of classical is alone appropriate to the compositions of the other. The former may be compared to the irregular melody of the aeolian harp, awakened by impulses from the immediate breath of heaven; and the latter to that delicious music which is called forth from the instruments of the orchestra by the touch and practice of tasteful skill. Mr. Campbell belongs to the formative class; and we think, without any exception, merits lobe placed at the head of it. Gray and Collins, to whom, of all his predecessors in the English language, he approximates the nearest, have distinctive peculiarities, that perhaps entitle them to be placed in the creative. But there is a crystalline perspicuity of manner, a musical perfectness of versification, and a variety in the imagery of the author of the Pleasures of Hope, which raise him eminently above either of the other two, whether we consider them by their works collectively, or by those particular poems to which his bear the closest resemblance — the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, or the Dirge on Thomson.

As the poetical temperament takes its character from local circumstances, more than any other cast of mind, an ingenious metaphysician might draw from the works of Mr. Campbell, a proof of the authenticity and originality of the poems of Ossian. For, although be was not a native of the same part of the Highlands, he was, from his earliest years, familiar with the same scenery, and with the notions and sentiments peculiar to the Celtic race. It is owing to this circumstance that he is so truly a national poet; for, strictly speaking, he is as such neither English nor Scottish; his feelings and modes of thinking being altogether tinged with the genius of the Gael. The force of this expression can only be property understood by those who are acquainted with the qualities of the Highland character; a description of which is not only a desideratum in literature, but deserves the pen of a Tacitus.

It is, in our opinion, no slight proof of the Celtic spirit of the Pleasures of Hope, that all its finest and most touching incidents are those which are associated with circumstances that suggest ideas of a cloudy atmosphere, a wintry landscape, and the troubled waste of the ocean, contrasted with the purity of affection, the warmth of love, and the serenity of heroism — the noble qualities of the Highland heart opposed to the inhospitalities of the Highland climate.

The peculiarities of Mr. Campbell's poetry have, to the English reader, undoubtedly all the freshness of originality; not does it detract, in the slightest degree, from his merits, that he feels, thinks, and expresses himself, like the bards of Selma. For, if he is full of their spirit, he is also rich in the knowledge of his own time. The Celtic melancholy is but the medium in which he imbeds the most beautiful conceptions of the poetry of all ages, and by which, as it were with a curious and elegant refraction, he renders them infinitely more delightful than in their original state.

It is an interesting biographical fact, that the first printed work of this exquisite poet was an imitation, not of the barbarous style of Macpherson's Ossian, but of the poetry of the Celtic Homer; and that it was published by a subscription among his school-fellows, at the boyish munificence of two-pence.

But, although Mr. Campbell is so evidently a bard of the genuine bardish race, it is somewhat remarkable that he never attempts to excite that factitious interest which is produced by descriptions of departed manners and customs, and which can only be temporary, as the taste for such researches is but a fashion. Were any proof requisite of his pure and classical taste, we would adduce this as the most decisive, as we should certainly maintain his right to be placed at the head of the formative class of poets, by referring to the universality of the sympathies to which he appeals. Religion, heroism, parental affection; the hove of freedom, of kindred, and of country, — in one sentence; — the limitless element of love, in all its purest modifications and chastest forms, is the theme of his pathetic inspirations; and, as such, they must afford delight in every age and climate, while man continues an admiring, an emulous, and a social, being. Mr. Campbell's peculiar modes of thinking show his rationality, rather than his genius: it is indeed no more a part of that than the language in which he has written.

But, while we entertain for his talents the most unfeigned respect, we ought not, on the present occasion, to omit noticing, that, with all his taste and skill, he has made one of the most remarkable failures in literature that we are acquainted with. There can be but one opinion as to the beauty of the ideas in his "Gertrude of Wyoming," and yet it has excited no comparative interest. It would, perhaps, be enough to allude merely to the circumstance, were we not convinced that it affords a there decided proof of the formative nature of his genius, than the most minute verbal examination of his works. The failure we think is owing to the bias of the author's imagination to localise his scenes, and to the descriptions being drawn from books, and not observation. Had he chosen his subject from some Highland legend, he would probably have surpassed all expectation; but, imposing on himself the effectless task of describing scenes and manners which he has never witnessed, he placed himself somewhat in the situation of a painter, who would attempt to give a portrait of an individual, in a view of a landscape, from description. He has, without question, expressed himself with infinite elegance, and be has chosen his images with great judgment; but the performance is a lifeless academical composition. He has drawn from busts and statues, and coloured according to the principles of a professor.

The works of Mr. Campbell are not numerous, they come to us "Like angel visits, few and far between." But they are so exquisite, with the exception alluded to, that we can scarcely wish he had written more, so unabated is the pleasure we derive from those he has already given.