1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Frank Sayers

Anonymous, "News from Parnassus: Sayers's Works" The Monthly Magazine 57 (March 1824) 119-22.



The pages of these volumes may be turned over with a very lively sense of gratification by every reader: prose and poetry relieve the eye in the succession of their pages, and delight the mind with the vivid chastity of high fancy, and the wise results of philosophical research. Dr. Sayers was eminently a poet and a scholar, of great and varied attainments. There is, besides, something that very sensibly touches the heart in the circumstances of this publication. The companion of the author's youth, the critical friend of these lucubrations, — to whose favored name part of the miscellany was inscribed, — after soothing the first hours of sorrowful loneliness, in the recollection of his valuable life, comes before us with the principal incidents which marked its chosen tenor. To provoke in our readers an appetite, which for ourselves, we can truly state, has been agreeably satisfied, we shall extract, with some account of Dr. Sayers, just enough in prose or poetry to evidence the warranty of our award; and, if there may arise any impression to diminish in aught the interest we feel, it must lie in the regret we also have felt to notice the very modest plainness with which Mr. Taylor has discharged the inheritance of friendship. But that may be grief, and must be virtue.

Francis Sayers was born in Rood-lane, London, on the 3d of March, 1763. His father was a merchant, and survived the birth of an only child for a few months. The widow, soon after, sought the home of her parents in Yarmouth; and the doctor loved in aftertime to tell, how snugly he was taught the elements of instruction behind a large Flemish screen, the shelter of whose leather-gilt folds was absolutely required to preserve the comforts of the domestic hearth, in the antique gallery which formed the drawing-room of his grandfather's mansion. To the impressions fostered by the old state and palace-like convenience of this home, the biographer in some degree fondly attributes the poetical bent of the author's imagination. The suggestion is followed by this remark: — "Comic poets and artists have usually been low-born, and accustomed to the world in its undress; but those who have excelled in sublime composition have mostly originated amid the statelier monuments of art and nature." We fear the exceptions are too numerous for this rule. Congreve, Sheridan, and our living Colman, were not only gentlemen, but courtiers; to say nothing of Addison and Steele while Milton and Shakspeare can hardly be said to have lived in any genteel circumstances or places.

After some Latin and a little Greek, at a boarding-school in North Walsham, with Lord Nelson for a schoolfellow, our author's education was ably continued at a dissenting school, kept by the Rev. R. Barbauld, at Palgrave, in Suffolk. The lessons in elocution he there received, from Mrs. Barbauld the authoress, were always acknowledged with a very warm sense of praise. After his grandfather Morris's death, he left the counting-house in which the old gentleman had placed him, and for a while pursued an agricultural life; but definitively settled on a medical profession. At Edinburgh, then at London, and at Edinburgh again, he devoted his time for some years to the most eminent lecturers, and improved his mind considerably by attentive study. In 1789 he took a diploma at Hardervick, made the tour of Holland and the north of France; and settled with his mother for practice in Norwich about 1789.

It was not until 1790 that Dr. Sayers evinced himself an author, by the publication of "Dramatic Sketches of Northern Mythology;" which consisted of "Moina, a tragedy," "Starro, a monodrame," and the "Descent of Frea, a masque;" all written in the order they are here mentioned in, and after the Grecian model, as the one best calculated to develop the fables through the subserviency of the chorus. In 1793 followed "Disquisitions Metaphysical and Literary;" and in 1805 "Miscellanies Antiquarian and Historical." Sincerely sorry are we to add, that, with the exception of some shorter pieces of lighter thought, our enumeration already comprises our author's works.

The kind of poetry in which Dr. Sayers volunteered for distinction, is one which but few amongst us have essayed. though it is eminently fertile in beauties; and certainly the style in which the bard of Norwich has finished his task is most polite and correct. Few writers have succeeded in the union of so fine a spirit of imaginative thought, and so stern a fidelity of that state and consequence the subject particularly demands. The choruses are breathing strains of energy and greatness, not altogether so classically polished as the odes of preceding lyrists but perhaps more consistent with the wildness of these popular themes. The following passage is from the "Descent of Frea," and is an address to Odin:—

Chief of warriors! king of might!
Clinging to thy sable steed,
And, dashing thro' the fight,
Thou smil'st when thousands bleed.
Coucher of the ponderous spear!
Thou shout'st amid the battle's stound,
The armed sisters hear,
Viewless flurrying o'er the ground,
They Strike the destin'd chiefs, and call them to the skies.
Lo! from Sculda's misty towers,
On jetty wing the raven flies,
And bears the deeds of future hours;
To thee he hastes, — in solemn state
Thou read'st the stern commands of fate
To listening Deities;
Say, is it doom'd no parent's tear
Shall wet thy Balder's sable bier?

In stating that these lines were an address to the king of gods, we should have added, that Frea is soliciting the voices of heaven, — which must be unanimous or vain, — for the recal of her love from the lower regions. One deity (of the evil ones or demons,) refuses assent, and is thus conjured:

By the raven's song of death,
By the night-mare's baneful breath,
By the glutted vulture's scream,
By the tomb-fire's quenchless beam,
By the mighty serpent's blood,
By the roar of Giall's flood,
By the war-hounds fatal yell,
By all the horrors wrapt in hell;
I charge thee weep the briny tear
On youthful Balder's sable bier.

In the spirit of the interwoven odes, like these, — and we have quoted without any choice, indeed strictly at hazard, — the reader will find the highest tone of the author's talents. The dialogue is inferior: it is not quick, connected, and reciprocal enough; it is not stirring or (if the word may be used,) actionable enough for our notions. At the same time, it must be remembered to what it is inferior: to prove it not without poetry, it is enough to read a few lines. Balder, entering the infernal regions, thus soliloquizes:—

Thou land of horror! whose unyielding frost
Piles high the mountain-ice, and dims the air
With ever-hissing sleet; where piercing blasts
Sweep on storm-laden wing o'er solid seas:
Must Balder here for ever mourn unheard?
Or breathe his sighs the scoff of shivering ghosts,
Shrill shrieking from their caves? Must Balder's soul
For ever shudder at the howl of wolves,
And shrink from scaly snakes, that round him twine
Their clammy folds, and point the quivering sting?
Bright scenes of bliss, farewell!

The second of these volumes, — and a very entertaining and varied one it is, — is made up of Disquisitions. The brevity of the form into which the subjects are thrown does not give space for the conveyance of much knowledge; but the series contains store enough of hints for it, at the same time that it displays an unusual extent of critical reading, and much original observation. For the truth of this remark, a reference to the very first essay, "Beauty," is sufficient. After a recapitulation of different theories, from Hogarth's "curve of a peculiar shape" to Sir J. Reynolds' "central failures," and objections to them, he proceeds to express one which to him appeared. less objectionable. It is this: that the "power which an object possesses of exciting with itself the association of pleasing ideas or emotions, is what determines us to ascribe beauty to it." For this the best argument is the inconstancy of our opinions as to the beauty or ugliness of many fashions and forms; in a regard of which, we dislike to day what we yesterday liked: the proofs are so many, as to be in every one's resource. At the same time that we fully concur with Dr. Sayers in the justness of this observation, we yet hesitate to follow him in the utter rejection of any other quality from the embraces of the proposition: for, though good to a certain degree, it is by no means finite. The perception of beauty, no doubt, results from an association of ideas; but those ideas are themselves borrowed, and therefore the enquiry properly is, — What are the kind of objects most likely to fix ideas upon the mind, and form its powers to make a preference? It is in this sense that the "fit and orderly" must be considered as great attractions for the grounds of pleasure. The doctor's doctrine has this much in its favor, that no other definition of beauty can be laid down without numerous exceptions from it, and objections to it; but it is not primary: up to a certain point it is an account, but no definition of the whole. After all, perhaps, Burke's definition of the beautiful in delicacy is the best we have. Our author objects, that this would exempt stronger animals, nervous figures, and places for defence, from being beautiful. But to us the exemption is not so evident: we have seen a very nervous figure, strong animal, and even a fortification, each strictly delicate of its kind. Mere size or fulness is not of itself incompatible with delicacy; for that sense is excited in us by a moderation in the proportions of an object, accompanied with a fineness in certain turns of the form. Such things are not to be entirely decided by comparison; certainly, we do not at this moment remember to have seen any thing which was beautiful and indelicate; and perhaps that is as much as can be said for any known definition on the subject, and much more than for some.

From many other papers, we might quote much to our own satisfaction and the indulgence of our readers, did we not wish to leave as full as possible the resource of entertainment in these volumes. We shall conclude, however, with an abridged account of what appears to the doctor the probable history of our patron saint; and that not so much from the common interest of the subject, but because, even after our abstract, considerable pleasure will remain in a reference to the proofs of various reading, and many curious notes, which so greatly distinguish the original article.

It appears, then, that St. George, though with much circumstantial evidence in his favour, is not known to us by any direct information which has been transmitted respecting him. It is highly. probable, however, that he was a Cappadocian of good family, who commanded in the army of Dioclesian with the high credit of a title in mark of his deserts, and was put to death on the day which perpetuates a name held, in the early age of the eastern church, in great repute. Nothing more seems certain: the reasons for this presumption, and against suppositions, are detailed in the Disquisitions at a very amusing length. His connexion with the patronage of this country is with the best grace attributable to the temper and wants of the Crusaders; while the story of the dragon rests upon no better authority than a monkish rhyme, to which we have annexed as doggerel a translation.

O George, martyr inclyte,
Te decet laus et gloria
Praedotatum militia;
Per quem puella regia
Existens in tristitia,
Coram dracone pessimo
Salvata est.

Translation.
Hail! George, martyr of renown,
Laud is thine, and Glory's crown
In the warrior-bands of heaven;
Who the royal maid has given
From the shuddering power of tears,
From the poison'd dragon's fears,
Safe to home.

This certainly smacks of Paganism. It is also stated, that the Turks, amongst whom he is a great favourite, to this day point out a well near which, tradition assures them, the feat took place. From the happy results attributed by the Crusaders to St. George's interposition in their behalf, ensued the continuation of their choice at home in the institution of the Order of the Garter.

Dr. Sayers's Poems reached a fourth edition during his life. As they succeeded each other, his reputation increased; and, in his middle age, he named amongst his personal acquaintances, Windham, Mackintosh, Bowles, Scott, and Southey. The reception of his Sketches abroad, particularly in Germany, was very commendatory, and led to many flattering incidents. Our author, we are told, often loved, but was often crossed in love, and so lived throughout a bachelor. His biographer quietly observes, that his loves were of too disinterested a nature to lead to matrimony. Meanwhile, the peaceful tenor of the poet's life flowed on in fame: he became the first wit in Norwich, was an essential guest at the genteelest tables in town and country; and sent forth many smaller themes in verse, as the quaintness of time or his friends gave suggestion.

What was the estimation of bit medical practice, we are not informed; one cannot bear every palm away, and haply, in the enjoyment of a competency, Dr. Sayers was not inclined to clip one feather in the search for another. At last, his health appeared to decline; and, after some four or five years, he expired, grievously affected with hypochondriasis about the future welfare of his soul, on the 16th of August, 1817. A man so well known, and deservedly respected, was of necessity much and sincerely regretted. The charitable disposition of his property gave a signal proof of the tender mercy of his heart; while the disposition of his books proved the sense of his attachment to the interests of the cause of literature, already so much benefited by his works. He lies in the Cathedral Church of Norwich, where a monument is placed, to keep sacred a memory long to be regarded on higher considerations.