1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alaric Alexander Watts

H., "Alaric A. Watts" La Belle Assemblee S3 1 (Feburary 1825) 66-69.



Whatever may be our power, the charge shall never be justly urged against us, that we endeavoured to crush genius in its birth — that youth, virtue, and talent became the victim of our critical ferocity. Well do we recollect the sensations which, some years ago, we experienced when, on turning over the old volumes of a review possessed of high celebrity in its day, we accidentally alighted upon a critique that we had written upon "Clifton Grove," the first avowed publication of poor Kirke White. The bard was then no more — all consciousness respecting his volume had escaped us — but we found that we had spoken cheeringly to his young spirit, and balmy was the unction to our own heart!

Mr. Watts is probably not now a very young man. Many of his early, almost boyish productions, scattered like waifs and strays, had long been before the public. They were written, as he tells us, between the years of sixteen and twenty-one. The fate of one of these little pieces — Verses to Octavia, the eighth Daughter of J. Larkins, Esq. — is curious, and affords a striking illustration of the mighty magic of a name. "In most of the journals, daily, weekly, and monthly, for July, 1818, these verses were ascribed with very flattering eulogiums to the pen of no less distinguished a poet than Lord Byron; although they had been published a month before, with the author's name, in the Edinburgh Magazine." "The trifle which," Mr. Watts observes, "with his undignified patronymic might have slumbered unmolested in the pages of a Scotch Magazine until doomsday, aided by a factitious appendage, was forthwith ushered into life, light, and popularity." Mr. Watts was happily induced to call home his fugitives, and give them to the world in a volume: that that volume should, within a few months, have reached its third edition, will be regarded as a strongly presumptive proof of its merit; and at all events it will serve to shew, that whatever advantages its author may derive from the notice of liberal critics, he has little to dread from the attacks of those who delight in wielding the tomahawk and the scalping knife.

We contemplate Mr. Watts's unassuming volume — affectionately inscribed, if we mistake not, to his wife — as a beautiful exemplification of the bud, the blossom, and the fruit, combined. It is not, however, perfect as a whole, or even in all its parts; its author is not equally happy in every class of poetical composition. We are glad, therefore, that its reputation is such as will enable us to speak freely, without the far of inflicting either injury or pain.

Mr. Watts's longest pieces are not his best. Evidently, his forte lies not in the Spenserian stanza, in which "The Profession," the first piece in the volume, is written. That stanza requires an ease, an elegance, a polish, a stream of melody, of which "The Profession" presents no happy specimen. It evinces, on the contrary, an ear defective in rhythm. The pauses are not well adjusted, nor is due attention paid to the collocation of vowel and consonantal sounds. The close of the eighth stanza, for instance, is hard and rugged:—

A delicate star, soft beaming on the sight,
As Hesper, when he breaks from curtaining clouds of night!

This poem, though it contains some fine ideas and beautiful passages, is not sufficiently impressive for the subject, nor does it display all the pathos of which its author is master.

"The Broken Heart," a poem superior in merit, displays all the faults which ding to "The Profession." It is written in blank verse, yet — and we know not why it is divided into stanzas. Mr. Watts is, perhaps, with some exceptions, less successful in blank verse than in any other measure. As far as rhythm is concerned, the two first lines of "The Closing Scene" — as well as many others — are bad:—

Pale is his cheek with deep and passionate thought,
Save when a feverish hectic crosses it.

Dr. Johnson justly observes, that "however minute the employment may appear, of analysing lines into syllables, and whatever ridicule may be incurred by a solemn deliberation upon accents and pauses, it is certain that without this petty knowledge no man can be a poet; and that, from the proper disposition of single sounds results that harmony that adds force to reason, and gives grace to sublimity; that shackles attention, and governs passion." It is possible that the want of satisfaction which we experience in reading Mr. Watts's blank verse may arise, in some degree, from our attachment to the productions of the old school — the blank verse of Milton and of Akenside. That Milton's verse halts most lamentably at times, we freely admit; freely also do we admit that much of it, in the present day, would not, and could not be tolerated; but, on the other hand, the grandeur and the flow, the sublimity and the softness, which in its finished character it so abundantly displays, have never been surpassed — rarely, if ever, equalled. Akenside is more correct in his pauses, frequently more musical in his numbers, but they are not sustained by the depth amid majesty which we find in Milton. As we happen to view the subject, the essential properties of blank verse, in its mechanism, at least, are admirably discussed in the 86th, 88th, 90th, 92d, and 94th numbers of "The Rambler." To our taste, most of the blank verse of the present day is of a feeble and a sickly structure.

We have yet more fault to find with Mr. Watts. His sonnets are not legitimate sonnets. It was a maxim of Lord Chesterfield's, that if it were worth while to do a thing at all it was worth while to do it well. In no instance can this apply more aptly than in that of writing a sonnet. A sonnet must be correct and highly-finished, or it is utterly worthless. The position is not correct, that the genius of the English language is incapable of adaptation to the legitimate sonnet; for Milton, Wordsworth, Capel Lofft, Miss Seward, and others, have produced exquisite specimens of the legitimate sonnet in English. If the position were correct, the term sonnet ought to be altogether abandoned: why should a poem, merely because it happens to contain neither more nor less than fourteen lines, be termed a sonnet? The fact is, the structure of a legitimate sonnet is as specific as that of the Spenserian stanza; allowing, however, a certain choice in the disposition of the four rhymes to which its fourteen verses are exclusively confined. Capel Lofft has written learnedly on the subject; but no one has been better acquainted with the difficult, and delicate, and eminently beautiful structure of the sonnet than Miss Seward; nor has any writer more accurately exemplified the theory by practice. In proof of this, we refer to her poems, and to numerous passages in her letters. If Miss Seward were too much extolled in her own day, she has been too much neglected since: her works contain many excellent canons of criticism, and it is to be regretted that justice has never yet been rendered to her literary character.

In forming an estimate of Mr. Watts's poetical merit, the irksome part of our duty is now performed: little remains for us but to offer the meed of praise; and that praise, circumscribed as are our limits, we will in some measure endeavour to justify. In the spirit of our motto, "painting, poetry, and sound of music's various notes," are, to Mr. Watts, "all divine." He seems to feel that—

Painting is poetry struck mute, and dash'd
Upon the ready canvas, to delight
The eyes of men. The ear doth music fill
With strains of wondrous melody, and makes
Our bosoms seem ethereal. Both of these
Take birth from poesy, which is the source of
Each high feeling; bids deep passion rise,
Or lulls it into tears; decks all around
With its rare magic; — from each little flower
It catches eloquence; each blasted tree
Gives it a moral lesson to hold out,
And the wide ocean and the mighty sky
Display a volume to its searching eyes,
Fraught with a multitude of scenes and sounds
That speak sublimity.

Several of our author's stanzas for music possess much poetical as well as musical feeling. Like all true poets he possesses a lively perception of the beauties of nature. Dr. Darwin carried to an absurd excess the opinion that there could he no poetry without picture. Some of Mr. Watts's poetry is picture in the finest and most impressive sense of the term. For instance, from A Sketch from Real Life, take the following passages:—

—In her face,
Though something touched by sorrow, you may trace
The all she was, when first in life's young spring,
Like the gay bee-bird on delighted wing,
She stooped to cull the honey from each flower
That bares its breast in joy's luxuriant bower!
O'er her pale forehead, pure as moonlit snow,
Her ebon locks are parted, — and her brow
Stands forth like morning from the shades of night,
Serene, though clouds hang over it. The bright
And searching glance of her Ithuriel eye,
Might even time sternest hypocrite defy
To meet it unappalled; 'twould almost seem
As though, epitomized in one deep beam,
Her full collected soul upon the heart,
Whate'er its mask, she strove at once to dart:
And few may brave the talisman that's hid
'Neath the dark fringes of her drooping lid....

There is a speaking sadness in her air,
A hue of langour o'er her features fair,
Born of no common grief; as though despair
Had wrestled with her spirit — been o'erthrown,—
And these the trophies of time strife alone,
A resignation of the will, a calm
Derived from pure religion (that sweet balm
For wounded breasts) is seated on her brow,
And ever to the tempest bends she now,
Even as a drooping lily, which the wind sways as it lists.

This is beautiful — truly picturesque. There is fine picture, also — fine imagination — in "The Waking Dream," and in some little pieces we have seen in "The Literary Souvenir," an elegant publication, of which Mr. Watts is the editor.

We have said that Mr. Watts possesses a lively perception of the beauties of nature. This is particularly apparent in his "Chamouni," a sketch on the spot, his "Morning," and his " Etna."

It was a lovely night; — the crescent moon
(A bark of beauty on its dark blue sea,)
Winning its way amid the billowy clouds,
Unoared, unpiloted, moved on. The sky
Was studded thick with stars, which glittering streamed
An intermittent splendour through the heavens.
I turned my glance to earth, — the mountain winds
Were sleeping in their caves, — and the wild sea,
With its innumerous billows, melted down
To one unmoving mass, lay stretched beneath
In deep and tranced slumber; giving back
The host above with all its dazzling sheen
To fancy's ken, as though the luminous sky
Had rained down stars upon its breast. Suddenly,
The scene grew dim: those living lights rushed out,
And the fair moon, with all her gorgeous train,
Had vanished like the frost work of a dream.

It is, however, as the poet of the heart, if we may so express ourselves, that Mr. Watts's feelings are in pure accordance with our own. We love the romance of love, and, oh, never, never to the last hour of our existence, may that love forsake us! We have read, times almost without number, the stanzas commencing—

Years of anguish and gloom have gone by
Since I last drank the breath of thy sigh;
And — compelled by hard fortune to sever,—
We parted in sadness — for ever!

Never without a thrill of anguish, amounting almost to agony, can we peruse these stanzas!

We parted. — What pen may pourtray
The despair that o'ershadowed that day!
And even deeper our grief had been then,
Had we known we should meet not again!

We parted. — Long years have now past
Since the hour that I gazed on thee last;
But, fresh in my memory, yet
Bloom the flowers of most mournful regret!...

No: — the venom-dipped arrows of doom
Cannot pierce to thy heart through the tomb;
And, though bitter, 'tis balm to my breast,
To know, thou'rt forever at rest!

No: — the clouds that burst over me now
Cannot ruffle thy beautiful brow;
In its sorrows my soul may repine;—
They can wake no wild echoes in thine!

Let the storms of adversity lour!
So that thou hast escaped from their power,
They may pour forth their wrath on my head!
They can break not the sleep of the dead.

But the whole poem must be read, to form an estimate of its maddening excellence, its heartrending pathos. In such poetry Watts is, with the exception of Lord Byron, "himself alone." We cannot think of weakening the effect of these quotations by any further remark.