1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Anonymous, "Portraitures of Modern Poets: Thomas Campbell, Esq." Ladies' Monthly Museum S3 18 (July 1823) 18-24.



MR. CAMPBELL has long stood high in the public estimation; but, as upon an impartial review of his writings we think he has been awarded more praise than his merits can justly claim, so we cannot but rank him among those individuals to whom that fickle deity, Fortune, has been particularly favorable. He entered the lists of fame at a time when there were few in the field, and those few not of a very superior order. The subject of which he made choice was a most happy one; his versification was smooth and easy; his sentiments, moral and humane; his opinions did not militate against established doctrines, nor point at particular sects; thus no one was offended, whilst most were pleased; and the good sense and mild feelings of a sensible and a worthy man were magnified into the sublimest attributes of a great poet. He had the advantage, moreover, of Lord Byron's friendship; his Lordship having made honorable mention of him in that fine satirical poem, "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers." The proud rank Lord Byron holds in the republic, of letters may be dated from the appearance of that poem, and he confers a portion of his own fame on those he honors with his applause. Take the world in the aggregate, it is much more willing to be led than it chooses to acknowledge.

In literature the first step is every thing — a name once acquired is a "salvo" to future defects: — to acquire this name is often a great difficulty — but to lose it, we affirm, is also a great one. The fame of a writer depends on the general opinion, and, though a discerning few may perceive "what a falling off is there," the majority will keep up the bubble that is once blown. Southey, for instance, has gained, perhaps deservedly, the name of a good poet — yet the dullness, not to say folly, of his latter productions has done little towards tearing the laurel from his brow. The rivalry of cotemporary genius is more fatal to the hopes of an author than any comparison which he may apprehend the world may institute between him and departed worthies. Thus is poetical celebrity more difficult of attainment at the present moment when Byron, Moore, Scott &c. form a galaxy, than during the interregnum in this department of literature, which immediately preceded their appearance. We have made these introductory remarks previous to entering on an examination of Mr. Campbell's merits, because we confess ourselves unable to discover in his writings those emanations of splendid genius that distinguish a great poet. We regard him as a man of talent — not a man of genius — qualities often confounded, but certainly very dissimilar. To the last, the quick and original powers of invention, the vivid and warm imagination, ardent and spontaneous feelings, are indispensable; while if the former only possesses sense, judgment, and erudition, with some portion of good taste, we feel ourselves justified in awarding to him that estimation which we imagine belongs to a man of talent.

"The Pleasures of Hope," Mr. Campbell's earliest Poem, forms the basis of his fame; to that poem, therefore, we shall especially direct our attention. There is a vagueness in the structure which might have been judiciously avoided. Few poems would suffer less by being transposed than this, a circumstance which is always unfavorable, more particularly in a philosophical poem, as we may call the one before us: it wants that beautiful continuity, in which link follows link, in appropriate succession; each so dependent on that which precedes and that which succeeds, that the whole would suffer from any omission or inversion. It is also perpetually degraded by a weakness and puerility of expression, as—

So heavenly genius, in thy "course divine"
Hope is thy star, "her light is ever thine."

Again, the language is weak and vapid,

Auspicious hope! "in thy sweet garden grow"
Wreaths for each toil, a charm for every woe.

And when, in some easy, pleasing lines, he has described the hardships of the pilot whose destination guides him to "Behring's rocks and Greenland's naked isles," he spoils the conclusion, by introducing the main subject of the poem with weak expletives. The watchman's visions are agreeably written till the last line.

His native hills that rise in happier climes,
The grot that heard his song of other times,
His cottage home, his bark of slender sail,
His glassy lake, and broomwood's blossom's vale
Rush on his thoughts; he sweeps before the wind,
Treads the lov'd shore he sighed to leave behind,
Meets at each step a friend's familiar face,
And flies at last to Helen's long embrace,
Wipes from her check the rapture-speaking tear,
And clasps with many a sigh his "children dear."

The passage descriptive of the mother watching her sleeping babe, has been much admired; but it is rather for the picture it presents to the mind (which cannot fail to be a pleasing one, be it expressed as it may) than for any real beauty or originality it possesses. There is nothing very natural in these lines—

And say, when, summoned from the world and thee,
"I lay my head beneath the willow tree,"
Wilt thou, sweet mourner, at "my stone appear,"
And soothe my parting spirit lingering near?

It is not the idea with which we quarrel, but the language in which it is clothed. The last line is a sweet one — "And think of all my love, and all my woe." But it is spoiled by the preceding one which describes him breathing his sighs "to winds that murmur low." All that affectation of imagery is out of place in the language of emotion and deep feeling. The picture of advancing infancy is sweet—

But when the cherub lip has learnt to claim
A mother's ear by that endearing name,
Soon as the playful innocent can prove
A tear of pity or a smile of love,
Or cons his murmuring task beneath her care,
Or lisps with holy look his ev'ning prayer,
Or gazing mutely, pensive sits to hear
The mournful ballad warbled in his ear.

The lines descriptive of the poor man, are written with much truth, feeling, and sweetness—

And mark the wretch, whose wanderings never knew
The world's regard, that soothes, tho' half untrue.
"Whose erring heart the lash of sorrow bore,
But found not pity when it erred no more."
You friendless man, at whose dejected eye
Th' unfeeling proud one looks — and passes by;
Condemned on penury's barren path to roam,
Scorned by the world, and left without a home—
Even he at evening, should he chance to stray,
Down by the hamlet's hawthorn scented way,
Where round the cot's romantic glade are seen,
The blossomed bean-field, and the sloping green,
Leans o'er its humble gate, and thinks the while—
Oh! that for me some home like this would smile—
Some hamlet's shade to yield my sickly form,
Health in the breeze, and shelter in the storm,
There should my hand no stinted boon assign
To wretched hearts with sorrow such as mine!
That generous wish can sooth unpitied care,
And Hope half mingles with the poor man's prayer.

In the latter part of the first division, the poem forsakes its original theme to dwell on the progress of the humanizing arts among uncivilized nations, on the dissemination of truth through regions hitherto merged in the gloom of ignorance; on the dismemberment of Poland; and on "the wrongs of Africa." The second part, commencing with an apostrophe to love, contains some pleasing pictures of domestic life, and concludes with "the sublime influence of hope" in disarming death of its terrors.

Eternal Hope! when yonder sphere sublime,
Peal'd their first notes to sound the march of Time,
Thy joyous youth began — but not to fade;
When all the sister planets have decay'd,
When 'rapt in fire the realms of aether glow,
And Heaven's last thunder shakes the world below,
Thou undismay'd shalt o'er the ruin smile,
And light thy torch at Nature's funeral pile.

Of the poems that compose the rest of the volume, even the best do not rise above mediocrity.

Barrow called poetry "ingenious nonsense;" the poem of the "Harper", is a compound of nonsense, but certainly not of ingenuity. Nothing can be written in worse taste than "The Wounded Hussar." — "Love and Madness" is very little better. It is dull and obscure. — "Gertrude of Wyoming" is a poem in the Spencerian measure, and scarcely rises above mediocrity till the entrance of the boy and negro "like morning brought by night." The description of the negro warrior is also happy—

A soul that pity touched, but never shook,
Trained from his tree-rock'd cradle, to his bier,
The fierce extremes of good and ill to brook
Impassive, — fearing but the shame of fear,
A stoic of the woods — a man without a tear.

His parting address to the boy is beautiful—

Sleep, wearied one! and in the dreaming land
Shouldst thou the spirit of thy mother greet,
Oh! say to-morrow that the white man's hand,
Hath plucked the thorns of sorrow from thy feet;
While I in lonely wilderness shall meet
Thy little footprints — or by traces know
The fountain where at noon I thought it sweet,
To feed thee with the quarry of my bow,
And pour'd the lotus horn, or slew the mountain roe.

Outalissi, to whom all the poetry of the work is given, has some beautiful lines descriptive of his isolated state.

Accursed Brandt! he left of all my tribe,
Nor man, nor child, nor thing of living birth,
All perished; I alone am left on earth
To whom nor relative nor blood remains,
No! not a kindred drop that runs in human veins.

The passages extracted are perhaps the best in the poem, though the concluding speech of the Oneyda chief is well written. — The work wants interest, and is not sufficiently explanatory; and perhaps the following expressions have more of novelty than merit — a nut "grown" tree — a "mutual" heart — the swarthy "lineaments" of a face — "kindly" bowls — a lovely face "uplift" (uplifted).

Sixty-eight pages are occupied by the poem, twenty by the notes, and the Book is made up by s few miscellaneous pieces of a very mediocre character — "Ye mariners of England" for example, containing the following poetic and original lines—

And sweep thro' the deep,
While the stormy tempests blow,
While the battle rages loud and long,
And the stormy tempests blow.

"Glenara" is a little piece in much better taste. "The battle of the Baltic" contains some good lines, but inclines to doggrel "Lockiel's Warning, a poetic dialogue," is tolerably written, but a mere fragment, from which neither tale nor meaning can be extracted.

"Hohinlenden" a descriptive battle-song, and "Lord Ullin's Daughter," a well known, though a very inferior ballad, closes this volume.

The work altogether bears evident marks of book-making, as this imposing quarto might have formed an unobtrusive duodecimo, and it would then have had this advantage, that its price would have been better proportioned to its merits. The notes contain several trifling errors, which we presume to be typographical, but which are scarcely pardonable in so small a work.

Of Mr. Campbell's "Specimens of the British Poets" we think it necessary to speak, because he has done more real service to poetic readers by making this selection than he would have done by writing original matter for a century — but Mr. C. has here done too little, seven volumes octavo are not sufficient for specimens of all our poets, much less so when a considerable portion of the pages are taken up with the biography of the respective authors, and an essay on poetry — Shakespeare, has we think, only a page accorded him; we presume on the ground that he is sufficiently well known, but the same reason should have induced Mr. C. to limit his selections from Milton, Pope, Thomson, Butler, and Mason; indeed the principal error appears to be that our author has said too much of authors that are known, and too little of those that are not. Taken upon the whole, it is the work of a man of erudition, industry, and taste; and one which, perhaps, no other poet of the present day would have performed with so much impartiality or judgment. He has been more disposed to praise than to censure, and if this be a fault, it is an amiable one. Otway has been omitted in the biographical notices; which we the rather regret, as Mr. C. might, for ever, have set at rest, an unfounded, though current story, as to the manner of his death. Mr. C. has not shewn partiality to any particular style, as some might have done, in the selection. — Lewis would have heaped up execratory or harrowing passages till they formed a kill of horrors, like the bones of the unfortunate crusaders who fell in battle with the Turks; Moore would have lulled us with lave scenes, Coleridge would have resusticated Donne, Cowley, Crashaw; and so on to the end of the chapter.

Mr. Campbell has also evinced his improved taste in poetry in some trifles which he has published in the magazine he edites. They are the best he has written, particularly a little song on "Absence," which we should he happy to transcribe, had we not already exceeded our limits.