1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Allan Cunningham, in "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the last Fifty Years" The Athenaeum (16 November 1833) 770.



The nerve and impulse of the new school, and the polish and elegance of the old, unite in Thomas Campbell. He is of the west of Scotland, the son of a second marriage, and was born at Glasgow in 1777, when his father was seventy years of age. He went to school early, and wrote verses almost as soon as he mastered the use of his pen; at college he carried away all the prizes he contended for, much to the delight of his mother, who had become a widow, and rejoiced in the success of her only son. Having distinguished himself as a Greek scholar, where Greek is said not to abound, he obtained the situation of a tutor in a family in Argyleshire. We soon afterwards find him in Edinburgh, where he was countenanced by Dr. [Robert] Anderson, and had acquired celebrity as a poet through The Dirge of Wallace, and other shorter pieces, handed about in manuscript. He was not more than twenty, I believe, when he published The Pleasures of Hope — a poem which he shakes his head at now, but which, nevertheless, exhibits high imagination, deep sensibility, a clear eye for the picturesque, and a burning thirst for freedom, with a noble scorn for all that is sordid and slavish. His next effort was Lochiel and the Wizard, with O'Connor's Child: the first is heroic and high-souled, the latter tender and affecting. There is a grand flow in the versification of the first: a hurrying march of words, and such an infusion of northern sentiment and manners as made it welcome through all the heathy dominions of the Gael. The Gertrude of Wyoming is the poet's own favourite, and he is certainly right in his affection: there is a quiet grace, a melancholy beauty — a sort of Niobe-like suffering and sad repose about it, which open every heart, and moisten every eye. If it wants the fervour of Lochiel, and even of some places of The Pleasures of Hope, it abounds more with what is lastingly impressive — images of domestic gladness and scenes of retired love. His Theodric, published in 1824, shares largely in the same beauties, though less happy and natural in its delineations.

His martial lyrics have much passionate energy, united to regularity and classic elegance: a concise vigour, a glowing rapidity of words, and such liquid harmony of versification, as make them more than a match for all kindred compositions, save The Bruce's Address of Burns, and the Donuil Dhu of Scott. They have, likewise, a tenderness which softens the rigours of war, and calls upon us, amid the earthquake voice of victory, to sympathize with the fortunes of the vanquished or the fallen: I allude to the concluding hymn of Hohenlinden and The Battle of the Baltic; all who read this will be at no loss to remember similar passages, connecting the sternest scenes with the gentler sympathies of life. He has not limited his studies to poetry: some ten years or more ago he published Specimens of the British Poets, accompanied with dissertations on their merits; the selections were, in general, judicious, and such as showed the peculiar talents of the writers; and the criticism were distinguished for taste, liberality, and acuteness. He undertook a Life of Sir Thomas Lawrence, and dropped it after writing a score of pages: he now promises a memoir of Mrs. Siddons. He has almost given up his allegiance to the muse; but now and then verses worthy of his palmier days drop from his pen. Poland has monopolized his affections of late, and he lives in the hope of seeing a crown on her head, and Nicholas driven back to his deserts.