1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hayley

Allan Cunningham, in "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the last Fifty Years" The Athenaeum (14 December 1833) 851.



The name of WILLIAM HAYLEY is numbered with the biographers of the age; he is the author of a Life of Romney, and the Life of Cowper. For the first, he collected materials from the lips of the painter, and was father stimulated by a present of pictures; and, for the second, he had at his disposal the numerous and admirable letters of the poet, in which the secluded man tells his own simple story, and speaks so much of himself, as to leave little for his biographer to communicate. Yet, it cannot be said that Hayley has written anything like permanent works; much of what he relates of Romney has been contradicted or questioned by his son; he takes higher ground, too, than the painter's genius can maintain. The Life of Cowper is only relieved from unelevated mediocrity, by the fine letters with which the narrative is embellished. The biographer seems not to feel the peculiar genius of his subject; his language is formal, measured, and cold, and it has that laboured look, which, though according to the rules of composition, wants familiarity and freedom, to interest and warm. There is a sort of Spitzbergen air breathed over the narrative, and yet it is written by one whose talents the world thought highly of, and to whose opinion in all things painters and poets bowed. All this is easily explained: he lived in days when polish held the place of vigour, and harmony that of feeling; and poetry was judged as a song is now, by the sweetness of its music. In all the externals of verse, he was a master; as he moved in good society, his opinions spread and prevailed; and though he penned cold quartos both in prose and verse, no one imagined that the weariness they felt in perusal, could come from the accomplished author of The Triumphs of Temper.