1805 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hayley

Anonymous, in "Character of Hayley, and his last Poem" Literary Magazine and American Register [Philadelphia] 4 (August 1805) 89.



Fortune has her favourites in the republic of letters as well as in the aristocracy of wealth. Merit is sometimes left to pine in obscurity, while mediocrity is occasionally promoted to a share of public notice and indulgence which appears surprising, when its claims come to be impartially weighed. Hayley deserves to be ranked among these fortunate children of "golden" mediocrity. His indefatigable industry during a long life, his character as a polite scholar, and his intimacy with men of the first literary eminence, are circumstances quite independent of the diviner inspiration of genius; but, in Hayley's case, they have so well supplied the deficiency, that his name carries to the general ear a sort of classical sound. The charm dissolves, however, on a near examination, and leaves us to discover, in all the productions of his muse, an invincible mediocrity. There is scarcely any passage, in all his metrical compositions, which may not be reduced, by a few slight transpositions, to sober sensible prose, without one distinguishable fragment of the scattered poet. Even in his earlier works, when the vigour of his fancy was unimpaired, there is a continual tameness of conception, and monotony of numbers, that show he was not born for the higher flights of poetry.

In one point of view, indeed, he is greatly superior to many who excel him in poetical talents; and that is, as the annotator of his own works. The copious notes subjoined to his didactic poems are quite of a different character from the silly farrago which so often disgraces the volumes of our modern poets. They display a liberal and cultivated mind, and contain a most amusing fund of literary information, gleaned from an extensive and well-directed course of reading. To them he is indebted for the best part of his fame: they prop the weakness of the poetry that produced them, and shed a reflected lustre on what shone but feebly by its own light. When Hayley refers us to a note, it is not an interruption, but a relief; and we gladly quit languid verse for agreeable prose.