1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Richard Henry Dana, in Review of Hazlitt's English Poets; North American Review [Boston] 8 (March 1819) 313-15.



We have not a word to say for the "Pleasures of Memory;" but it is painful to meet with so gross and unfeeling an attack, as is here made upon Mr. Rogers, when it is recollected that he is alive to read it. Campbell must not be so given up. His "Pleasures of Hope" was more popular for a long time than it deserved to be. Every body was quoting or reciting it. The good and the bad went equally well, for there is an affluence of loud sounding epithets and compounds. The passions and abstract qualities of the mind are all personified, no matter how, and no one stopped to inquire, for poetry was not then read with the critical eye that it now is. There is a great deal of what is styled elegant language, such as answers a good purpose at a morning's call, or on like important occasions, when, if we are careful to be genteel enough and duly interested in what is going on, it is no matter if we do chance to be a little indefinite or unmeaning in what we say, — we shall still pass for "very accomplished."

These faults are much more frequent in the "Pleasures of Hope," than in Campbell's later poems. He was a young man when he produced that work, and his subject was unfortunately selected. As little is expected from a work with such a title as from a prize poem. Notwithstanding its serious failures in taste, there is an energy and an air of eloquence in it — much real eloquence, and many touching passages. There are figures formed in a mind truly poetical, and lines which any one might be glad to have written. Take the mother who weaves a song of melancholy joy over her sleeping boy, — the maniac girl who lights the pile of fagots on the steep of the share to guide her lover home from sea, — the destruction of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, the closing line of which should almost save a poem, — the sufferings and death of the Swedish soldiery under Charles, — the birth and destination of the soul illustrated by the description of the comet's course, — and the closing address to Hope, — the following passage, too,—

Friend of the brave! in peril's darkest hour,
Intrepid virtue looks to thee for power;
To thee the heart its trembling homage yields,
On stormy floods, and carnage-cover'd fields.
When front to front the banner'd hosts combine,
Halt ere they close, and form the dreadful line;
When all is still on Death's devoted soil,
The march-worn soldier mingles for the toil;
As rings his glittering tube, he lifts on high
The dauntless brow, and spirit-speaking eye,
Hails in his heart the triumph yet to come,
And hears thy stormy music in the drum.

There is compactness and energy in this. The preparation for closing in fight is given in a fine line, with a deadly fixedness of purpose, and then it warms up and closes with one full of inspiration, and the whole is made visible. It requires a mind poetically vigorous and impassioned, to produce passages like this. We know that poetry has many qualities not found in this extract, — but it is enough for our purpose that it is poetry. When powerful, sudden, and elevated passions become non-essentials in poetry, we will give up Campbell. The faults in this quotation are what are common to him elsewhere in this poem, and are obvious enough. The word "combine" is used very indefinitely, and enfeebles a couplet otherwise remarkably strong and close. We find very bad passages; and the following line is characteristic of his principal fault, — an unwillingness to give a thought simply and out of figure. It was undoubtedly intended for effect: — "To Friendship weeping at the couch of Woe." Now these figures look as if cut out of wood. We doubt whether there be in Campbell another line so bad as those which we will now give. We suspect that they were pilfered from the Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard, or the Rape of the Lock,—

Extatic throbs the fluttering heart employ.

While woman's softer soul in woe dissolv'd aloud.

There are like faults in all the places referred to, but neither they, nor the indiscriminate attack of Mr. Hazlitt, are enough to kill his beauties. Campbell's reputation does not rest on his Pleasures of Hope, nor on Gertrude of Wyoming. Both his friends and enemies are in the habit of calling the latter his best work. There are fewer faults in it, than in the former. There is a certain tender emotion produced in reading it, and here and there are rather beautiful descriptions, but it is thin and watery. O'Connor's Child is his glory. His minor poems would be as good, only that they are shorter, and cannot admit of as much variety. O'Connor's Child is perfectly simple; nothing seems got up for effect; it is true, natural pathos, it is wild without any extravagance; the sacred fire of poetry bursts up in full splendour, and blazes through the whole of it with intense heat. If we had room, we would quote. It is well that we have not, for we might, as Mr. Hazlitt sometimes does, give the whole. Lochiel's Warning is full of daring and passion, and the Wizard finely visionary. "Hohenlinden" is remarkable for its scenery, all the stir and spirit of battle, and there is a full fire and roar of cannon kept up from the beginning of the fight, till it dies away in the last melancholy stanza. The "Battle of the Baltic" has all that is in this last, with more variety and novelty of scenery and images, with a delightful mixing in of the old ballad simplicity. As for "Ye Mariners of England," it is sung all over our country, in spite of our politics. Mr. Campbell need not fear; — no narrow system of others in poetry can ever hurt him. Let him but give loose to his genius, and write more stanzas after the same manner with these, and they will all be read together, forever.