1871 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Lisle Bowles

S. C. Hall, "William Lisle Bowles" in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 375-80.



BOWLES, "of an ancient family in the county of Wilts," was born in the village of King's Sutton, in Northamptonshire, of which his father, William Thomas Bowles, was vicar. The day of his birth was the 24th of September, 1762. At least, I presume it to be so, for it is so given in a letter I received from him, though he had struck his pen through the date after it was written. "His father," he observes, "was the only son of the Rev. Dr. Bowles, of Brackley, who married Elizabeth Lisle, a descendant of the ancient family of the Lisles of Northumberland; the son (William Thomas) marrying, 1760, Bridget, eldest daughter of the wellknown Dr. Richard Grey, Chaplain to Nathanael Crew, Bishop of Durham. The Rev. William Lisle Bowles was the eldest son of that marriage. He was educated at Winchester, and removed to Oxford, where he gained a prize for Latin verse, having been entered a scholar of Trinity. He took his degree in 1792, entered into holy orders, became a curate in Wiltshire, and obtained, in 1804, a prebend's stall, and, in 1805, the living of Bremhill, Wiltshire," where he resided until he resigned it in 1845, after forty years' faithful service, during which long period he had watched zealously over the spiritual and worldly interests of his flock. His memory is venerated there to this day. He retired from Bremhill to Salisbury, where he died on the 6th of April, 1850, being a Canon Residentiary of that cathedral. He had then reached the patriarchal age of fourscore and eight years — a good man and a good clergyman.

I stood beside his grave very recently, and offered homage to his memory. His remains are covered by a plain stone: he was not "honoured" with a monument, but he erected monuments to record the virtues of two of his predecessors within the walls of the venerable and very beautiful cathedral. It was not difficult to fancy the old man treading these lofty and graceful aisles to and fro, at morning, noon, and night, in contemplation, with praise and gratitude; for it was the "home" in which he was always most happy.

In a note to one of his poems he acknowledges his debt to the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury for "preferment in a cathedral, where I might close my days to what I, through life, most loved — cathedral harmony."

In early youth he was innocent enough to apply to a printer at Bath to know if "he would give anything for fourteen sonnets," to be published "with or without a name." The purchase was declined; so the simple man, who fancied he might thus pay the largest debt he ever owed (70), "thought no more of getting rich by poetry." Yet they were afterwards published (in 1793), and sold well — first an edition of one hundred copies, then another of five hundred copies, and then another of seven hundred and fifty copies.

There came a young man into the printer's shop who "spoke in high commendation" of that volume. Forty years afterwards, Bowles discovered that the young man was Robert Southey; and therefore, in 1837, another edition of the sonnets was dedicated to Robert Southey, "who has exhibited in his prose works, as in his life, the purity and virtues of Addison and Locke, and in his poetry the imagination and soul of Spenser." For more than sixty years he was continually writing, and has left poems which, if they do not place him among the highest of the poets, give to him rank more than respectable.

At the outset of life's journey he was cheered by the voice of a generous and sympathising "brother." Coleridge speaks of himself as having been withdrawn from several perilous errors "by the genial influence of a style of poetry so tender and yet so manly, so natural and real, and yet so dignified and harmonious," as the sonnets of Bowles, and thus tenders his thanks:—

My heart has thanked thee, Bowles, for these soft strains,
Whose sadness soothes me, like the murmuring
Of wild bees in the sunny showers of spring.

De Quincey states that so powerfully did the sonnets of Bowles impress the poetic sensibility of Coleridge, that he made forty transcripts of them with his own pen by way of presents to youthful friends. Coleridge considered Bowles as one of the first of our English poets "who combined natural thoughts with natural diction — the first who reconciled the heart with the head."

In one of Lamb's letters to Coleridge he thus expresses himself:

"Coleridge, I love you for dedicating your poetry to Bowles, genius of the sacred fountain of tears. It was he who led you gently by the hand through all this valley of weeping, showed you the dark green yew-trees and the mellow shades, where, by the fall of waters, you might indulge an uncomplaining melancholy, a delicious regret for the past, or weave fine visions of that awful future,

When all the vanities of life's brief day
Oblivion's hurrying hand hath swept away;
And all its sorrows, at the awful blast
Of th' archangel's trump, are but as shadows past."

That is no slight praise from two such men. We may add to it that of Southey, who says in reference to one of the poems of Bowles — "St. John in Patmos" — "I should have known it to be yours by the sweet and unsophisticated style, upon which I endeavoured, now almost forty years ago, to form my own."

Bowles never sought rude popularity — satisfied with inculcating lessons of sound morality in "dignified and harmonious verse," and to lead the heart to virtue, as the chiefest duty of the Muse.

His poetical works are many, but he did not despise prose. His "Life of Ken" ranks high; but he is in this way chiefly remembered by his contest with Byron, Campbell, and others, relative to the claims of Pope to be considered a poet of the first order. Byron's line is familiar to all: — "And Pope, whom Bowles says is no poet."

Bowles thus refers to this subject in one of his letters to me, dated October 28th, 1837. "I never said 'Pope was no poet.' I never thought so. I put the epistle to Abelard before all poems of the kind, ancient or modern. The 'Rape of the Lock,' the most ingenious, and imaginative, and exquisite; but the Ariel is inferior — how inferior! — to Shakspeare, because the subject would not admit a being employed 'in adding furbelows' to a lady's mantle to be as poetical as an aerial being singing — 'Where the bee sucks,' and raising the storm. The question was wilfully bothered by blockheads, and no otherwise was the question evaded. But the principles are eternal."

When I personally knew Bowles, in London in 1835, he was a hale, hearty old man. He seemed to me a happy blending of the country farmer with the country clergyman of old times, and recalled the portraitures of "parsons" of the days of Fielding and Smollett. He rarely quitted Bremhill. Now and then he visited the metropolis, where he seemed as much out of place as a "daisy in a conservatory" — that was his own simile during one of my conversations with this eccentric, but benevolent, clergyman. Some idea may be formed of his loneliness amid the peopled solitude of London by anecdotes related to me by the wife of the poet Moore. Bowles was in the habit of daily riding through a country turnpike gate, and one day he presented as usual his twopence to the gate-keeper. "What is that for, sir?" he asked. "For my horse, of course." "But, sir, you have no horse." "Dear me!" exclaimed the astonished poet; "am I walking?" Mrs. Moore also told me that Bowles gave her a Bible as a birthday present. She asked him to write her name in it; he did so, inscribing it to her as a gift — from the Author." "I never," said he, "had but one watch, and I lost it the very first day I wore it." Mrs. Bowles whispered to me, "And if he got another to-day he would lose it as quickly."

I met not long ago, near Salisbury, a gentleman-farmer who had been one of his parishioners, and cherished an affectionate remembrance of the good parson. He told me one story of him that is worth recording: — One day he had a dinner-party; the guests were kept waiting for the host; his wife went up-stairs to see by what mischance he was delayed. She found him in a sad "taking," hunting everywhere for a silk stocking which he could not find. After due and minute search Mrs. Bowles found he had put the two stockings on one leg. Once, when his own house was pointed out to him, he could not by any possibility call to mind who lived there.

This constitutional peculiarity must have been natural to him, for when a very child — just seven years old — ("the child is father of the man"), while accompanying his parents through Bristol, he was "lost." He had strayed away. There was a hunt for him in all directions, with the eager questioning of his frightened mother, "Have you seen a little boy in blue jacket and boots?" He had been attracted by the sound of the bells of Redcliff Church, and was found tranquilly seated on the ancient steps of the churchyard, careless of the crowd around, listening in delight and wonder to the peal from the old tower. To this event he alludes in one of his after poems, when

The mournful magic of their mingled chime
First woke my wondering childhood into tears.

Another peculiarity of his was an inveterate tendency to give away his chattels to those who happened casually to admire them. Mrs. Bowles was compelled, in consequence, to keep a watchful eye at all times upon his proceedings in that way, and is said to have controlled his simple-minded irregularities as well as his indiscriminate liberality.

Of his eccentricities many anecdotes are told in the neighbourhood where he resided for nearly half a century. All of them, however, are simple, harmless, and exhibit generous sympathy. He was loved by the poor, and by many friends. One of the most acceptable guests at Sloperton was the poet Bowles; and Moore says of him, "What with his genius, his blunders, his absences, he is the most delightful of all existing parsons or poets." And again, "What an odd fellow it is, and how marvellously, by being a genius, he has escaped being a fool!" And thus Southey writes of him: — "His oddity, his untidiness, his simplicity, his benevolence, his fears, and his good-nature, make him one of the most entertaining and extraordinary characters I ever met with."

A true lover of nature, he took the greatest delight in ornamenting the beautifully-situated vicarage gardens. And a very pleasing place it was, altogether picturesque, replete with quaint surprises and fancies, and yet entirely devoid of old-fashioned formality. It afforded him high gratification to entertain his friends in these grounds, and lead them along its labyrinthine paths — here to a sylvan altar dedicated to friendship, there to some temple, grotto, or sun-dial. Thus he speaks of one of these garden treats in the "Little Villager's Verse Book" — a small volume of very sweet hymns, which are, I believe, well known in many village school-rooms, and cannot be too well known: — "A root-house fronts us, with dark boughs branching over it. Sit down in that old carved chair: if I cannot welcome illustrious visitors in such consummate verse as Pope, I may, I hope, not without blameless pride, tell you, reader, that in this chair have sat, among other visitors, Sir Samuel Romilly, Sir George Beaumont, Sir Humphry Davy — poets as well as philosophers — Madame de Stael, Rogers, Moore, Crabbe, Southey, &c."

Having discovered a huge ancient stone-cross lying neglected half buried in the churchyard, he had it placed there, so as to be visible from the vicinage of the root-house, the moral of which he indicated by inscribing on the latter this couplet:—

Dust then lament the dead and mourn the loss
Of many friends? Oh, think upon the cross!

The steps leading to this root-house, and the entrance to where it stood, are depicted in the accompanying illustration; but, unfortunately, neither root-house nor chair remains to give point to deeply-interesting memories connected with the spot.

From some lines that — according to the work I have quoted — were inscribed in another part of the very charming grounds of the vicarage, it would appear as though Mr. Bowles had once intended to be buried at Bremhill, instead of Salisbury Cathedral.

There rest the village dead, and there, too, I
(When yonder dial points the hour) must lie.
Look round, the distant prospect is displayed
Like life's fair landscape, marked with light and shade.
Stranger, in peace pursue thine onward road,
And ne'er forget thy long and last abode,
Yet keep the Christian's hope before thine eye,
And seek the bright reversion of the sky.

Also, bearing on the same point, in a sermon entitled "The English Village Church," preached by him at Bremhill, April 20th, 1834, are to be found these words: — "in the course of nature, it will not be long before my grey hairs, which have lived among you for so many years, will be brought down, I hope and pray, in peace. My last abode will be in this chancel, where all the young are now assembled, and who will remember me. I would not wish a better epitaph than the expression of a poor child, on the departure of a man of genius, a conscientious, clergyman, and a friend."

In a note Crabbe is mentioned as the friend alluded to, and the words of the child were, "He with the white head will go up in pulpit no more!"