1826 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anna Laetitia Barbauld

A. Lamson, in "Works of Mrs. Barbauld" North American Review [Boston] 23 (October 1826) 372-75.



Her private character appears to have commanded uniform respect. She was modest and reserved in her manners, though her reserve was not that of pride, but of diffidence; her temper inclined her to friendship and society; her affections, if not the most lively, were strong and constant. "She passed through a long life without having dropped, it is believed, a single friendship, and without having drawn down upon herself a single enmity, which could properly be called personal."

For her intellectual and moral qualities we feel, on the whole, much veneration. We are not ready to admit, that she possessed every feature requisite to constitute genius of the first order. She was somewhat deficient in sensibility and ardor; she had originally little depth of feeling and little pathos. She addresses more the intellect and imagination than the heart, and seldom indulges the "melting mood," seldom utters those fervid and glowing strains, which, reaching the inmost recesses of the breast, stir up all the intenser feelings of our nature. "In some tempers," observes Miss Aikin "sensibility appears an instinct, while in others it is the gradual result of principle and reflection, of the events and experience of life, it was certainly so in that of Mrs. Barbauld." Of this we have evidence in her works. That she possessed strength of affection, and had a kind and indulgent heart, we have already admitted; but her eloquence was that of mild persuasion, rather than of deep feeling. It was calm, sweet, and winning, hung round with gentle and modest attractions. It was the serenity of Goldsmith, not the pathos of Otway.

We are not disposed to complain of Mrs. Barbauld for deficiency of feeling. We should, if we know ourselves, be among the last to detract from the respect which follows her name. Her merits are so great, in other respects, that she can better spare the charm of sensibility. We do not charge her with downright apathy, nor pronounce her a chilling writer. She furnishes not cold moonlight scenes alone, but has a gentle warmth. Her language does not fall dead on the ear; it makes a strong impression; it produces a calm and still, but pleasing and permanent effect. We are less inclined to complain of her want of sensibility, as the tendency of the age is, in some respects, towards wild fervor and extravagance. There is a strong appetite for the vague, the dreamy, the fantastic, and the shapeless. Men want to he powerfully excited; their feelings must he harrowed up, and their imaginations inflamed by glowing and exaggerated representations and fictions. The mind must have keen stimulants, and is not always very delicate in the choice of them. It is satisfied with those of the grosser sort, and such as are, at least, of a doubtful tendency, being adapted full as often to corrupt, to weaken, and degrade, as to regenerate, to strengthen, and exalt. We are not now in danger of famishing over a scanty, cold, and superficial literature, but of being disgusted or surfeited with mawkishness of feeling, wordy insipidity, and the rant of "maudlin eloquence." While such is the tendency of the age, we are not sorry, occasionally to meet with productions partaking of the calm and chastened manner of Mrs. Barbauld. The public may derive benefit from them.

Mrs. Barbauld formed herself on the model of the writers of Queen Anne's time. Addison appears to have been her favorite author, and there were, in the opinion of Miss Aikin, several striking points of resemblance between the two. We are not quite satisfied, however, with her enumeration of the characteristic traits possessed in common by both.

Addison in his own peculiar walk remains unequalled. His exquisite humor, his sweetness, his rich and delicate imagery, his simplicity and "genuine anglicism," possess striking charms. His style is more strictly idiomatic, than that of any writer we can name. Mrs. Barbauld, though easy and flowing, has much less of idiom. Great as were the merits of Addison, however, he had defects from which Mrs. Barbauld is free. She is less diffuse, less careless and inexact, and more comprehensive and profound than her great model. Partial as she was to the wits of the preceding age, she felt for them no superstitious veneration; she saw their faults and avoided them.

Mrs. Barbauld possessed a capacious and discriminating understanding, and strong practical sense. Her powers, originally vigorous, were refined and strengthened by assiduous culture, and exerted with force and success. She is always adequate to her subject; her views are wide and her arguments and illustrations well chosen, solid, and impressive; and she never leaves its dissatisfied with poverty of conception, or superficial, hasty reasoning. Her remarkable share of acuteness and discernment enabled her to avoid confusion of ideas and sophistry of argument.

Were we asked to point out any one specimen of her power of discrimination, and, we add, her habits of careful observation, we should be satisfied with referring to her "Observations on Sects and Establishments," which no one can read without a strong feeling of admiration for the sagacity of the author. Of her sound judgment and plain good sense no one, in the least conversant with her writings, can entertain a doubt; they appear in all her productions. She never disgusts us by extravagance; she cannot be pronounced visionary and speculative. She does not constantly strive for effect, nor attempt to dazzle or astonish; she never writes for display, never resorts to a style of extravagance and overwrought description, that common artifice of the vulgar sort of writers. Sound reasoning and good sense form the texture of her graver performances. These are set off by the charms of a natural, chaste, and masculine eloquence. She felt no blind veneration for system, time-hallowed forms and opinions; but was accustomed to exert the understanding, and allow great weight to its decisions. Her views and illustrations, her trains of thought and argument, without being farfetched, appear just and forcible, for they are drawn from her own reflections, from surrounding nature, and the common sentiments and common feelings of the human breast. She conducts us to truth through avenues at once short, inviting, and beautiful. We often know not, whether more to admire the important practical conclusions in which she rests, or the simple and pleasing process by which she arrives at them.

With a vigorous and large understanding she united a gay and vivid fancy. She excelled in light and sportive description. That rich and exquisite vein of humor, which diffused such a charm over the pages of Addison, was never attempted by her. But in short and lively sketches, in slight, airy, and winning narrative, she will be admitted to have been uncommonly happy. For attempts of this kind she was remarkably well fitted by her playfulness of fancy, ready invention, and power of investing her thoughts in light and graceful drapery. In all her graver pieces, intellect predominates over imagination. The latter faculty was in her rather sprightly and beautiful, than splendid and imposing; it pictured out quiet and attractive scenes; it was not the parent of lofty inspiration. On subjects of a common nature and common interest, she never fails of affording us high gratification.

None will withhold from Mrs. Barbauld the praise of correct taste. Whatever capricious judgments may, be pronounced concerning her merits in other respects, on this point there can be no dissent. As a critic, she was impartial and sagacious. She had a relish for the genuine beauties of nature and of art; nor was she insensible to the more hidden graces of sentiment and expression. As a writer, she has few blemishes. Her powers originally well balanced, her quick apprehension, her calm temperament, and early familiarity with the best models, were favorable to the acquisition of a delicate taste, and she did not want the industry requisite for maturing it.

Of her style, little need be added to the incidental notices already taken. It is marked by great purity and correctness, and exhibits a happy union of strength, simplicity, and grace; usually plain, transparent, and expressive; on lighter subjects, rapid and lively, and on the more weighty, dignified and full. It is sufficiently embellished, without superfluous ornament, and refined, without ceasing to be natural.