1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Oliver William Bourne Peabody in "The Decline of Poetry" North American Review [Boston] 28 (January 1829) 13-15.



Next to Byron, if we consult our recollections, we must place Campbell; a name once delightful to all lovers of the art. We can remember the fine promise of The Pleasures of Hope, in which the youthful air of the sentiments contrasted so well with the manly power displayed. His Gertrude of Wyoming was far more perfect; it was almost faultless in its design and execution; and his Hohenhnden, and Ye Mariners of England, equal any thing that poetry has ever produced. Even now, familiar as they are, they send a cheering thrill to the heart, like the roar of a signal gun.

But Campbell early retreated from the field, thinking, perhaps, that he had written enough, and content, as well he might he, to lest his fame on what he had already done. It was certainly a great effort to sustain so high a character, and his later works sufficiently show, that it could not he sustained without labor. His early works, rapid as their flow appears, were evidently touched and retouched with the painful industry of ancient sculpture. The spirit of the times did not encourage this delicacy, and being sufficiently sure of immortality without it, he gave over the exertion. No one can think that he retired through fear of suffering eclipse from any of the eccentric orbs that were rising; but he might have been willing to make an experiment upon his fame, to learn what was his chance for immortality, while he was yet living. We cannot help regretting that he departed from his plan; for Theodric, though it is now generously forgotten, was only calculated to injure his fame, and like Rogers's Human Life, is a warning to poets never, out of complaisance to the times, to attempt to conform to a system which they do not approve at heart.

The world has no right, that we know of, to find fault with a poet for ceasing to write. He cannot be considered as indented to the business, simply because he has written well; still we cannot help feeling as if Campbell's retirement were somewhat inglorious; injurious it unquestionably has been. While he was building the tombs of the older prophets in a beautiful criticism, he might have reflected that the best way to do them honor was to show what kind of poetry their memory and example could inspire. It is unfortunately true of living on one's fame, as of living on one's capital; it diminishes faster than the owner is aware. The world insists upon looking on him, who has once been a poet, as always a poet; and its gratitude, as Walpole said of statesmen, consists in "a lively sense of future favors." We lament his retirement, not only as depriving us of a pleasure, but as encouraging the gradual decline of the art for he seems to us better calculated than any living poet, to restore the classical taste and manly simplicity of former days.

Campbell had no reason to complain that his works were undervalued; they were sought for and admired by old, and young; and the public requires a constant supply of such poetry to keep its taste good. The public mind, disgusted by absurd, or wearied by uninteresting works, soon grows indifferent; and an unhallowed excitement can soon deprive it of its perception of true poetical beauty. If Chantrey should shut up his work-shop, and leave the field to artists of the bowsprit, the taste for sculpture would degenerate rapidly enough in England; and it is evident that a similar effect has resulted from Campbell's retirement; swarms of gilded insects have come out to the light; many pretenders have gained notoriety by wildness and extravagance, who would have had neither chance nor ambition while labor, accuracy, and talent were essential to success.