1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Gates Percival

Anonymous, in Review of Percival, Prometheus Part II; Christian Disciple 5 (March-April 1823) 144-45.



The truth is, there is in these poems no fixed and permanent moral complexion at all; but it is constantly shifting and changing, apparently the sport of accident or circumstance. We have here the strange contradiction of a man eulogizing, in language of strong feeling, the sentiments of a pure morality, and the sublime truths of religion; even writing hymns, and other poems of a religious cast; — and yet, in the same volumes, speaking contemptuously of faith, and doubtingly of futurity, and dealing in sarcasms and sly insinuations, which can be readily construed into nothing but scepticism or infidelity. Now how are we to interpret all this? Is the advocate of religion to treat it tenderly and forbearingly, or is he called upon to denounce it harshly, and unsparingly? Are we to question the writer's honesty and sincerity, and suppose that he makes holy subjects only a tool to play with, as suits his fancy at the moment — to be sneered at or lauded, as may produce the best effect? We are forbidden to think this by what appears to us the evident candour and undisguised reality of feeling, which breathe and reign throughout his works. Is it then a mistaken ambition to walk in the path of Byron, and play the misanthrope for the sake of the poetry? This we can hardly reconcile with the high spirit of independence every where manifested, which would seem to disdain this acting of a part in any case, and much more the copying it from another. Are we then to suppose that he has no settled convictions on the all important subjects of human welfare and divine truth? Or is it that he feels and reverences the holy things of religion, as nature and providence teach them, and the pure sentiments of the moral law as written on the heart; but has taken disgust at the forms of religious faith, which have been offered him as revelations from God, and has been driven by them from the divinity of religion? So many men of fine understanding, of deep moral sense, and really devotional susceptibility have been by this cause turned away from the faith and peace of the gospel; which they would have embraced gladly if they had from the first seen it as it is, and never been prejudiced against it; that we cannot help indulging the charitable hope, that this may be the case with the author of these poems, and that he only needs with a sincere heart to study our religion free from the corruptions of man and the strange dogmas which have been mixed with it, and to behold it in its native purity, majesty, and beauty, — in order to throw away the inconsistency of that scepticism which disfigures his writings now, and take to his heart the enjoyment of a message from heaven.

We should not feel ourselves to be doing right, even if we had more room, to quote any of the objectionable passages to which we have alluded. We hope they will be forgotten and perish. For their author we have better wishes, — that he will have more respect for his own talents, and for the public for whom he writes; and that when we meet him again, we may be able to bestow the unmixt commendation, which belongs to the labours of eminent talents, faithfully devoted to the cause of letters and virtue.