1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

S. E. Jr., "Campbell" American Monthly Magazine [Boston] 2 (June 1830) 193-97.



The presses of our own country, as well as those upon the opposite shores of the Atlantic, are so abundantly teeming with the efforts of genius and the fruits of untiring application, that a heavy burden devolves upon those who assume the prerogative, or upon whom it is imposed, of passing these various publications through the ordeal of a review. So overwhelming is the current of literature, that the utmost exertion is requited to prevent an inundation from its progressive billows. Like the march of improvement in that invaluable agent, steam, by which everything is performed in this enlightened age, it is astonishing, unparalleled. Living, as we now are, in such an advanced, and advancing state of literature; situated, as it were, in the midst of an immense field, where an abundant profusion of flowers is daily springing up around us, (and some of them as evanescent as the morning,) we should naturally be led to suppose that any individual's taste, however fastidious, might be suited, and his desires satiated, among the productions of the present day. The reviewer, at least, may feel satisfied that he has performed his duties, if he briefly adverts to the numberless ephemera, as they issue from the press. But, on the present occasion, we shall venture to withdraw our attention from the immediate moment, and retracing the dull lapse of a few departed years, as the traveller measures back his steps to cull a flower which he discovered blooming in his path, shall briefly notice a poem written near the expiration of the preceding century. We mean "The Pleasures of Hope," that refined and elegant production of the youthful Campbell. A review of this, at the present time, may strike the observer a needless; but wherever genius is developed in its strongest light, though in the present or past generation, there should the attention be directed, and approbation awarded. Among the poets contemporary with himself, Mr. Campbell cannot but be allowed, by every one, to claim an enviable situation; and although the hour when an admiring public testified his popularity by audible demonstrations of their approbation, may be past, yet, in the recesses of the people's bosom, is still existing a consciousness of the justice of that applause, which has been heretofore rendered. The excitement occasioned by occurrences of to-day, causes us to he forgetful of yesterday; so the productions of genius of the present time, by occupying the attention of the public, causes it to be partially forgetful of former publications.

The rich vein of thought, the chaste and select language, smooth, elegant and elevated, in which these thoughts are embodied and portrayed, the beautiful creations of his fruitful imagination, all combined, render Mr. Campbell what is frequently termed "one of the sweetest poets of the present age." He does not, like Byron, ascend the rugged mountains, and hold companionship with the elements; he does not play with the forked lightnings and the living thunder, but he penetrates deeply into the hidden recesses of the soul, and delineates the softer passions, the tender sensibilities of human nature. His language appeals to the refined feelings of the heart. Byron's verse, in general, is the roaring torrent, trembling, in fearless and over-powering majesty, over the promiscuous rocks of a precipitous descent; Campbell's, is the deep and mighty river, gradually pursuing its resistless course through a fertile meadow, with a motion so calm and steady, that we are won imperceptibly from one field to another. Byron's, is the tornado, roaring, and rushing, and raging through a convulsive sky; Campbell's, the summer zephyr, which charms us by its gentleness, and wins us by its fragrance. While thus speaking, we have reference particularly to that production of Campbell which we have noticed; in this there is a remarkable degree of smoothness throughout. It is the very spirit of poesy, fresh as it flowed from Helicon. We have always been an admirer of Byron, but the early productions of Campbell have rendered him our most particular favorite. The sensations produced in reading the two authors are peculiarly different. Byron's language immediately instils into the bosom that fearlessness, that recklessness, which, if his writings are faithful transcripts of his own mind and its thoughts, he himself possesses to a great extent. Campbell's, too, if we have not formed an erroneous opinion of the man, awakens feelings and sensations which harmonize with those of the author when writing; but they are the most refined and delicate sensations to which the human heart can be awakened, such as depict to us the most beautiful and benevolent features of our nature.

Although the poetical works of Mr. Campbell are considered as a standard work in our country, yet we believe they are not so universally read as we should suppose from their merit they might be. We do not wish to exaggerate, nor do we consider that anything has escaped our pen, which a candid and unprejudiced observer would not cheerfully award to this author. At the present era in literature, there are so many competitors for the Parnassian garlands — so many devotees at the consecrated altar of the muses, that the literary world is literally overwhelmed with their productions, and every individual author is looking in eager expectation to the public for the reward of approbation. But it is absurd to suppose that any person, although entirely devoted to literature, can, by the utmost exertion, so closely peruse every publication, as to render to each aspirant that share of applause which might be awarded justifiably. To common readers it becomes necessary, for their own entertainment, to make a judicious selection from the heterogeneous mass which is placed before them. Therefore we may acknowledge, that among the poems heretofore published, "The Pleasures of Hope," in our opinion, occupies a most elevated situation among works of that particular cast. There is a remarkable interest continued throughout both cantos, which enchains the mind, and the reader is unconsciously and imperceptibly hastened along from theme to theme, and from feature to feature, until the unwelcome termination is approached. Nor does the interest decline after one hasty perusal; but the poem possesses that peculiar charm, too seldom discovered in poetry, of preserving the same novelty, and creating the same intensity of interest throughout any number of perusals. Indeed, the oftener it is read, the more enthusiastic feelings are excited; and it is not until we have become familiar with its every sentence, that its whole beauties are developed. Like a favorite air in music, we are never wearied by its repetition, but the more frequently it is heard the greater is our attachment to it. But, that our opinion may not be the only commendation of the work to those who are unacquainted with it, (if any such there are,) we shall furnish a few extracts, with this apology, to our readers — that if they are not new to them, their merit will preserve them from the appellation of intruders; and if they are, we shall feel a peculiar satisfaction in the assurance that we have furnished a trifle of interesting matter, which may serve as an eventual introduction to the work itself. The effect of Hope upon the mind is accurately and beautifully delineated in all its various forms, and in the different situations in which different or the same individuals may be placed. These effects are portrayed with the accuracy, of a master hand. Like the efforts of the accomplished painter, they are breathing with the spirit of reality.

The Scriptural comparisons and allusions are admirably introduced. Thus, in that passage which adverts to the tradition in heathen mythology, of all the deities, excepting one, which control mankind, having left the earth, it says:—

Primeval Hope, the Aonian muses say,
When Man and Nature mourned their first decay;
When every form of death, and every wo
Shot from malignant stars to earth below;
When murder bared his arm, and rampart war
Yoked the red dragons of his iron car;
When Peace and Mercy, banished from the plain,
Sprung on the viewless winds to heaven again,
All — all forsook the friendless, guilty mind,
But Hope, the charmer, lingered still behind.

Thus, while Elijah's burning wheels prepare,
From Carmel's height, to sweep the fields of air,
The prophet's mantle, ere his flight began,
Dropped on the world — a sacred gift to man.

The Swedish sage admires, in yonder bowers,
His winged insects, and his rosy flowers
Calls from their woodland haunts the savage train
With sounding horn, and counts them on the plain—
So once, at heaven's command, the wanderer came
To Eden's shade, and heard their various name.

But the most highly finished Scriptural allusion, is the versification of that idea conveyed in Genesis, that even Paradise was not perfected until the introduction of Love:—

'Till Hymen brought his love-delighted hour,
There dwelt no joy in Eden's rosy bower!
In vain the viewless seraph, lingering there,
At starry midnight charmed the silent air;
In vain the wild bird carolled on the steep,
To hail the sun, slow wheeling from the deep;
In vain, to soothe the solitary shade,
Aerial notes in mingling measure played;
The summer wind that shook the spangled tree,
The whispering wave, the murmur of the bee;—
Still slowly passed the melancholy day,
And still the stranger wist not where to stray;
The world was sad! the garden was a wild
And man, the hermit, sighed, 'till woman smiled!

The holy and unchanging affection of a mother for her offspring; the hopes which she fondly cherishes with regard to the future destiny of her beloved child, are not more worthy the delineation, than the delineation is of them:—

Lo! at the couch where infant beauty sleeps,
Her silent watch the mournful mother keeps;
She, while the lovely babe unconscious lies,
Smiles on her slumbering babe with pensive eyes,
And weaves her song of melancholy joy—
Sleep, image of thy father — sleep, my boy;
No lingering hour of sorrow shall be thine;
No sigh that ends thy father's heart and mine;
Bright as his manly sire the son shall be,
In form and soul; but, ah! more blest than he!
Thy fame, thy worth, thy filial love, at last,
Shall soothe this aching heart for all the past—
With many a smile my solitude repay,
And chase the world's ungenerous scorn away.
And say, when summoned from the world and thee,
I lay my head beneath the willow tree,
Wilt thou, sweet mourner! at my grave appear,
And soothe my parted spirit lingering near?
Oh! wilt thou come, at evening hour, to shed
The tear of memory o'er my narrow bed
With aching temples on thy hand reclined,
Muse on the last farewell I leave behind;
Breathe a deep sigh to winds that murmur low,
And think on all my love, and all my wo?

Mr. Campbell was young when this poem was composed — an effort which evidently required deep thought, and seclusion from the busy world, to bring it too so great a degree of excellence; and although it is said to have been composed at Edinburgh, yet we dare hazard the belief that the plan was matured in his mind, and the different heads of the poem considered during his previous residence in Argyleshire, among the romantic mountains of his native country. That this author early attained the summit of his popularity as a poet is well known. The cause too may readily be perceived. Poesy was the earliest and sweetest dream of his youth. The Muses wooed and won him to their bosom, in the first years of life. Cultivating, with close application, this branch of literature, he attained an enviable eminence, before "The wild dreams of boyhood had faded and died." Since that period his thoughts have been diverted into another channel; he has, like other men, experienced the vicissitudes of life; his mind has been turned from the fairy regions of creative imagination, to the cold realities of this bargaining world. These cannot but damp the poetical enthusiasm of earlier life — of years when the world is exhibited like the broad and unruffled expanse of a summer sea, where there are no billows to counteract, and no secret ledges of rocks to shun.