After recapitulating the life of Frank Sayers, Robert Southey devotes the greater part of his review of William Taylor of Norwich's edition to a survey of Restoration and eighteenth-century poetry. Southey writes an essay rather than a history, allowing himself to pick and choose the topics and authors to be discussed. Southey had read more widely in eighteenth-century poetry than most modern scholars, and was not afraid to demonstrate his familiarity with minor figures. His essay describes the poetry of the Restoration as morally and aesthetically flawed, a situation turned around by Alexander Pope, who raised literary standards considerably; Pope thus represents the beginning of the modern age.
This leads to a side-comment on Spenser: "The expletive 'does-s' and 'do-s' and 'did-s' were banished for ever from our versification by a single stroke of his [Pope's] pen. It is for some philological antiquary to investigate how this not more useful than abused verb obtained its auxiliary sense in our language, underived as it is from any parent or adjunct dialect. There are but two or three examples of it in Gower, and not more (if there be any), in Chaucer. The abuse which converted it into a mere expletive cannot be traced to Spenser, because it was used systematically by him, not to eke out his lines; he had constructed a scheme of language for himself, in which he deserved to find no followers, and found none: but to Pope, undoubtedly, it is that we are indebted for ridding us of a barbarous and slovenly form of speech, and restricting the verb as an auxiliary to that emphatic use which is one of the felicities of our tongue" p. 191.
After Pope, John Dyer and James Thomson restored a love of nature to English poetry, and Edward Young and Mark Akenside a taste for the philosophical sublime. Southey devotes a long digression to the eighteenth-century poets who died before fulfilling their promise: Chatterton, Bruce, Emily, Bampfylde, and Russell, and those whose production was small Crabbe, Beattie, William Crowe, and Mason (treated in a substantive digression).
The survey (which largely skips over the Wartons and William Hayley) concludes with an extended discussion of the leading poets of the 1790s, when Frank Sayers published his first volume of poetry: Robert Merry, Erasmus Darwin (who gets a long excursus), William Cowper, and James Hurdis (who gets an even longer excursus). The remainder of the essay is given over to a discussion of Sayers as a poet.
Robert Southey to John Abraham Heraud: "Reputation has not brought with it affluence to me. I write in the Quarterly Review because I could not subsist without it; because three-fourths of my expenditure must be earned at the desk; and, with all my reputation, reviewing is the most gainful way in which I can employ myself. At this, therefore, I work as a duty — at other things by inclination. Wordsworth has a regular income adequate to his support, and, therefore, may do as he likes" 19 November 1825; Memoirs of John A. Heraud (1898) 39-40.
Robert Southey to John Murray: "No future editor [of the Quarterly], be he who he may, must expect to exercise the same discretion over my papers which Mr. Gifford has done. I will at any time curtail what may be deemed too long, and consider any objections that may be made, with a disposition to defer to them when it can be done without sacrificing my own judgment upon points which may seem to me important. But my age and (I may add without arrogance) the rank which I hold in literature entitle me to say that I will never again write under the correction of any one" 25 October 1824; in Smiles, A Publisher and his Friends: Memoir of John Murray (1891) 2:160-61.
When Lord Bacon wrote upon the Advancement of Learning, and noticed "the proficience that was made, and the defects that were felt in each and all of its branches," he said, that he could report no deficiency in poetry, "for being as a plant that cometh of the lust of the earth, without a formal seed, it hath sprung up and spread abroad more than any other seed." But there are seasons in which even mushrooms fail. The first half of George the Third's reign was remarkable for a dearth of poetry. Painting had never before in this country been so successfully cultivated; music never more highly patronized; the histrionic art never carried to greater perfection. But the poets who appeared were few in comparison with their predecessors in the days of Bacon; and of that few those who might. to most advantage have distinguished themselves, were idle, or misdirected the powers which they possessed.
La Bruyere has offered an observation in behalf of the mediocrists both in painting and poetry. He says, "Il y a parmi les ecrivains et les peintres des gens mediocres qui tiennent le milieu entre la haute perfection et l'ignorance; il ne leur est point du de louange, et ils ne meritent pas aussi de reproches; ils entretiennent jusqu'a ce que quelque les hommes dans le gout des choses, jusqu'a genie superieur vienne leur en faire voir d'excellentes." But this is regarding them in an indulgent mood. The mediocrists may more truly be said to withdraw their contemporaries from the contemplation of what is excellent in their respective arts, so far as they succeed in obtaining attention for themselves. And successful they frequently are; in spite of Horace's sentence, men and booksellers favour them, whatever the Gods may do. It is a melancholy and humiliating truth, to which the whole history of literature bears evidence, that mediocre writers often are, in their generation, more successful than excellent ones; and that the vicious not seldom bear away the meed of popularity from both. Nor is it difficult to account for this. The great majority of men, whatever pains may be bestowed in educating them, will ever be incapable of any high degree of intellectual elevation. Give all we can, this never can be given to those who have not received from nature higher faculties than are required for the ordinary business of the world. The [Greek characters] must always be incapable of understanding and appreciating the higher productions of the arts; but they constitute the public: and it is to the sovereign majesty of the public, and its will and pleasure, that they who would prosper must address themselves. Lord Byron sneered at those who looked to the third and fourth generations for their reward. Milton thought differently, and so his audience were fit, was contented that it should consist of few. He looked to after-ages for fame, and, therefore, was regardless of popularity: he left that to Cleveland, and Waller, and Cowley, for their verse, and to Sir Roger L'Estrange for his prose.
In the best age of English poetry, the complaint was made by one of the wisest and ablest men of that age, that the most meretricious writers were the most popular; a consequence growing out of that "prerogative the vulgar have, to lose their judgment, and like that which is naught." Ben Jonson, who is not less to be admired for the moral dignity of his writings, than for the genius and skill which are displayed in them, saw in this corruption of taste the proof and the consequence of a corruption of manners: "We may conclude," he says" "wheresoever manners and fashions are corrupted, language is: it imitates the public wish." To this also history bears witness: everywhere, as nations have declined, literature, arts, and morals have declined with them; and for nations, as for individuals, there is no second spring. Our own country affords the only exception to this rule: the moral and intellectual degradation into which it had at one time fallen, was not attended with a correspondent decline of national power; and we have seen, not merely an extraordinary recovery, but a great advancement. We are indebted for this, not so much to any peculiar virtue of national character, — not so much to a "vis medicatrix" in which other states have been deficient, as to our insular situation, and the blessing of Providence upon those free institutions, and that pure form of Christianity, which by the advantages of that situation we have been enabled in trying circumstances to maintain. This might be a subject for profitable investigation, were it pursued through all its branches; but here we have to regard the degradation and revival as relating exclusively to one branch of literature.
Degradation was never more strongly marked in English poetry than at the time when Milton produced his Paradise Lost: one of the many facts which exemplify, that minds of the highest order belong to other ages, and not to their own. The rebellion had done much toward bringing on this perversion; and the restoration more, by the French taste, French manners, and French morals, which were introduced with it: altogether a complete debasement of the national character had been effected in all things, the one alone excepted which is of most importance. In these days, whoever should attempt to depreciate Shakspeare or Milton would be accused not so much of incapacity, folly, and presumptuousness, as of seeking to attract notice by an affectation of singularity: of this he would be suspected, however sincere the miserable criticaster might be in his assumption of fancied superiority. We are so far improved in this respect, that even those who have no other means of making themselves conspicuous than by taking up the trade of detraction, bow to these canonized reputations, and affect to admire what they are utterly incapable either of feeling or understanding. In the days of Charles II. no such homage was paid to intellectual supremacy. When Shadwell and Nahum Tate presumed to alter Timon of Athens and King Lear, and accommodated those marvellous dramas, by debasing them, to the taste of the great and little vulgar, they did so, because their own minds were upon, a level with those of the vulgar for whom they wrote. But a like offence was committed by Otway, for whom a like excuse cannot he advanced: in him it must be imputed rather to moral perversion than to intellectual blindness; and what can be said in extenuation for Dryden and Davenant? That two men so highly gifted as both were — so eminently qualified to appreciate the productions of a higher genius than their own — should have altered the Tempest, and so altered it, would be as unaccountable as it ought to appear incredible, — if the adulterated play had not recently been brought forward on the stage instead of Shakspeare's drama! This insult to the memory of Shakspeare shows that, in our own days, as well as theirs, they whose only object it is to please the multitude address themselves to coarse minds and low capacities, as the surest way to please it.
If the better spirits, such as these, (who are not to be named without respect,) could show themselves thus forgetful of what was due to their great predecessors and masters in the art, it may be inferred what must be the degradation of those inferior minds which always follow the bent of the times, and accommodate themselves to the taste of their contemporaries. "It is but convenient (says Ben Jonson) to the times and manners we live with, to have then the worst writings and studies flourish, when the best begin to be despised. Ill arts begin when good end." They are not the most worshipful critics who are ready to extol any verses of the Elizabethan age, good, bad, and indifferent, indiscriminately: but the difference between the poetical miscellanies of that age, and the volumes which were set forth a century later, filled with contributions from "Gentlemen of the Universities," and "Persons of Quality," might afford some excuse for this folly, were it anything better than mere affectation. In the moral and intellectual debasement of Charles the Second's court, the language itself was debased. Low manners induced a correspondent vulgarity of speech; for example, in a serious imitation of one of Virgil's eclogues, the poet talks of Moll and Black Bess! A re-action, analogous to that in which the conspicuous part of the nation had past from a fashion of villainous hypocrisy to habits of open: and loathsome licentiousness, may be traced both in the prose and verse of that disgraceful age. They who had been trained in the old ways of sound and orthodox learning — like Clarendon, and South, and Barrow, preserved for us a style of English undefiled, not less excellent in manner than in argument; but the younger generation wrote as loosely as they lived.
Three different fashions in writing had prevailed, which were alike faulty. There was the dry, dull, dismal manner of the sober Puritans; there was a style of overstrained and elaborate wit, dealing in affectations of every kind; and there was an ornate style, studded with sesquipedalian Latinisms, Grecisms, and Hebraisms, and Arabicisms, which might frequently send the best scholar to his Lexicons. Indeed, a dictionary was published for enabling some persons to read, and others to write in this refined language. The most remarkable examples of it are found in the poems of Henry More, and in the works of Sir Thomas Brown; to whose peculiar genius, however, this sort of language was so well suited, that it would not have been possible for him to have expressed his thoughts so felicitously, or so naturally, in any other manner. But it required the knowledge, and the power, and the feeling of such a man to render it to tolerable. Its effect upon inferior writers was to mar good matter, or to render what was worthless intolerable. Hamond L'Estrange was infected with this style; and whoever peruses his history of Charles I., (which is otherwise a book of considerable merit,) will see good reason for supposing that his son, Sir Roger, by a strong perception of this fault as there exhibited, was induced to adopt a manner of writing which was carried to the opposite extreme. Sir Roger aimed at introducing a style of racy, idiomatic English — and he succeeded. But, more frequently he fell below the mark, owing alike to a want of dignity in himself and in his subjects: aiming at present effect, and at nothing beyond, he brought into our written language the contractions and the debased coin of colloquial and common speech, the phrases of the day, and whatever obtained currency for a while from the mintage of high or low vulgarity.
A re-action of the same kind was taking place in poetry. The strained and conceited style which Johnson has, not very happily, called metaphysical, fell into disuse, in despite even of Cowley's example. Norris of Bemerton was the last of that school who obtained a temporary reputation. Vicious as the metaphysical poetry was, it required more learning than was possessed by "the mob of gentlemen who, wrote with ease," and more thought than they were accustomed to exert. It was a species of poetry in which great parts might be wasted, but in which mean ones could do nothing. In Cowley it spoiled one who, had he fallen on better times, was eminently qualified to be a true poet. Butler (and Cleveland before him) gave it its proper direction; then it disappeared, leaving nothing better to succeed it: for Dryden stood alone, and there was no one to emulate the sensible and manly style of his better works, though in the vile tragedies and viler comedies by which the English drama and the English nation were degraded, he found imitators and rivals in abundance. Concerning the other poets of this and the succeeding generation, it has been said, that "they understood their own character better than it was understood by their successors: they called themselves wits, instead of poets; and wits they were: the difference is not in degree, but in kind. They succeeded in what they aimed at: — in satire, and in panegyric; in ridiculing an enemy, and in flattering a friend in turning a song, and in complimenting a lady; in pointing an epigram, and in telling a lewd tale: in these branches of literary art — the Birmingham trade of verse — they have rarely been surpassed." But this applies only to a few of them. Some easy verses, and some vigorous ones, were thrown, off by those unhappy men, who, being capable of better things, abandoned themselves to the debauchery of the times; but in general the manner of the current poetry became as worthless as its matter. Even the art of versification was debased. To say "that if it rhymed and rattled all was well," implies a merit in the verses thus satirized which they did not possess; for if they rattled, it was as a cart rattles in its slow progress along a rugged road. The lines limped and halted; sometimes, they were crammed and choked with elisions; more frequently they were eked out with attenuated syllables and drawling expletives, as, feeble in sound as they were empty of meaning. So degraded was the public taste, that Shadwell and Settle rivalled Dryden, and provoked him by their success to perpetuate their names in those satires, for which alone they are now remembered. Shadwell succeeded Dryden in the lauteateship when Dryden was deposed; and upon the decease of Shadwell, Nahum Tate reigned in his stead, — a succession worthy of the age in which Sir Richard Blackmore wrote epic poems, and Mr. Locke praised them. The decline and fall of poetry, from the age of Virgil to that of Prudentius, was not so great as this.
This was the golden age of the mediocrists: they had the field to themselves; and one of them had the odd fortune to obtain an hundred years of unrivalled popularity. Pomfret's poems are not now to be found as they were five-and-twenty years ago, always on sale at the stalls of itinerant venders and at country booksellers, printed upon coarse paper and in sheepskin binding, in company with Robinson Crusoe, the Pilgrim's Progress, Religious Courtship, Young's Night Thoughts, and Harvey's Meditations; but during the whole of the eighteenth century no other volume of poems was so often reprinted, or held in such popular estimation. It was even printed in America in the middle of that century, when so few books had been printed there, that two pages might comprise the catalogue. Johnson said of him, "he pleases many; and he who pleases many must have some species of merit." What that merit is it would not be easy to discover: Johnson himself can only say, that in his poems "there is an easy volubility; the pleasure of smooth metre is afforded to the ear, and the mind is not oppressed with ponderous or entangled with intricate sentiments." This is, indeed, a rare, perhaps, a singular case, of long-lived reputation, founded neither upon desert, nor mis-desert, but preserved by prescription among low printers and provincial booksellers, who kept the book continually in the market. Other reputations, which had something more to support them, passed away as easily as they were made. The matchless Orinda was more generally known, and, consequently, more applauded in her day, than Mrs. Hemans is now, with all her superiority of natural talents and acquired power, or than the authoress of the Widow's Tale, and those sweet poems in the little volume of "Solitary Hours," which for truth and depth of feeling, and for tenderness and holiness of thought, are among the most beautiful that have been produced in this generation. Orrery and Roscommon eulogized her in her life; and Cowley, who with a host of meaner poets had, in like manner, praised her while living, pronounced after her death, that if ever Apollo should appoint a woman-laureate, Orinda would be the person. Yet if her name had not been seen in the superscription to Cowley's Odes, it would soon have been forgotten that such a person as Katherine Philips (accomplished and truly excellent as she appears to have been) had ever existed, — or written a line.
The readiness with which any indication of literary talents was then acknowledged, when men were not rendered illiberal and unjust by personal dislike, or political enmity, is one of the best features of that bad age. A few tolerable verses were a passport into good society, and to the notice of those who had the will as well as the power to assist a deserving adventurer in his course of life. "Here is a young fellow," says Swift, in his Journal to Stella, has writ some sea-eclogues, — poems of mermen, resembling pastorals of shepherds; and they are very pretty, and the thought is new. Mermen are he-mermaids, — Tritons, natives of the sea. His name is Diaper. I must do something for him, and get him out of the way. I hate to have any new wits rise; yet when they do rise, I would encourage them. But they tread on our heels, and thrust us off the stage." Afterwards he says, "the author of the sea-eclogues sent books to the society yesterday, and we gave him guineas a-piece, and may do further for him." And again, "Mr. Diaper presented to Lord Bolingbroke a new philosophical poem, the Dryades or the Nymphs' prophecy, which is a very good one, and I am to give him a sum of money from my lord. And I have contrived to make a parson of him, for he is half one already, being in deacon's orders, and serves a small cure in the country, but has a sword at his tail here in town. It is a poor little, short wretch, but will do best in a gown, and we will make lord keeper give him a living." Unfortunately for the poet, lord keeper and his friends lost the power which they had administered so villainously for their country, before this good intention could be carried into effect; Diaper died without promotion, in early life; and his sea-eclogues might have lain for ever fathoms deep, where, they had sunk, if they had not been fished up by good John Nichols, the most diligent and indefatigable of men, who, during his long and useful life, has been the true friend and patron "obscurorum virorum." Without his interference, this poor relation of [Greek characters] and King Pepin would have been known only for the incidental and, characteristic mention thus made of him by Swift, in some of his kindly moods.
The state of things in which any poet could make a little reputation, while there were none to deserve a great one, was put an end to by the ascendancy of Pope. Could his Homer be forgotten he might deservedly be called the reformer of English poetry; and though he introduced, with that too-celebrated translation, a corruption of his own, which will long continue to taint the public taste, the reformation which he actually wrought has counterbalanced the evil, and will outlast it. The expletive "does-s" and "do-s" and "did-s" were banished for ever from our versification by a single stroke of his pen. It is for some philological antiquary to investigate how this not more useful than abused verb obtained its auxiliary sense in our language, underived as it is from any parent or adjunct dialect. There are but two or three examples of it in Gower, and not more (if there be any), in Chaucer. The abuse which converted it into a mere expletive cannot be traced to Spenser, because it was used systematically by him, not to eke out his lines; he had constructed a scheme of language for himself, in which he deserved to find no followers, and found none: but to Pope, undoubtedly, it is that we are indebted for ridding us of a barbarous and slovenly form of speech, and restricting the verb as an auxiliary to that emphatic use which is one of the felicities of our tongue. After Pope's time, it was in vain for the Walshes and Stepneys, the Eusdons and Welsteds, the Dukes and Kings, the Sprats and Minnows of poetry, to come forward as candidates for reputation. It was still possible, as it ever will be, to obtain a temporary success by glittering faults; but nothing could rise into notice without at least the appearance of desert, without some pretensions to originality, some native vigour, or some attempt at high finish and careful execution.
The English are the only people who have any general collection of their poets. In forming these there was no principle of selection used with the Minorites and Minims of Parnassus; the adventurous bookseller, who had the merit (and it is no light one) of making the first, inserted in his list the names which were familiar to him in his trade, and (with few exceptions) they have continued to take their place by prescription in subsequent publications of the same kind. By virtue of this prescription, they passed muster with John Bell, with Dr. Johnson and his booksellers, who formed the list according to their copyrights, with Dr. Anderson, the most good-natured of all critical editors, thought not the most judicious, and with Mr. Alexander Chalmers, whose good-nature certainly was not such as to atone for his want of judgement. But the prescription which placed them there obtains no longer; and their very collections exemplify the effect which Pope produced; for, from his time, they became to a certain degree select. Till then, every one who could rhyme claimed and acquired the privilege of a poet, just as the culprit who could spell out a verse in the Testament was allowed to plead his clergy: it was granted now to none but those who could produce a fair qualification. Meantime, a change was going on, equal in degree to that which the vigour of Pope had brought about. We were brought back by Thomson and Dyer to the love of natural objects. Young taught us with what success a true poet might appeal to the religious feelings of the human heart. Akenside elevated his readers by a high, moral, and philosophical strain. Glover set before them a plain and equal style — which, rejecting all meretricious ornaments, with a severity like that of Alfieri, relied upon the strength and dignity of its subject for it's sole support. Mason, on the contrary, who was more able to have sustained such a style, adopted a rich and gorgeous manner, acting upon the opinion, that, in a language wherein Shakspeare by native genius had attained the highest place, an aspirant might with most reason hope to succeed through an elaborate imitation of Attic art. Lyric poems, of the most opposite kind, but which have become equally popular, were produced by Gray and Collins: those of the former were the highly-finished compositions, of a patient and fastidious artist; those of the latter, the effusions of an ardent, poetical spirit. And while Percy and Warton recalled the rising generation to the school of Spenser and of the Elizabethan age, Mr. Hayley led the way to a renewed intercourse with the literature of those countries from which the writers in that illustrious age had drawn so largely, and with such success.
The early part of George the Third's reign was distinguished by the great but fleeting popularity of Churchill, who, squandering happiness and character in his reckless course, poured forth verses upon the most worthless subjects, with a facility and vigour of which, since Oldham and Dryden, there had been no example. A singular dearth of celebrated names ensues, for of those who should have been the flower of their generation, the most promising were nipt in the bud. To speak of Chatterton—
—the marvellous boy,
The sleepless soul that perished in its pride,
is to touch upon a name, from which time neither has taken, nor will lake any of its interest. Michael Bruce is known, thanks to good Dr. Anderson, for giving the remains of this affectionate and hopeful youth a place in his edition of the "British Poets." But when Emily is mentioned, and Russell, and Bampfylde, how many are there who will ask, what have they written? and where are their works to be found? They have written little, for
In the morning of hope, in the blossom of virtue and genius,
They were cut down by death:
but little as they have left, that little will be found after many days. The single poem of Emily which remains is upon Death; it was written for a Cambridge prize, and failed to obtain it, that of Porteus (afterwards the Bishop) being successful. We should say they were the two most promising and vigorous productions which were ever elicited by a prize-subject, if we did not recollect the "Aboriginal Britons" of Dr. Richards. The successful piece was the better planned and fairly deserved the prize, but there was more originality and greater power in Emily's. Vicesimus Knox preserved it in the first edition of his "Elegant Extracts;" but it was cast out we believe from the later ones — certainly not to make room for anything better. The poems of Russell and Bampfylde were included in the collection edited by Mr. Park some twenty years ago; a collection which unfortunately was not completed according to the design of its editor, (the most competent to whom such a task has ever yet been assigned,) but which has the great merit of being the only one in which proper, or indeed any, attention was paid to the correctness of the text. There are many writers of that age from whose poems a sweet anthology might be culled, but from the remains of Russell and Bampfylde not a line can be spared.
Emily, who seems, in some degree, like Kirke White, to have had a forefeeling of his own early decease, has beautifully described the [Greek characters] of a good man falling asleep when the number of his days is full—
Thrice happy who the blameless road along
Of honest praise, hath reached the vale of death!
Around him like ministrant cherubs throng
His better actions, to the parting breath
Singing their blessed requiems; he the while,
Gently reposing on some friendly breast
Breathes out his benisons, then with a smile
Of soft complacence lays him down to rest,
Calm as a slumbering infant: from the goal
Free and unbounded flies the disembodied soul.
He might have found a topic not less suited to the best purposes of poetry, (that of soothing the heart and elevating and purifying its desires,) in the early death of such gifted persons as himself. Premature such deaths are called in common and natural language, and premature, according to the ordinary course of nature, they must needs appear, and are: but mournful as it is thus to behold the dearest, and fairest, and noblest of our earthly hopes cut off, the religious mind acquiesces in the dispensations of Providence, oven while suffering under them to the height of grief, and feels in that grief itself sufficient reason for acknowledging that happy are they who die in their youth. It was the prayer of a wise and good man, that God would be pleased to make him better, and take him when he was at the best. There are cases in which the lessons of a long life might not be so impressive as the example of a brief one. Early death invests with a peculiar sanctity the objects of our affection, and of our admiration also, which partakes of affection whenever it is worthily fixed. The strong and influential interest which has been excited by Chatterton and Kirke White arises as much from the thought of what they might have produced had their lives been prolonged, as from the remains which they have left; in, the former instance, perhaps, more so. Herbert Knowles, if he had published volume after volume, would never have established a surer claim to remembrance than he has made good by his churchyard stanzas.
It was the affecting complaint of the poet Daniel in his old age, that he had written too much and lived too long. Too much he has not written for his after-reputation, whatever he had done for present acceptance; for any general collection of the English poets, which should not contain the whole of his poems, would be incomplete. The fault of writing too little is one which has not so often been laid to a poet's charge. Dr. Sayers is to be charged with it, as will presently be seen. So might Crabbe have been, during a silence of more than twenty years, — but the crab-tree hath borne well since, and its verjuice is of a strong body, and will keep. Beattie would be liable to the same accusation, if his other verses did not seem to prove that he had exhausted himself in the "Minstrel." No such excuse can be offered for the author of "Lewesdon Hill," and he, it is to be feared, must stand condemned by posterity for not having written enough. Beattie, and Crabbe and Crowe [William Crowe (1745-1829)] were in the vigour of their faculties, when Hayley was suffered to be the popular or fashionable poet of the day. Mason, also, was living, and, in one sense, flourishing; for he was in the enjoyment of a high and well-won reputation, and of preferment fully equal to the wants and wishes of a wise and moderate man. What Mason's wishes may have been we know not, for there is no man of equal eminence in that age, of whom his friends have thought proper to let the world know so little. The only collective edition of his works has neither life, nor biographical notice of the author, nor preface, nor prefatory advertisement of any kind an omission which, if there he no intention of supplying it, must be ascribed to a want of respect in his representatives.
Mason would have done greater things if he had been less successful at the commencement of his career. His Elfrida and his Caractacus met with the applause which they well deserved. They succeeded even in representation, (little as this might have been expected,) and so well, that they were represented at the provincial theatres. A story is remembered in the navy, of some unlucky Captain (not of Nelson's school), who at the close of a successful action, dissuaded the admiral from pursuing his victory, by saying that the day had been sufficiently glorious. By some such feeling Mason appears to have been seduced into habits of literary indolence. His desire of celebrity, and his fear that it had injured, by inflating him, are confessed with great truth and beauty in one of his elegies:
Too long, alas, my inexperienced youth,
Misled by flattering Fortune's specious tale,
Has left the rural reign of peace and truth,
The huddling brook, cool cave, and whispering vale.
Won to the world, a candidate for praise,
Yet, let me boast, by no ignoble art,
Too oft the public ear has heard my lays,
Too much its vain applause has touch'd my heart.
He lived nearly forty years after these lines were written, and if it appeared that this long portion of life had been devoted to the studies and duties of his profession, we might commend the motive, although we might doubt the necessity for such a sacrifice. But his duties left him ample leisure, and his professional writings are few and unimportant. It was because he thought his reputation "sufficiently glorious," that he made no endeavour to advance it. There was no decay of power. The English Garden, indeed, though far from worthless, is a bad poem; but his Curan and Argentile evinces that he might have succeeded as brilliantly in the romantic as in the classical drama, if he had applied to it the same determination of mind; and had he followed on in this course, he might have acquired the honour of reviving English tragedy, which was reserved for Joanna Baillie. The well-known satires which are ascribed to him are not here adduced, as exhibiting a spirit and vigour equal to the promise of his youth, because he never acknowledged them himself, nor have they been incorporated into the posthumous edition of his works. Without reference to these, we may discern in all his later pieces, few as they are, proofs of improved taste rather than of declining genius; they have the strength, without the effort, of his earlier compositions — the dignity, without the pomp — the beauty, without the fictitious ornaments. A more pleasing picture of placid and green old age has seldom been transmitted to us than he has left in his Anniversary Sonnets on his own Birthday, the last of which was written a few weeks only before his death: — We quote that for the year 1795.
A plaintive sonnet flowed from Milton's pen
When Time had stolen his three-and-twentieth year:
Say, shall not I, then, shed one tuneful tear,
Robb'd by the thief of threescore years and ten?
No! for the foes of all life-lengthen'd men,
Trouble and toil, approach not yet too near;
Reason, meanwhile, and health, and memory dear,
Hold unimpaired their weak, yet wonted reign;
Still round my sheltered lawn I pleased can stray,
Still trace my sylvan blessings to their spring.
BEING OF BEINGS! yes, that silent lay
Which musing gratitude delights to sing,
Still to thy sapphire throne shall Faith convey,
And Hope, the cherub of unwearied wing.
When Sayers was preparing to come forward upon the theatre of public life, Mason was considered as belonging to a former generation: his name was usually coupled with that of his friend Gray; and Gray having long been dead, Mason himself, out of the circle of his own friends, was hardly known to be among the living: they seemed to have taken leave of the world together. A discriminating reader may trace in the productions of every poet the influence of his predecessors in the art, and more especially of the immediate ones, who have set their form and pressure upon the taste or humour of the age. Mason, perhaps, produced less effect upon his contemporaries and successors than any other poet of equal reputation: the influence of his writings may, however, be perceived in Sayers, but as acting upon a generous, not a servile, mind. Had he been one of the mocking-birds of Parnassus, this was not the note which he would have caught, for it was no longer in season; and there were at that time three living writers, each of whom was more likely to have seduced an aspirant of common parts into the sheep-track of imitation. Such of our readers as recollect what the state of our literature was five-and-thirty years ago, will not be surprised at seeing the names of Cowper, Darwin, and, Merry, classed together, as having been then each in full sail upon the stream of celebrity, which very soon floated two of them, by a short cut, into the dead sea.
It would not be possible to name three poets who are more curiously dissimilar to each other. Merry was the most remarkable for the success and brevity of his career. Other reputations have been as sudden, and as short-lived; but we can I call to mind none which was so unaccountable, and which has so completely passed away. Certain it is, that by far the greater part of our readers will have no other knowledge of him or his name than what they may have learnt from the Baviad and Maeviad. One might suspect, at first, that his poems had been written as an experiment upon what Wilkes called the non-sense of the English public, for they are "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing;" he wrote to the ear, and to the ear only; and if their real origin could now be known, it would most probably be found that he was led into this rhapsodical and senseless vein, by emulating the effusions of the Italian "improvvisatori" in a language which requires for its poetry something more than rhythm and rhymes. He imposed, for awhile, both upon himself and others, to a most extraordinary degree. Lady-poets and gentlemen-poets out of number became his imitators; for when the thing had once been done, it was so easy, that they all could do it. They raved, and ranted, and languished with him, in the newspapers; the journal in which their effusions appeared puffed them in a style as novel as their own, and helped the readers to admire them, by bringing the different shades of beauty into notice in italics and capitals of various degrees. Everybody read them, because in London they were laid on the breakfast-table in the morning papers; and the provincial editors copied them, because of their celebrity. They were "town-made," and their reputation, therefore, was held in the country to be as authentic as the news. There was something, too, of mystery which aided this. Della Crusca and Rosa Matilda were the Great Unknown male and female, made more conspicuous by the number of little unknowns who imitated them; and the verses which were thus produced were collected into volumes of more beautiful typography than the public had then been accustomed to see: for Bell succeeded in establishing a fashion for fine printing, in which Baskerville had failed. One satire crushed the whole brood.
Darwin's popularity has past away as irrecoverably as poor Merry's; but the poet who studies his art will read the Botanic Garden, and profit by it; for Darwin was an artist, and if he failed to construct a monument for himself sublimer than the pyramids, and more durable than brass, it was not for want of patient labour in "building the lofty rhyme." Neither was it for any deficiency of skill, learning, or ability: he was a man of eminent talents and great attainments, and no poet ever succeeded more fully in executing a work according to his own standard of excellence. But the theory was false, and therefore it failed in practice. He thought that he could improve upon the versification of Pope, as much as Pope had improved upon the versification of a former age, and that this was to be done by giving the utmost finish to every line, superadding the highest varnish to the brighest colouring; making every word picturesque as well as significant, and the whole poem sonorous and splendid in all its parts. His own philosophy should have taught him, that such an intention would of necessity defeat itself, and that poetry, like painting, must have its relief — its shade, as well as its light. The dead level of [Thomas] Burnet's antediluvian world, (beautifully as he has imagined it,) though embellished with the most successful culture, and blest with perpetual spring, would be woefully inferior, in poetical and picturesque effect, to a land of hills and dales; still more so to one of lakes and mountains. The subject of his poem was not more judiciously chosen than the style; but it contributed greatly to the short-lived popularity which he obtained. The "Botanic Garden" was an attractive name for all those who amused themselves with botany, or who found, in the cultivation of flowers, what has not unfitly been called the most innocent and most healthful of enjoyments; and this includes, in our days, a large portion of those whom poets, in all ages, have been ambitious to please — the more refined and intellectual part of the female world. Pleased with a work which was designed at the same time to embellish and elevate their favourite pursuit, and delighted with the scientific information which the text, and still more the commentary, conveyed to them, in a popular and elegant form, the botanists of the conservatory and the boudoir were delighted with the episodical parts of the poem, which relate to human feelings and to real life, and they persuaded themselves that they admired the whole. The materialists of fine literature also, who always applaud most that which is most mechanical, because it is most upon a level with their own comprehension, and can be measured by rule, extolled it as the perfection of the art; and the perfection of such art certainly it was. But no poetry can maintain its ground, unless it be addressed to the understanding or the affections. An attempt was made, in the "Loves of the Plants," to combine the grace of fiction with the gravity of science; and the result presents a heterogeneous mixture which neither satisfies the judgement nor pleases the fancy. The design, indeed, is neither imaginative nor fanciful; what it exhibits as poetical machinery being but laboured allegory at best, and more frequently an allegorical riddle, preposterous in itself, and wearying from its perpetual repetition. Even the better parts of the poem — the long similies without similitude — ceased to please when they had ceased to dazzle. Darwin had the eye and the ear of a poet, and the creative mind; but his writings have served to show that these are of little avail without the heart; and the heart was wanting in him.
The germ of his versification may, be traced in Prior; and it was shown some years ago in the Edinburgh Review, that the same manner was applied to the same kind of subject, long before Darwin was heard of, by Henry Brook, a man of original genius and great powers, though now better known as the author of "The Fool of Quality," than for his poems.
The style which Darwin has adopted and perfected was too elaborate to find followers, even when it was most applauded. The only work in professed imitation of his manner was written by his friend Dr. Beddoes. It originated in a stratagem, "which," says Beddoes, "if not entirely innocent, can be charged only with the guilt of presumption. In order to impose upon a few of their common acquaintance, the writer, in a few passages at least, attempted to assume the style of the most elegant of modern poets, and was encouraged by some degree of success to extend his design." The poem thus produced, though originally intended for publication, was never published. The subject is Alexander's Expedition to the Indian Ocean. The book is remarkable for having been printed in a remote village, by a young woman; and, like every production of its author, it exhibits, both in the text and accompanying observations proofs of an active, and vigorous, and original mind. Mr. Fosbrooke, whose mind was more poetical, and his pursuits more favourable to poetry, has told us, that in composing his "Economy of Monastic Life," he proceeded "upon Darwin's doctrine, of using only precise images of picturesque effect, chiefly founded upon the sense of vision." Without such an intimation, it would never have been discovered that Mr. Fosbrooke had written upon so false a theory. The very remembrance of "blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides" might have made him hesitate before he adopted it, and the slightest consideration will suffice for showing its futility. Except in these instances., and in some University prize-poems, Darwin appears to have produced no effect upon the style of his contemporaries, nor upon any of the rising generation.
The old fashion of introducing a poem with recommendatory verses was followed by Darwin, after it had been for nearly a century in disuse. They who are likely to have been assailed with applications for contributions of this kind may congratulate themselves that the custom has become obsolete, and, I think it "more honoured in the breach than in the observance." But it had its use: facts and notices, and intimations for our literary history, have been gleaned from such verses; they lead us into the literary society of former times, and possess, therefore, for those who converse with books, an interest above that of ordinary fugitive pieces. Among those which Darwin has published are some by Hayley and Cowper, signifying their equal and great admiration of one whose surpassing merit they willingly acknowledged. Hayley's popularity was at that time on the wane, and he could not but have perceived, that, in proportion as the highly-adorned style of Darwin was admired and applauded, his own writings would sink in the estimation of the public; but his mind in this respect was truly generous, and it seems never to have been darkened by a shade of envy. That Cowper should have expressed the same sincere admiration is more extraordinary, because he must have felt, more than Hayley was capable of feeling, the defects of a poem in which art was everywhere obtrusive, and the life and feeling of poetry nowhere to be found.
It was fortunate for Cowper that he met with no such meretricious model to captivate him earlier in life; for had he imitated it, it would have proved fatal to his genius; and that he was conscious of some tendency to imitation appears by his letters. "I reckon it (he says) among my principal advantages, as a composer of verses, that I have not read an English poet these thirteen years, and but one these twenty years. Imitation, even of the best models, is my aversion; it is servile and mechanical; a trick that has enabled many to usurp the name of author, who could not have written at all, if they had not written upon the pattern of somebody indeed original. But when the ear and the taste have been much accustomed to the manner of others, it is almost impossible to avoid it; and we imitate, in spite of ourselves, just in proportion as we admire." And in another place he says, "English poetry I never touch. being pretty much addicted to the writing of it, and knowing that much intercourse with those gentlemen betrays us unavoidably into a habit of imitation, which I hate and despise most cordially." That so true a poet as Cowper should have felt this distrust of himself is surprising. His remarks, as they apply to the herd of poets, are continually verified; and there are not a few reputations in full feather at this day, which, if they were stript of their borrowed plumes, would appear like the jackdaw in the fable.
But however heartily and deservedly Cowper despised and hated the habit of imitation, his own delightful poem produced one imitator whom it was not possible for him to hate or to despise, and whom in reality he cordially esteemed and loved. Hurdis is a name now little remembered, but which does not deserve to be forgotten: for his poems, though ill conceived and carelessly composed, abound with images from nature, which show the eye of a poet, and with strains of natural feeling, which could only have proceeded from the heart of one. He was, indeed, a most amiable man, of the best and kindliest feelings, — avowedly an imitator of Cowper, but with a mind so much of the same kind and class, that, if Cowper had never written, the character of his poems would have been what it is, excepting, perhaps, that his style would have been less negligent if he had not been seduced by a dangerous, yet tempting example. He was conscious that he had fallen into this fault, and confessed that his first poem ought to have been written with more care. "Dum relego scripsisse pudet" was the motto which he prefixed; and disclaiming, at its conclusion, all desire of popular applause, which, he said, would be ill-deserved if it could be so easily obtained, he expressed a modest hope that he might one day hit some happy strain on his "time-mellowed harp," which should deserve to be remembered. A happier strain in its kind, than the following passage from that poem, would not easily be found:—
Then let the village bells, as often wont,
Come swelling on the breeze, and to the sun
Half set, sing merrily their evening song.
I ask not for the cause, — it matters not:
It is enough for me to hear the sound
Of the remote, exhilarating peal,
Now dying all away, now faintly heard,
And now, with loud and musical relapse,
In mellow changes huddling on the ear.
So have I stood at eve on Isis' banks,
To hear the merry Christchurch bells rejoice.
So have I sat, too, in thy honoured shades,
Distinguished Magdalen, on Cherwell's banks,
To hear thy silver Wolsey tones so sweet.
And so , too, have I paused, and held my oar,
And suffered the slow stream to bear me home,
While Wykeham's peal along the meadow ran.
All Hurdis's poems are defective in plan; they are desultory as "the Task;" but the pervading liveliness and vigour which give "the Task" its peculiar charm, and have made it deservedly one of the most popular productions in the English language, are wanting; and there is neither grace in the transitions, nor proportion in the parts. When he attempted a story, as in Adriano, not only genius, but good sense, seems to have deserted him; the silliness of the fable could only be equalled by the poverty and emptiness of the style, and the reader lays down the book in astonishment that it should have been possible for a scholar and a poet to have written anything so altogether worthless. For though there is a general character of feebleness which pervades his other poems, they contain passages of singular beauty, in which some natural image is vividly delineated, or some true feeling finely expressed.
His description of a smith at his forge is as elaborate as Darwin could have made it, and yet there is nothing cumbrous or bloated in the diction. This, indeed, is a mere display of language and versification — a trial of skill, in which he seems to have had Mason's rules before him:—
When such the theme, becomes the poet's task:
Yet must he try by modulation meet,
Of varied cadence, and selected phrase,
Exact, yet free, without inflation bold,
To dignify that theme; must try to form
Such magic sympathy of sense with sound
As pictures all it sings; while Grace awakes
At each blest touch, and on the lowliest things
Scatters her rainbow hues.
But this is a merit to which the mere artist may attain. It is the poet only who could have observed how the owl in quest of prey,
—with sleepy wing
Swims o'er the corn-field studious;
it is only the poet who would have noted,
—the grazing ox
His dewy supper from the savoury herb
and the redbreast, when in winter "the household bird, with the red stomacher," as an elder poet calls him,
Sits budge, a feathery bunch:
it is the poet only who would have described the sea as
Raking with harsh recoil the pebbly steep;
it is the poet only who would say of himself, when he has ascended the downs,
It shall not grieve me if the gust be free,
And to withstand its overbearing gale
I lean upon the tide of air unseen:
who looking at a churchyard, would speak of
—youth and age
And sexes mingled in the populous soil,
Till it o'erlooks with swoln and ridgy brow
The smoother crop below:
and who, in thinking of a church, could bring forward with a charm of novelty, the oldest and most familiar of all its moral illustrations:—
Say, ancient edifice, thyself with years
Grown gray, how long upon the hill has stood
Thy weather-braving tower, and silent mark'd
The human leaf inconstant bud and fall;
The generations of deciduous man,
How often hast thou seen them pass away?
Hurdis describes himself as having been
A silent, shame-faced, hesitating boy.
He was a meek, gentle, affectionate spirit, in which no worldly ambition could have place; he seems not even to have felt it in the art which he loved, but to have practised poetry for its own sake, indulging in it as the natural expression of warm, and innocent, and virtuous feelings, without an aspiration or a wish for fame, contented in a humble station, and thankful for the blessings which he enjoyed in it:
Leisure and freedom, and a mind at ease,
Books, and the shady vale, and evening's walk,
Cheerful companions, and the sweet return
Of music ever various. Who needs more? &c.
This was the temper which Hurdis expressed in his verses, and it was not contradicted by the tenour of his life. The Queen was pleased with the poems of this very amiable man; and some years after his death, when such of them as were deemed worthy of being collected were re-published by his surviving sisters, (to whom he had been most affectionately attached,) it was notified to them, without any solicitation on their part, that they might be dedicated to her Majesty. With the exception of Adriano, they ought to be inserted in any future collection of the British Poets.
Merry's verses were like the froth and bubbles of a rapid and shallow stream. Poetry proceeded in him from an empty mind, as in Darwin it did from a full one. Darwin's bore the stamp of his own character, but that of the age also not less decidedly: it embodied the material philosophy of the day, and, like it, was gross, earthly, and anti-spiritual; but it was the work of deliberation, thought, knowledge, and patient labour. Cowper's was a natural strain, proceeding from a playful temper and a serious heart: neither he, nor his disciple, Hurdis, seems to have felt the slightest impulse of vanity or ambition; it was as natural for them to give utterance to their feelings in verse, as for the birds to sing. Sayers had nothing in common with either of these, his contemporaries, except that, like Darwin, he was ambitious of fame as a poet, and, like him, was willing to bestow upon his compositions all the careful correction necessary for bringing them to the standard of perfection. He was the poet of art rather than of nature, of determination rather than of impulse; and this appears, both in the subjects which he selected, the form which he cast his materials, and in his manner of composing. In the choice of subjects he was in some degree influenced by the age. Gray's versions of the Runic poems had strongly impressed the rising generation of poets, and that impression had been aided by Percy's Northern Antiquities, and by the translations, which the same very useful and influential writer published, of the more celebrated remains of the Skalds. Although these books obtained so little general notice, that the sale probably never defrayed the costs of publication, their effect upon English literature was visible. Cupid and the Muses will keep their place in verse as long as there are rhymers in the world; but the other heathen gods and goddesses were grown stale: angels and demons had been found poor substitutes by those who tried to introduce them; and the existing race of poets seemed very well disposed to transfer their devotion to the gods and heroes of Valhalla, who every day hunted and killed the eternal boar, Serimner, and every night supped upon his eternal pork. Minor pieces, drawn from the stores of Scandinavian antiquity, had been composed by Miss Seward, by Mr. Polwhele, and by others of the contributors to a collection of poems, chiefly by gentlemen of Devon and Cornwall, which appeared just at this time; and Mr. Hole, a little before, had founded, upon the Runic mythology, a poem of more pretensions in its extent and structure, than anything which had appeared since the Leonidas and the Epigoniad — poems which Smollett has oddly coupled, and more oddly enumerated among the glories of George the Second's reign.
Dr. Sayers derived the form of his dramas from Mason and Klopstock, as much as from the ancients. His avowed reason for adopting the Greek form was, that it afforded in its chorus the most favourable opportunity for the display of mythological imagery but where this is the poet's main object, it may surely be better effected in narrative than in dramatic poetry. Mr. Taylor has described his mode of composition: "I was admitted," he says, "behind the curtain, saw his works, as it were, on the easel, first in the outline, then garishly shaded, and, lastly, with the blended and finished colouring. His first care was to round the fable, and everywhere to foresee his drift; the dialogue was then rapidly composed, and always the shortest cut taken to the purpose in view; the critical situations were afterwards raised into effect, and brightened into brilliance, by consulting analogous effects of celebrated writers with the intention of transplanting beauties of detail; and finally, the lyrical ornaments, in which he mainly excelled, were insertedat every opportunity." A process so methodical would of itself show, that Sayers was not of the school of Shakspeare. Indeed, upon his own classification, he would be enumerated among the followers of that Greek school, of which he has named Collins and Gray as the founders; but of which Mason, rather than Collins, may be considered as joint-founder with Gray, and, to which Gilbert West may be referred, and, with strong shades of individual difference, Akenside and Glover. . . .