1765
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Observations on the Oriental Eclogues.

The Poetical Works of Mr. William Collins. With Memoirs of the Author; and Observations on his Genius and Writings. By J. Langhorne.

Rev. John Langhorne


John Langhorne, who took an interest in the history of the classical world, uses his introduction to William Collins's eclogues to introduce some speculative philology, deriving Sicilian pastoral from an earlier original: "Those ingenious Greeks, whom we call the parents of pastoral poetry were, probably, no more than imitators of imitators, that derived their harmony from higher and remoter sources, and kindled their poetical fires at those then unextinguished lamps which burned within the tombs of oriental genius" pp. 108-09. But the only surviving example of an Oriental pastoral is the biblical Song of Solomon. Langhorne does not discuss Spenser or modern pastoral writers.

Arabic poetry was beginning to be a topic of study at Oxford and Cambridge at this time, and Langhorne's interest in the poetry of the East anticipates that of several later Spenserians: Sir William Jones, Richard Hole, George Dyer, and Robert Southey among them.




The genius of the pastoral, as well as of every other respectable species of poetry, had its origin in the East, and from thence was transplanted by the muses of Greece; but whether from the continent of the lesser Asia, or from Egypt, which, about the aera of the Grecian pastoral, was the hospitable nurse of letters, it is not easy to determine. From the subjects, and the manner of Theocritus, one would incline to the latter opinion, while the history of Bion is in favour of the former.

However, though it should still remain a doubt through what channel the pastoral traveled westward, there is not the least shadow of uncertainty concerning its Oriental Origin.

In those ages which, guided by sacred chronology, from a comparative view of time, we call the early ages, it appears from the most authentic historians that the chiefs of the people employed themselves in rural exorcises, and that astronomers and legislators were at the same time shepherds. Thus Strabo informs us that the history of the creation was communicated to the Egyptians by a Chaldean shepherd.

From these circumstances it is evident not only that such shepherds were capable of all the dignity and elegance peculiar to poetry, but that whatever poetry they attempted would be of the pastoral kind; would take its subjects from those scenes of rural simplicity in which they were conversant, and, as it was the offspring of Harmony and Nature, would employ the powers it derived from the former to celebrate the beauty and benevolence of the latter.

Accordingly we find that the most ancient poems treat of agriculture, astronomy, and other objects within the rural and natural systems.

What constitutes the difference between the Georgic and the Pastoral is love and the colloquial or dramatic form of composition peculiar to the latter: this form of composition is sometimes dispensed with, and love and rural imagery alone are thought sufficient to distinguish the pastoral. The tender passion, however, seems to be essential to this species of poetry, and is hardly ever excluded from those pieces that were intended to come under this denomination: even in those eclogues of the Amoebean kind, whose only purport is a trial of skill between contending shepherds, love has its usual share, and the praises of their respective mistresses are the general subjects of the competitors.

It is to be lamented that scarce any oriental compositions of this kind have survived the ravages of ignorance, tyranny, and time; we cannot doubt that many such have been extant, possibly as far down as that fatal period, never to be mentioned in the world of letters without horror, when the glorious monuments of human ingenuity perished in the ashes of the Alexandrian library.

Those ingenious Greeks, whom we call the parents of pastoral poetry were, probably, no more than imitators of imitators, that derived their harmony from higher and remoter sources, and kindled their poetical fires at those then unextinguished lamps which burned within the tombs of oriental genius.

It is evident that Homer has availed himself of those magnificent images and descriptions so frequently to be met with in the books of the Old Testament; and why may not Theocritus, Moschus, and Bion have found their archetypes in other eastern writers, whose names have perished with their works? yet, though it may not be illiberal to admit such a supposition, it would certainly be invidious to conclude, what the malignity of cavillers alone could suggest with regard to Homer, that they destroyed the sources from which they borrowed, and, as it is fabled of the young of the pelican, drained their supporters to death.

As the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament was performed at the request, and under the patronage, of Ptolemy Philadelphus, it were not to be wondered if Theocritus, who was entertained at that prince's court, had borrowed some part of his pastoral imagery from the poetical passages of those books. — I think it can hardly be doubted that the Sicilian poet had in his eye certain expressions of the prophet Isaiah, when he wrote the following lines [Greek passage].

Let vexing brambles the blue violet bear,
On the rude thorn Narcissus dress his hair,
All, all revers'd — The pine with pears be crown'd,
And the bold deer shall drag the trembling hound.

The cause, indeed, of these phenomena is very different in the Greek from what it is in the Hebrew poet; the former employing them on the death, the latter on the birth, of an important person: but the marks of imitation are nevertheless obvious.

It might, however, be expected, that if Theocritus had borrowed at all from the sacred writers, the celebrated pastoral epithalamium of Solomon, so much within his own walk of poetry, would not certainly have escaped his notice. His epithalamium on the marriage of Helena, moreover, gave him an open field for imitation; therefore, if he has any obligations to the royal bard, we may expect to find them there. The very opening of the poem is in the spirit of the Hebrew song [Greek passage].

The colour of imitation is still stronger in the following passage [Greek passage omitted].

This description of Helen is infinitely above the style and figure of the Sicilian pastoral — "She is like the rising of the golden morning, when the night departeth, and when the winter is over and gone. She resembleth the cypress in the garden, the horse in the chariots of Thessaly." These figures plainly declare their origin, and others equally imitative might be pointed out in the same idyllium.

This beautiful and luxuriant marriage-pastoral of Solomon is the only perfect form of the oriental eclogue that has survived the ruins of time, a happiness for which it is, probably, more indebted to its sacred character than to its intrinsic merit. Not that it is by any means destitute of poetical excellence: like all the eastern poetry, it is bold, wild, and unconnected in its figures, allusions, and parts, and has all that graceful and magnificent daring which characterizes its metaphorical and comparative imagery.

In consequence of these peculiarities, so ill adapted to the frigid genius of the north, Mr. COLLINS could make but little use of it as a precedent for his oriental eclogues, and even in his third eclogue, where the subject is of a similar nature, he has chosen rather to follow the mode of the Doric and the Latian pastoral.

The scenery and subjects then of the following eclogues alone are Oriental; the style and colouring are purely European; and, for this reason, the author's preface, in which he intimates that he had the originals from a merchant who traded to the East, is omitted, as being now altogether superfluous.

With regard to the merit of these Eclogues, it may justly be asserted, that in simplicity of description and expression, in delicacy and softness of numbers, and in natural and unaffected tenderness, they are not to be equalled by any thing of the pastoral kind in the English language.


[pp. 105-14]