William Lisle Bowles's fourteen sonnets were published anonymously in a first edition of one hundred copies. They proved, like the recent volume of sonnets by Charlotte Smith, to be immensely popular. Bowles's immediate models, in addition to Smith, are William Collins, Thomas Warton, and John Bampfylde — Oxford poets like Bowles himself. His themes and topics are those of mid-century Spenserianism — rivers, castles, personified passions — but rendered with a simplicity and condensation that accorded with the new demand for naturalism in poetic expression. The spare and sober style, not generally characteristic of earlier Spenserian poetry, was admired by Coleridge and imitated by Wordsworth.
Advertisement: "The following Sonnets, (or whatever they may be called) were found in a Traveller's Memorandum-Book. They were selected from amongst many others, chiefly of the same kind. The Editor has ventured to lay a few of them before the Publick, as he hopes there may be some Readers to whom they may not be entirely unacceptable."
Analytical Review: "The author of these Sonnets evidently endeavoured to imitate Mrs. Charlotte Smith's little elegant compositions; they are certainly very inferior, yet their simple unaffected style gives them some claim to praise" 3 (March 1789) 339
Critical Review: "The melancholy Muse of [Charlotte] Smith has decorated the shrine of Poetry with many a beautiful wreath of this kind. These Sonnets, however, are of a much superior cast to any we have lately seen. With great simplicity of style, and tenderness of sentiment, they unite a masculine vigour and correctness, and possess a very large share of poetical invention.... The author appears to treasure up a favourite melancholy, which accompanies him continually, and is called forth on every occasion, but it is of the gentlest kind, and never seems to degenerate into any complaint and discontent" 67 (April 1789) 504.
Christopher Lake Moody: "They have some poetic merit, and the admirers of the plaintive Petrarch, and his English imitator, Mrs. Charlotte Smith of Bignor Park, will peruse several of them with pleasure" Monthly Review 80 (May 1789) 465.
William Taylor of Norwich: "In the sonnets here offered to the public, Mr. Bowles exempts himself from the necessity of seeking a multiplicity of like rhimes, and seldom binds together more than a couplet. He also terminates many of them by an Alexandrine; which, notwithstanding Pope's simile of the wounded snake, is certainly agreeable to the English ear at the close of long stanzas, — as the readers of Spenser must have felt" review of 3d edition; Monthly Review 16 (February 1795) 225.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "In a Sonnet then we require a development of some lonely feeling, by whatever cause it may have been excited; but those Sonnets appear to me the most exquisite, in which moral Sentiments, Affections, or Feelings, are deduced from, and associated with, the Scenery of Nature. Such compositions generate a kind of thought highly favourable to delicacy of character. They create a sweet and dissoluble union between the intellectual and the material world. Easily remembered from their briefness, and interesting alike to the eye and the affections, these are the poems which we can 'lay up in our heart, and our soul,' and repeat them 'when we walk by the way, and when we lie down, and when we rise up.' Hence, the Sonnets of BOWLES derive their marked superiority over all the other Sonnets; hence they domesticate with the heart, and become, as it were, a part of our idenity" Poems (1803) 82-83.
Henry Kirke White: "Mr. Bowles and Charlotte Smith are the first modern writers who have met with distinguished success in the modern sonnet. Those of the former, in particular, are standards of excellence in this department. To much natural and accurate description, they unite a strain of the most exquisitely tender and delicate sentiment; and with a nervous strength of diction and a wild freedom of versification, they combine an euphonious melody and consonant cadence unequalled in the English language. While they possess, however, the superior merit of an original style, they are not unfrequently deformed by instances of that ambitious singularity which is but too frequently its concomitant. Of these the introduction of rhymes long since obsolete is not the least striking. Though, in some cases, these revivals of antiquated phrase have a pleasing effect, they are oftentimes uncouth and repulsive" "Melancholy Hours V" in Remains, ed Southey (1807); Works (1869) 413-14.
The Cabinet: "Bowles is commonly mentioned as being the first who, in this country, made the sonnet a popular species of composition; and having written without confining himself to the Italian model, those who decry its beauties have considered the success of his writings as an argument in their favour. But the sentiments and descriptions contained in the sonnets of Bowles, are sufficient to render any species of composition popular; and had he written them in the most confined and ungraceful measure, they would still have affected the feelings, and would still therefore have been popular" "Sonnets of Warton, Bowles, and Mason" 3 (April 1808) 226.
William Hazlitt: "Of BOWLES'S sonnets it is recommendation enough to say, that they were the favourites of Mr. Coleridge's youthful mind" Select British Poets (1824); Works, ed. Howe (1932) 9:245.
Austin Dobson: "Those who to-day turn to the much-praised verses will scarcely find in their pensive amenity that enduring charm which they presented to the hungry and restless soul of Coleridge, seeking its fitting food in unpropitious places. They exhibit a grace of expression, a delicate sensibility, and above all a 'musical sweet melancholy' that is especially grateful in certain moods of mind; but with lapse of time and change of fashion they have grown a little thin and faint and colourless" The English Poets, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 4:99.
Alaric Alfred Watts: "It was towards the close of the earlier period of development of this spirit in English literature, viz., in 1791, that a young gentleman presented himself to Mr. Cruttwell, a printer at Bath, with fourteen sonnets, written chiefly in picturesque spots during a journey, with the profits to be derived from which he indulged himself in the hopes of paying a mercer's bill at Oxford. Mr. Cruttwell could hold out no encouragement favourable to the prospects of the mercer. He had strong doubts whether the publication of would even repay the expense of printing, — about five pounds; but he either suffered himself to be persuaded, or, more probably, the five pounds were forthcoming, for a hundred copies in quarto were struck off. Six months later, the author was agreeably surprised by a letter from the printer, informing him that the hundred copies had all been sold, and that if five hundred had been printed, they would, no doubt, been sold also. Five hundred more copies were accordingly produced, and sold they were. Soon after — the sale had been rapid, — seven hundred and fifty more copies were printed and sold likewise. In 1805 a ninth edition was called for. How many editions of these poems, with additions introduced from time to time, were published between 1805 and the last edition, 1837, this writer is unable to say" Alaric Watts, a Narrative of his Life (1884) 1:9-10.
Oliver Elton: "If we shade the sight from Wordsworth's greater sonnets, we shall perceive these timid rays which struggle from behind them and outlive the arc-lamp effects of Erasmus Darwin. In the years 1787-89 the pages of the Gentleman's Magazine disclose not a few experiments in the sonnet form; some merely genteel, like Miss Anna Seward's, and some scholarly, like those of Henry Cary, afterwards the translator of Dante, and Landor's friend. In 1789 came the first sheaf of sonnets, fourteen in number, by William Lisle Bowles, published at Bath. We need not discount overmuch the fervent gratitude expressed by Coleridge, then a boy of seventeen, towards these poems, or that of Wordsworth, who read them a few years later. Coleridge, at least, found in them a refuge from conventional diction, and a lasting impulse towards a quiet and natural style of poetry; an impulse which, as will appear, lies as deep in Coleridge as the richer and stranger one that comes out in The Ancient Mariner. Bowles added to his sonnets, and produced five editions of them in six years, pouring out much verse besides in which the same qualities are seen less concentrated. He had not poetic force, but he had the elements of poetic rightness; a genuine and gentle strain of humanity, that of the cultured rural clergyman; and an instinct for seeking humble-minded solitude in the midst of natural things as a solace in trouble. Above all, he had a suitable diction, in faint relief, but generally pure and adequate. A certain proneness in Bowles to the sentimental, which attracted the sneers of satirists, did not repel Coleridge. The poetic mercies of the year 1789 were still not so lavish, but that we can appreciate the newness of Bowles's imagery: the 'evening gleaming o'er the sighing sedge,' the 'distant turret's gleaming fan,' the 'willow'd hedge' in the Cherwell; and he more than once anticipates Wordsworth's mood of retrospect which is nourished and cheered by memories of beauty" Survey of English Poetry 1780-1830 (1912) 1:74-75.
An anonymous poet adapted "To the River Itchin" in Spenserian archaisms: "Sonnet, in imitation of Spencer. To the River Mersey" Literary Speculum 1 (November 1821) 72.
As slow I climb the cliff's ascending side,
Much musing on the track of terror past
When o'er the dark wave rode the howling blast,
Pleas'd I look back, and view the tranquil tide,
That laves the pebbled shore; and now the beam
Of evening smiles on the grey battlement,
And yon forsaken tow'r, that time has rent.
The lifted oar far oft with silver gleam
Is touch'd, and the hush'd billows seem to sleep.
Sooth'd by the scene, ev'n thus on sorrow's breast
A kindred stillness steals and bids her rest;
Whilst the weak winds that sigh along the deep,
The ear, like lullabies of pity, meet,
Singing her saddest notes of farewell sweet.
WRITTEN AT BAMBOROUGH CASTLE.
Ye holy tow'rs, that crown the azure deep,
Still may ye shade the wave-worn rock sublime,
Though, hurrying silent by, relentless Time
Assail you, and the winter Whirlwind's sweep!
For far from blazing Grandeur's crouded halls,
Here Charity hath fix'd her chosen seat,
Oft listening tearful when the wild winds beat,
With hollow bodings, round your ancient walls;
And Pity's self, at the dark stormy hour
Of Midnight, when the Moon is hid on high,
Keeps her lone watch upon the topmost tow'r,
And turns her ear to each expiring cry;
Blest if her aid some fainting wretch might save,
And snatch him speechless from the whelming wave.
O thou, whose stern command and precepts pure
(Tho' agony in every vein should start,
And slowly drain the blood-drops from the heart)
Have bade the patient spirit still endure;
Thou, who to sorrow hast a beauty lent,
On the dark brow, with resolution clad,
Illumining the dreary traces sad,
Like the cold taper on a monument;
O firm Philosophy! display the tide
Of human misery, and oft relate
How silent sinking in the storms of fate,
The brave and good have bow'd their head and died.
So taught by Thee, some solace I may find,
Remembering the sorrows of mankind.
TO THE RIVER WENBECK.
As slowly wanders thy forsaken stream,
WENBECK! the mossy-scatter'd rocks among,
In fancy's ear still making plaintive song
To the dark woods above: ah! sure I seem
To meet some friendly Genius in the gloom,
And in each breeze a pitying voice I hear
Like sorrow's sighs upon misfortune's tomb.
Ah! soothing are your quiet scenes — the tear
Of him who passes weary on his way
Shall thank you, as he turns to bid adieu:
Onward a cheerless pilgrim he may stray,
Yet oft as musing memory shall review
The scenes that cheer'd his path with fairer ray,
Delightful haunts, he will remember you.
TO THE RIVER TWEED.
O Tweed! a stranger, that with wand'ring feet
O'er hill and dale has journey'd many a mile,
(If so his weary thoughts he might beguile)
Delighted turns thy beauteous scenes to greet.
The waving branches that romantick bend
O'er thy tall banks, a soothing charm bestow;
The murmurs of thy wand'ring wave below
Seem to his ear the pity of a friend.
Delightful stream! tho' now along thy shore,
When spring returns in all her wonted pride,
The shepherd's distant pipe is heard no more,
Yet here with pensive peace could I abide,
Far from the stormy world's tumultuous roar
To muse upon thy banks at eventide.
Evening, as slow thy placid shades descend,
Veiling with gentlest hush the landscape still,
The lonely battlement, and farthest hill
And wood; I think of those that have no friend;
Who now perhaps, by melancholy led,
From the broad blaze of day, where pleasure flaunts,
Retiring, wander 'mid thy lonely haunts
Unseen; and mark the tints that o'er thy bed
Hang lovely, oft to musing fancy's eye
Presenting fairy vales, where the tir'd mind
Might rest, beyond the murmurs of mankind,
Nor hear the hourly moans of misery.
Ah! beauteous views, that hope's fair gleams the while,
Should smile like you, and perish as they smile!
AT A VILLAGE IN SCOTLAND.
O North! as thy romantick vales I leave,
And bid farewell to each retiring hill,
Where thoughtful fancy seems to linger still,
Tracing the broad bright landscape; much I grieve
That mingled with the toiling croud, no more
I shall return, your varied views to mark,
Of rocks amid the sunshine tow'ring dark,
Of rivers winding wild, and mountains hoar,
Or castle gleaming on the distant steep.
Yet not the less I pray our charms may last,
And many a soften'd image of the past
Pensive combine; and bid remembrance keep
To cheer me with the thought of pleasure flown,
When I am wand'ring on my way alone.
TO THE RIVER ITCHIN, NEAR WINTON.
Itchin, when I, behold thy banks again,
Thy crumbling margin, and thy silver breast,
On which the self-same tints still seem to rest,
Why feels my heart the shiv'ring sense of pain?
Is it, that many a summer's day has past
Since, in life's morn, I carol'd on thy side?
Is it, that oft, since then, my heart has sigh'd,
As Youth, and Hope's delusive gleams, flew fast?
Is it that those, who circled on thy shore,
Companions of my youth, now meet no more?
Whate'er the cause, upon thy banks I bend
Sorrowing, yet feel such solace at my heart,
As at the meeting of some long-lost friend,
From whom, in happier hours, we wept to part.
O Poverty! though from thy haggard eye,
Thy cheerless mein, of every charm bereft.
Thy brow, that hope's last traces long have left,
Vain Fortune's feeble sons with terror fly;
Thy rugged paths with pleasure I attend;—
For Fancy, that with fairest dreams can bless;
And Patience, in the Pall of Wretchedness,
Sad-smiling, as the ruthless storms descend;
And Piety, forgiving every wrong,
And meek Content, whose griefs no more rebel;
And Genius, warbling sweet her saddest song;
And Pity, list'ning to the poor man's knell,
Long banish'd from the world's insulting throng;
With Thee, and loveliest Melancholy, dwell.
ON DOVER CLIFFS.
On these white cliffs, that calm above the flood
Rear their o'er-shadowing heads, and at their feet
Scarce hear the surge that has for ages beat,
Sure many a lonely wanderer has stood;
And, whilst the listed murmur met his ear,
And o'er the distant billows the still Eve
Sail'd slow, has thought of all his heart must leave
To-morrow — of the friends he lov'd most dear,—
Of social scenes, from which he wept to part:—
But if, like me, he knew how fruitless all
The thoughts, that would full fain the past recall,
Soon would he quell the risings of his heart,
And brave the wild winds and unhearing tide,
The World his country, and his GOD his guide.
WRITTEN AT OSTEND.
How sweet the tuneful bells' responsive peal!
As when, at opening morn, the fragrant breeze
Breathes on the trembling sense of wan disease,
So piercing to my heart their form I feel!
And hark! with lessening cadence now the fall,
And now, along the white and level tide,
They fling their melancholy music wide,
Bidding me many a tender thought recall
Of summer-days, and those delightful years,
When by my native streams, in life's fair prime,
The mournful magic of their mingling chime
First wak'd my wond'ring childhood into tears!
But seeming now, when all those days are o'er,
The sounds of joy, once heard, and heard no more.
WRITTEN AT A CONVENT.
If chance some pensive stranger, hither led,
His bosom glowing from majestic views,
The gorgeous dome, or the proud landscape's hues,
Should ask who sleeps beneath this lowly bed—
'Tis poor MATILDA! To the cloister'd scene,
A mourner, beauteous and unknown, she came,
To shed her tears unseen; and quench the flame
Of fruitless love: yet was her look serene
As the pale midnight on the moon-light isle—
Her voice was soft, which e'en a charm could lend,
Like that which spoke of a departed friend,
And a meek sadness sat upon her smile!
Now here remov'd from ev'ry human ill,
Her woes are buried, and her heart is still.
O Time! who know'st a lenient hand to lay
Softest on sorrow's wound, and slowly thence,
(Lulling to sad repose the weary sense)
Stealest the long-forgotten pan away;
On Thee I rest my only hope at last,
And think, when thou hast dried the bitter tear
That flows in vain o'er all my soul held dear,
I may look back on many a sorrow pall,
And meet life's peaceful evening with a smile—
As some poor bird, at day's departing hour.
Sings in the sunbeam, of the transient shower
Forgetful, tho' its wings are wet the while:—
Yet ah! how much must that poor heart endure,
Which hopes from thee, and thee alone, a cure!
ON A DISTANT VIEW OF ENGLAND.
Ah! from my eyes the tears unbidden start,
ALBION! as now thy cliffs (that bright appear
Far o'er the wave, and their proud summits rear
To meet the beams of morn) my beating heart,
With eager hope, and filial transport hails!
Scenes of my youth, reviving gales ye bring,
As when, ere while, the tuneful morn of spring
Joyous awoke amid your blooming vales.
And fill'd with fragrance every breathing plain;—
Fled are those hours, and all the joys they gave,
Yet still I sigh, and count each rising wave,
That bears me nearer to your shores again;
If haply, 'mid the woods and vales so fair,
Stranger to Peace! I yet may meet her there.