1789
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Essay on the various Ideas of poetical Excellence and unlettered Genius.

Town and Country Magazine 21 (December 1789) 566-68.

William Hamilton Reid


W. Hamilton Reid — if he is the anonymous writer — reviews several points of poetical contention in the 1780s, including the status of lyric versus didactic poetry, the sonnet, and untutored verse. Reid, an autodidact, makes one of the very first uses of the term "Spenserian stanza," a phrase which would not become common until the second decade of the nineteenth century. He had begun contributing verse to the Town and Country Magazine in 1786.

The essay opens by bemoaning the rise of poetical factions in the wake of Joseph Warton's Essay on the Genius and Writing of Pope. The "Pope Controversy" that would embroil Campbell, Bowles, and Byron a generation later was already heating up: "Indeed, with Pope, Johnson, &c. on this side of the question, the appearance, at a distance, must be rather formidable; but it will appear a plain case to the more penetrating, that if either of these had been capable of performing in blank verse, the lyric ode, sonnet, or the Spenserian stanza, some of the heroes of the Dunciad had been spared, Goldsmith been silent, the life of Spenser have been given with the lives of the poets, and the small fry that have lately raised an outcry against the sonnets of Mrs. Smith, W. Hamilton Reid, &c. in some of the daily prints, might have lived their twelve hours without being heard of" p. 566.

The mention of sonnets leads to a discussion in which the "simple" (English) pattern adopted by Charlotte Smith is preferred to the "Petrarchan" of Thomas Edwards — a term probably intended to comprehend Edwards's Spenserian sonnets. The mention of simplicity leads in turn to a discussion of the fashion for unlettered genius that followed upon James Beattie's The Minstrel. The list of unlettered poets consists of Thomas Chatteron, Robert Burns, Ann Yearsley, and W. Hamilton Reid. Untutored bards are not always so untutored as is supposed. "Simple poetic genius is then a capacity for fine writing," a sentiment leading to the conclusion of the essay, that good poets are likewise writers of good prose — like William Hamilton Reid, for instance.

The essay was waggishly reprinted under Reid's name in Walker’s Hibernian Magazine (January 1790) 22-24. Such an affront to modesty is entirely possible, for Reid was a frequent contributor to the poetry columns of the Town and Country Magazine; the previous article is by him. Unknown today, Reid was one of the few poets publishing in the magazines under his own signature. He did indeed enjoy such celebrity as periodical verse might afford.




Such has been the force of long custom, that an universal taste in poetry, is yet so far from being formed in many subjects, that instead of it, several divisions have been run into: hence the distinctions of old and new schools, and that rancorous partiality, that has taught many, like Goldsmith, to despise lyric poetry, and blank verse, odes, sonnets, &c. and to relish nothing but rhime, and the common verse of five feet, or ten syllables. There seems to be something in human nature that inclines to the formation of parties, and as long as any person of eminence, on either side, express themselves passionately, sects in literature, will as often occur as they do in religion. Pope is too much of the didactic poet, or, as Mr. Warton has said, the poet of reason, to be looked upon as the standard of universal excellence; and it is beyond a doubt, that the ease of comprehending him and his level powers, have increased the number of his admirers above any other qualification he was possessed of — and Goldsmith was certainly envious, or angry, when he wrote the preface to his Deserted Village. Indeed, with Pope, Johnson, &c. on this side of the question, the appearance, at a distance, must be rather formidable; but it will appear a plain case to the more penetrating, that if either of these had been capable of performing in blank verse, the lyric ode, sonnet, or the Spenserian stanza, some of the heroes of the Dunciad had been spared, Goldsmith been silent, the life of Spenser have been given with the lives of the poets, and the small fry that have lately raised an outcry against the sonnets of Mrs. Smith, W. Hamilton Reid, &c. in some of the daily prints, might have lived their twelve hours without being heard of. — Let it remain as an infallible criterion of merit, that those who have excelled in the difficult, could have excelled in the easy; and, if some of them have given no specimen, it has been for want of inclination, not ability. — To make a more immediate application, either Milton, Shakspeare, or Dryden, separately considered, have infinitely more to recommend them as standards of universal excellence, than Pope, Johnson, Goldsmith, and all their &c. &c. put together.

It was on account of versatility of talent, that one of the best judges the world of letters ever produced, (Voltaire, I mean) gave Dryden the lead of the British poets. It was not because he was a dramatist, which Pope attempted in vain; nor that he improved the English language, and had written excellent satire; nor that he had translated the second poet of antiquity; nor that he was the critic of his time; nor that he had written 500 lines smooth and pathetic as the Deserted Village; — No! but because, collectively considered, he had done as much as these, and more himself. Notwithstanding this, Dryden has been excelled by Shakspeare, in the dramatic line; and Milton, in his particular walk, Penseroso, &c. has excelled them both; so that to say, as superficialists do, that such a one, or such a one is the greatest, &c. is saying nothing to the purpose; for, though there are various gradations of merit, it is certain that a versatility of powers, that is, a capacity to exceed mediocrity in every department of poetry, the light and the grave, the sublime and the burlesque, in all their various modes and measures — I say, it is certain, that a capacity approaching the nearest to this, is the only unerring evidence of a superior genius.

It is some consolation, however, that an uxorious fondness of Pope, and a contempt of lyric poetry, at present, rests, principally among old men who sucked the milk of prejudice, and a few pedants who imagine that the production of an epic poem, or an epigram, is the ne plus ultra of merit and genius. An epic we presume, it is more the effect of art than of truth and nature: if not, why not more universal? — Why has not refinement produced them in every nation, in every age? The rapt bards of Arabia never set their harps to notes of any such length! The Fingal of Ossian is collected by Macpherson — the principal nations of the orientals knew them not! — and yet none of these, in their poetry are defective in sublimity or pathos. — And, lastly, the inspired writings, from which their greatest advocates derive a sanction for, or the principles of every species of excellence, afford us a specimen of almost every other kind of poetry, but the epic! Considerations of this kind will tend to regulate and equalize our estimation of this divine art; illustrate its beauties and defects; and, inevitably improve a genuine taste, however it may be encumbered.

This leads to a discussion of the mode of writing that has attracted the most of the public attention for some time past, that is, the sonnet. One thing proves to us, that, the more simple these are in their construction, the longer they will please. This is evident in the admiration those of Mrs. Charlotte Smith have obtained, in preference to many others.

The author of the Canons of Criticism wrote several in the imitation of the Italian, or Petrachian mode, but they had few readers. "The frequent recurrence of the rhime," has been noticed as dissonant to an English ear, and is not merit in the Italian poets, as it arose from a want of variety in the terminations. — An imitation of these, among us, undoubtedly requires the skill of a Seward, in their execution; but it is skill thrown away upon the many; for, as long as the multitude, in another respect, will prefer an English or Scots tune to an Italian air or finale, so long will the common ear prefer the simple sonnet, viz. that composed of three stanzas of alternate rhimes and a couplet. No derogation, notwithstanding, is intended to either of these: genius is genius, whatever direction it may take. But genius independent of acquirements, or unlettered, has been much talked of these few years past; and, according to some critics, if they were not ironical, it is now frequent! Pretensions to it may have become frequent. Chatterton, Robert Burns, Mrs. Yearsley, and W. Hamilton Reid, in the poetical world, have set it on this foot; but it was the untimely death of the former, more than his merit, that made his advocates so warm in his favour; and, with Dr. Gregory, every suspectible mind is liable to be transported with pity and indignation. Burns' claim is admitted — Mrs. Yearsley has many admirers — and the public have long been delighted with Reid's inspiration, in every channel he has appeared in; and, in some of them, his abilities have been mentioned by some of the first characters in the literary or poetical world. But, closely viewed, unlettered genius is but the creature of the moment; the love of writing naturally begets a love of reading, even where it did not exist as a previous habit. Few, as some able critics have observed of Chatterton, "write to be read without reading to write:" but the mischief is, that too many people confound learning with knowledge, good sense, or discrimination. There is, as Mr. Pope says, a vast difference between learning, intelligence, or languages; "and if a man has knowledge, it is not any great matter whether he has it from one language or another."

Upon the whole, the ardour of those who have been too warm in the cause of unlettered genius is to be excused, as it is evident that much of the semblance of learning or intelligence may be whipped into any dull subject, in the course of a number of years. Simple poetic genius is then a capacity for fine writing; and, properly, the best ground for letters, as far as they are concerned in composition: so that it is an unfounded notion, that a capacity for writing good prose is not congenial with a poetical genius. — For who that had a genius for poetry but excelled in prose? Pope's was the most musical, Swift's the most correct, and Milton's eminently nervous; and, without any ideas of composition, we could even point out some prose pieces of Mr. Hamilton Reid's, which, deriving their excellence from his reading, scientific taste, and powers peculiarly discriminating, would, like the versatility of his poetical talents as must excite astonishment at his obscure situation, as they would tend to gratify any other affection.


[pp. 566-68]