Number XXIX, a curious essay, approaches Renaissance poets in the same way earlier critics had approached the ancient classics. In a genre by genre, author by author comparison, he weighs the merits of the opposing literatures, and finds the poets of the second half of the eighteenth-century superior in every category save epic.
Later critics have not regarded Richard Cumberland's Calvary (1792) as the equal of Paradise Lost.
Free the young Bard from that oppressive awe,
Which feels Opinion's rule as Reason's law,
And from his spirit bid vain fears depart,
Of weaken'd Nature and exhausted Art!
Phantoms! that literary spleen conceives!
Dulness adopts, and Indolence believes!
Having in the preceding number commented on the arrangement of Mr. Headley, I shall now give a somewhat similar table of the poets who have honoured their country for the last forty or fifty years, offer some observations on the individuals who compose it, and contrast them, as I proceed, with those who have filled the more extended period from the accession of Elizabeth to the restoration of Charles.
In constructing this table it must be obvious that names only of prominent and acknowledged excellence could be inserted. It is probable, however, that some poets, who possess a legitimate claim to admission, may have been overlooked. To introduce these, when pointed out, will not only add strength to the object of this paper, but will impart a real pleasure to its author.
[Epic: Ossian, Hole, Cumberland, Southey; Dramatic: Hoadley, Moore, Mason, Walpole, Home, Murphy, Colman, Cumberland, Jephson, Sheridan, Chatterton; Lyric: Gray, Mason, J. Warton, T. Warton, Sayers, Hole, Richards, Coleridge, Sargent, Whitehous; Descriptive: Cowper, Hurdis, Gisborne, Bidlake, Southeby, Burges, Bloomfield; Didactic: Mason, Hayley, Downman, Polwhele, Darwin; Satyric: Churchill, Anstey, Wolcot, Gifford, [Thomas James Mathias]; Miscelleneous: Goldsmith, Beattie, Hayley, Barbauld, Burns, Langhorne, Cawthorne, Penrose, Scott, Pratt, Helen Williams, Charlotte Smith, Bowles, Seward, Pye, Rogers, Radcliffe, Maurice, Polwhele, Campbell; Translators: J. Warton, Colman, Mickle, Potter, Hoole, Sir William Jones, Boyd, Polwhele, Cowper, Beresford, Brooke, Boscawen, Carlyle, Sotheby]
The epic is confessedly the most elevated and difficult province of the poetic art, and requires both consummate genius, and an intimate knowledge of the science, literature; manners and customs, not only of the age in which the poet writes, but of the period also from whence he draws his fable. Homer, Virgil, Tasso and Milton seem to have possessed all the knowledge requisite for their elaborate and immortal productions, and though Ossian, supposing these poems to have the antiquity they claim, lived in an era comparatively barbarous, he was certainly the best informed and most ingenious chieftain of his age, and enjoyed the great advantage of describing scenes in which he himself was actually an important agent. The descriptions throughout the works of this bard are so undeviatingly correct and simple, so appropriate to the period in which he is supposed to have existed, that with many this alone is considered as an irrefragable proof of their antiquity; and indeed, should it ever be fully ascertained that these poems are the entire produce of the present century, Mr. Macpherson must not only be esteemed as one of the first poets, but as exhibiting an attention and skill in the preservation of costume hitherto unparalleled. Ancient or modern, however, these poems must be viewed as pregnant with beauties of the highest rank; uniformly mild and generous in manners and sentiment, uniformly simple, pathetic and sublime, vivid and pictoresque in imagery, in diction rapid, nervous and concise, they are alike calculated to melt and meliorate the heart, to elevate and fire the imagination. I do not hesitate to affirm that, if in sublimity the palm must be allowed, and I think it must, to our great countryman, yet in the pathetic the Caledonian is far superior, not only to Milton, but to every other poet. Conceiving therefore, as I firmly do, that Fingal and Temora are solely indebted to Mr. Macpherson for their form, and for probably, a very considerable portion of their matter, and as the bard under whose name they are now published was totally unknown till within these forty years, I have placed them, and wish indeed there to place the whole collection which is in fact truly epic, at the head of the first department, where I am confident they need not fear comparison with any specimens of our elder poetry.
The gothic mythology which as an instrument in the hands of Tasso and Shakspeare produced such wonderful effects, has until very lately little attracted notice. Gray indeed gave us a few spirited versions from the Edda, but since his death a taste for the wild and the terrible has been more cultivated and Wieland and Burger in Germany, and in our island, Hole in his Epic of Arthur, Sayers in his Dramatic Sketches of Northern Mythology, and a few authors of Romance, among whom Mrs. Radcliffe holds a distinguished place, have spread a wider canvas and touched it with a glowing hand. Arthur or the Northern Enchantment, which has deservedly given Mr. Hole a place in our epic arrangement, has considerable merit in the construction of its fable. The agency of the northern Parcae or Weird Sisters on the one side, and of Merlin on the other, forms a bold and well chosen system of machinery, whilst the human characters are pencilled with vigour and discrimination. Its interest, however, as already observed in a preceding number, would have been greater, had an appeal to the heart been more frequently introduced. The versification is free and varied, the poet having happily avoided that monotony which in works of length usually awaits the employment of the couplet.
Of the Calvary of Mr. Cumberland I have already given an analysis of considerable length, and shall here therefore only say, that he has so successfully emulated the spirit and sublimity of Milton, that his work will probably descend to remote ages, and when the name of our divine bard shall be sounded by admiring posterity, that of Cumberland will not be distant far.
Mr. Southey's Joan of Arc, though incorrect, and written with inexcusable rapidity, reflects great credit on his genius and abilities; the sentiments are noble and generous, and burn with an enthusiastic ardour for liberty; the characters, especially that of his Heroine, are well supported, and his visionary scenes are rich with bold and energetic imagery. His fable, however, I cannot but consider peculiarly unfortunate, as directly militating against national pride and opinion; most epic writers have been solicitous to acquire popularity by aggrandizing the heroic deeds and bold emprise of their respective nations, but in Joan of Arc the tide of censure falls upon one of our most gallant Kings, and who has ever been a favourite with the multitude. It is true that the votaries of ambition scatter desolation in their train, and merit the indignant reprobation of every friend to humanity, but had Mr. Southey consulted his own fame and popularity he had chosen a different subject as the vehicle of his sentiments. The versification of this poem is in many parts very beautiful, and would have been altogether so, had the author condescended to bestow more time on its elaboration In his promised epic on the Discovery of America by Madoc, the ingenious poet, it is hoped, will apply more care and assiduity to the necessary work of perfecting and polishing.
Now, if we may be allowed to place Ossian in opposition to Milton, inferior in sublimity perhaps, though certainly infinitely more pathetic, our epic column will stand firm upon its base, and, rearing its majestic shaft, attract, through distant ages, the eye of genius and of taste.
The Drama in the sixteenth, and during a great part of the seventeenth century was written with little attention to the rules of composition, and, except in the hands of Shakspeare, was for the most part either monstrous or abortive. The plays of Massinger, Beaumont and Fletcher abound with the wildest incongruities both in matter and form, and though Jonson was infinitely more regular yet he wanted the essential of genius. Succeeding poets lave however made nearer approaches to the perfectibility of art, and few tragedies have been produced within the present century without due regard to mechanism of fable, to decorum of scene, and propriety of style. But as attention to the dictates of criticism will not alone constitute a good play, it is necessary to shew that the poets within our prescribed period want not what is otherwise vital and requisite to their art. In tragedy, as was observed before, we must avoid entering the lists with Shakspeare, but with his contemporary bards we can court comparison in triumph. With this exception who can produce a tragedy from the bosom of the sixteenth, or prior half of the seventeenth century, that, in genuine dramatic excellence, shall rank with the Grecian Daughter or Gamester of Moore, the Douglas of Home, the Elfrida and Caractacus of Mason, or the Mysterious Mother of Walpole. though the subject of this last piece be singularly horrid and almost disgusting, yet the fable is conducted with such inimitable skill, that it may in this respect be considered as approximating nearer to perfection than any other drama extant, the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles even not excepted. Some of the scenes in Douglas are of admirable pathos and beauty, and its diction has been justly and generally approved. The classical productions of Mason would have done honour to Athens in her most refined period, and the tragedies of Moore have been bathed with the tears of thousands. If we turn to comedy the superiority of modern genius is decisive, for, I imagine, it will readily be conceded that the Suspicious Husband, the Jealous Wife, the Clandestine Marriage and the School for Scandal are perfectly unrivalled. The comedies of Mr. Cumberland likewise possess very considerable merit, especially his West Indian and Wheel of Fortune. Comedy has in every nation been slow in attaining perfection. Aristophanes, more remarkable for scurrility than for wit and humour, was contemporary with Euripides, and though Shakspeare has many characters of the most genuine humour, he has not furnished us with an instance of legitimate comedy, unless indeed the Merry Wives of Windsor may be termed such. In fact before the time of Congreve and Cibber pure and unmixed comedy was nearly unknown, and only acquired its more polished and perfect state when the drama of Colman and Sheridan appeared.
Lyric poetry may be said to have had no existence among us before Dryden composed his celebrated ode, for the Pindarics of Cowley have small pretensions to the title. Mr. Headley therefore could appropriate no part of his table to this sublime province of the art, and which has indeed only attained its highest excellencies in the productions of Collins and Gray. As I have, in another place, entered largely into the merits of our English lyric poets, nothing more is here necessary than to remark, that the names collected under this department would do honour to any age or country, and would alone be adequate to prove that the spirit and genius of our poetry have liberally partaken of those energies which, in the present period, have been so powerfully directed through the walks of science and the depths of oriental literature.
The naturalist and the poet are not in frequent combination; an unwearied attention to the features of nature, and, at the same time, a power of selecting the more striking circumstances, and of so vividly impressing them on the mind of the reader that the original shall even seem tame in the comparison, are faculties which have fallen to the lot of few. Lucretius, Virgil and Thomson enjoyed however this happy union of talents, and it is with peculiar pride and pleasure that in our day we can point to the name of a poet who equally excels in these particulars, and to an exquisite felicity of diction superadds the most pathetic morality, and a vein of original and justly applied satire. As long as a taste for simplicity and energy of style, for the charms of Nature, of Virtue and of Religion shall exist, so long will the Task of Cowper continue a favourite with the public. Mr. Gisborne's Walks in a Forest, have also a title to particular notice as possessing just claims to original description.
The varied operation of the seasons on Forest scenery, much accurate painting in natural history, and a number of pictoresque minutia that have escaped the notice of preceding delineators, render this work peculiarly attractive, nor is it deficient in pathetic incident or digressional decoration. It is obvious that a great source of novelty to our poetry may be derived from the improved state of natural history and many of our writer, seem willing to avail themselves of the treasure. In the pieces of Mr. Hurdis are to be found several faithful draughts from nature beautifully coloured, and unoccupied by any preceding artist. Sotheby's Tour through Wales, and Bidlake's Sea display also much that is valuable both in design and execution, and, upon the whole, we may assuredly say that in no period has descriptive poetry been cultivated with more success.
In the age of Elizabeth, Didactic poetry had not received its most regular and perfect form, that is, no poem had been written on the plan of the Georgics. Since that reign, how ever, numerous have been the labourers in this department; Phillips, Somerville, Pope, Dyer, Akenside and Armstrong have by their respective attempts erected unperishable monuments of their genius and talents, and during the portion of time now under consideration stands foremost the name of Mason whose English Garden I must consider as the most finished and interesting specimen we possess of this mode of composition. The subject is alluring, "a theme once bless'd by Virgil's happy choice"
Atque equidem extremo ni jam sub fine laborum
Vela traham et terris festinem ad vertere proram:
Forsitan et pingues hortos quae cura colendi
Ornaret, canerem &c.
and the diction and versification have the charm of sweetness and simplicity. The great attraction however of this beautiful poem consists in its so frequently and powerfully appealing to the tender feelings; through the whole runs a vein of pathetic reflection, and the story of Nerina, which occupies the fourth book and indirectly continues the precept, is narrated in so masterly a manner and with so many genuine strokes of nature that few persons I should hope are to be found who could peruse it without the tribute of a tear. It has indeed been objected by Mr. Pye that it is too pathetic for the species of poem in which it is placed; but if this be an error, it is of a kind that will readily be allowed for by those who have felt the influences of pity, and who lament departed worth and beauty.
The epistles of Mr. Hayley on Painting, History and Epic poetry would perhaps more properly have been thrown under the title Historical, had I thought it worth while thus to designate a column for the admission of a single writer. They inculcate however so much elegant and judicious criticism, and diffuse so much light over their respective subjects, that they may not unaptly find a place in the didactic compartment. The versification of these pieces is peculiarly smooth, correct and flowing, but not unfrequently deficient in energy and compression. The characters are in general justly drawn and several display a warmth of fancy, and a beauty in illustration highly worthy of applause. I would particularly instance those of Herodotus and Livy, Virgil, Lucan and Ariosto. The addresses likewise to Romney, Gibbon and Mason are well conceived, impressive and appropriate, and as proofs of pathetic powers, the Death of Chatterton, and the author's Apostrophe to his mother, may ever be appealed to with triumph.
The Infancy of Dr. Downman has several splendid passages, and some interesting episodic parts, but the subject is certainly an unhappy one; the details of the nursery and the rules for the preservation of infantine health being little accommodated to the genius of poetry. There is merit however in encountering a difficulty almost insuperable, and the Doctor perhaps has rendered his work as inviting as the nature of his theme would permit.
The English Orator embraces a more fertile field, and Mr. Polwhele has developed the principles of eloquence and their application to the Bar, the Senate and the Pulpit in very harmonious verse. The little narratives introduced by way of elucidation have much that is beautiful in their conception and execution, and in the fourth book the episode of Villicus the Curate is particularly pleasing.
Dr. Darwin has lately favoured the world with a poem perfectly original in its design, and whose versification is the most correct and brilliant in our language. Nothing can exceed the exquisite taste with which the diction of the Botanic Garden is selected, and the facility which the author enjoys of describing, without the smallest injury to the polish and melody of his lines, the most intricate objects of nature and of art, is truly astonishing. A playfulness of fancy, an unbounded variety of fiction, an imagination wild and terrific as that of Dante or Shakspeare, and an intimate knowledge of every branch of science and natural history, conspire to render this poem perfectly unique. Scripture narrative, ancient mythology, gothic superstition and the miracles of philosophy are drawn in to decorate or elucidate the history or metamorphoses of his plants, and the bold and beautiful personifications which every where start forward, and with a projection which indicates the hand of genius, infuse life and vigour through the work. The destruction of the armies of Cambyses and of Senacherib, the prosopopaeia of the Ague and of the Nightmare, the scene of Medea and her Children, and the group of wild animals choking are, I verily think, for strength of imagination, and vivacity and richness of colouring unequalled. Impartial criticism, however, compels us to observe that the Botanic Garden is not without defects; two leading ones may be mentioned; a monotony in the versification arising from its uniform and excessive splendour, and a want of due connection between the different parts of the poem; the descriptions are nearly insulated, that is, they are deficient in that kind of combination which is necessary to form a concording and interesting whole.
Who can contrast these didactic poets with the philosophical and metaphysical ones of the age of Elizabeth, and for an instant hesitate where to bestow a decided preference!
As it is presumed that no person can possess a taste so singular, and I may add, so perverted, as to esteem Donne, Marston or even Hall, superior to Churchill and Anstey any considerable comment on this province of the art will be readily dispensed with. To the energy and severity of Churchill, and the playful humour of the Bath Guide we may also add the poignant effusions of Peter Pindar, the elegant and well timed satire of Gifford and the powerful, nervous and sometimes sublime strains of the unknown author of the Pursuits of Literature. This last production though in a few places unnecessarily caustic and querulous, and too indiscriminate in the objects of its literary censure, is the product of extensive erudition, and of a wish to befriend the noblest efforts of patriotism and religion. The poet has brought to his task powers alike vigorous and multiform, and has given to his country in the hour of difficulty and danger certainly no trifling, no unimportant aid. Several smaller anonymous productions of acknowledged excellence in this department have within the last thirty years been presented to the public. To enumerate these would occupy too much room. The Heroic Epistle however, to Sir William Chambers, the Archaelogical Epistle to Dean Milles, and the Probationary Odes, as possessing, very prominent and distinguished merit, should not be passed in silence.
In a late elegant critique in the Monthly Review [July 1797, p. 278], and which forms an exception to the complaint at the commencement of the preceding number, occur the following judicious observations: "that the human mind is not at all times adequate to every customary exertion, — or that, while it is in a progressive state with respect to its general attainments, some one of its energies should necessarily droop and degenerate — are not among the doctrines which we hold; and though it has been common to apply such a strain of speculation to the works of fancy, in a period distinguished for scientific improvements, we are fully convinced, from the productions that come under our survey, that the theory is not founded in fact. In particular, the experience of a few past years has abundantly proved to us, that never was there a time in which English poetry was cultivated with more genius, nor with happier effect." These remarks will apply in full force to our column of Miscellaneous Poets, which, considering the period of time we have limited ourselves to, has never been equalled, and probably never will be excelled.
What can be more exquisite than the poetry of Goldsmith, whose versification is, without any exception, more sweet and harmonious than that of any other poet, and whose sentiments and imagery are equally beautiful and pathetic. Dr. Beattie has observed that "several cantos might be mentioned of the Fairy Queen, the preservation of which would not compensate the loss of The Castle of Indolence." With yet greater propriety might this be affirmed as to the supposed loss of his own charming poem. The Minstrel, whose delightful pictures of nature, whose pensive morality and fascinating simplicity of expression render it inexpressibly dear and interesting; indeed he who can read it without sensations of rapture must be lost as the dead to harmony and feeling. The Pleasures of Memory, by Mr. Rogers is another effort of the modern muses which calls for admiration; the subject is happily chosen, and its polished flow of verse and tender sentiment have justly made it a favourite with the public. Hayley's Chef d' oeuvre, The Triumphs of Temper, must be also noticed in this place, as I have not been able to class it under any of the preceding heads, and indeed, it seems well entitled to the honour of forming a new species of poetry, for in structure and design it differs materially from whet has been denominated the Heroi-comic poem. Its visionary scenes are drawn and tinted with a masterly pencil, and do great credit to the Italian school, in whose spirit and style they have been conceived and executed, and his Heroine, all gentle and interesting, fully developes the magnetic influence of that sweetest of all possessions, an amiable temper. It would occupy too much room, and would indeed be superfluous, to dwell at large upon all the excellent productions of this class, popular as most of them are. When to those already mentioned we can add the Sympathy of Pratt, the Louisa of Seward, the Peru of Williams, the Sonnets of Charlotte Smith and Bowles, the Country Justice of Langhorne, the Influence of Local Attachment by Polwhele, the Poems of Burns, and a variety of other productions of no less merit, the opinion of the monthly critic will be sufficiently justified, and the vast superiority of our miscellaneous poets over those of the Elizabethan period incontrovertibly established.
To institute any comparison between the Translators of the two ages would be futile and even absurd; let the reader cast his eye over the opposed columns, and he will not for an instant demand it. I shall therefore confine myself to a very few observations, and shalt in the first place remark that translation, both in prose and poetry, has been extensively and very successfully cultivated during the present reign. Among the names which form our catalogue, are to be found some of the first literary characters in the nation, and their attempts to transfuse the beauties of their originals have improved the public taste, and opened to the mere English scholar a wide field of amusement. The Georgics of Virgil have received new attractions in the translation of Warton. The elegant simplicity of Terence has met with an admirable vehicle in the well chosen and familiar blank verse of Colman; Horace assumes a more pleasing national garb from the assiduities of Mr. Boscawen, and the gigantic sublimity of Aeschylus is preserved in all its force in the bold and nervous diction of Potter. Though Cowper has been too literal in his Homer, and too inattentive to the melody of his versification, yet has he infused much more of the simple majesty and manner of the divine bard than his predecessor Pope, whose splendid and highly ornamented paraphrase is more adapted to the genius of Ovid than of Homer. It may with truth also be affirmed of Mr. Cowper's work, that where the Grecian takes his boldest flights, his Translator follows with a vigourous wing, and has given the sublimer portions of the Iliad in a manner equally faithful and spirited. That satiety too which is so frequently experienced in reading any considerable quantity of Pope's couplets, is not felt from the blank verse of his last translator, which possesses a manifest superiority in its variety of pause and rhythm. In fact, that plainness of diction which in the perusal of Cowper has given such offence to the fastidious, has been the result of mature judgment, for that the poet knew how to impart the most exquisite polish to his lines is evident from the specimens quoted by Mr Hayley of his version of the Latin and Italian poetry of Milton, than which nothing can be more musical and finished.
Of the Italian poets we possess also some good translations; the Ariosto of Hoole I think much superior to his Tasso, and the Inferno of that wonderful genius Dante, is well laid open to the curiosity of the public by Mr. Boyd; but no poet perhaps has ever been so greatly indebted to a Translator as Camoens, whose Lusiad in the very elegant and spirited version of Mr. Mickle, has perfectly the air of an English original; its defects are concealed or mitigated, while its beauties catch double lustre from the British dress.
A taste for Arabic and Persian poetry has been acquired through the labours of the Asiatic Society, and Sir William Jones has particularly distinguished himself by several incomparable translations of, and acute criticisms on the poets of the east. For many elegant Arabian poems also we are highly indebted to Professor Carlyle; unacquainted with the originals I am incompetent to judge of their fidelity, but as beautiful and exquisitely finished pieces they are entitled to warm commendation.
Upon comparing the arrangement we have thus given of the chief poets in the two periods, and of their principal productions, it must strike every reader that Mr. Headley has been greatly too partial to his phalanx of ancients. Let us for a moment reflect what various and exquisite poems only the last forty-five years have produced, and we shall be utterly at a loss to conceive how any author could assert that the "Key that oped the sacred source of sympathetic tears, seems now and has done for a century past irrecoverably lost." It is evident, I think, from the survey just taken, that never was there an age more distinguished than the present for poetic excellence in almost every department of the art, nor can the sternest critic who shall impartially compare the two tables, and recollect that the latter embraces only half the space of time allotted to the former, avoid acknowledging the great merit and lustre of his contemporaries. If in the Drama we confess the superiority of Shakspeare, in the epic field, having an Ossian or rather a Macpherson to produce, we are nearly upon a level, and in every other province a marked and decisive pre-eminence must be granted to the poets of the present reign. In the Lyric, Descriptive, and Didactic columns there can be no competition, nor can any, I should imagine be hinted at in those appropriated to Satire, Miscellaneous Poets and Translators.
In thus combating the opinions of those who have been solicitous to depreciate our present poetry, I have selected the text of Mr. Headley as conveying the sentiments of the whole body, and more especially as his general good taste might probably for a time even impart weight and consequence to a critical error. Of the Editor of the Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry as a Scholar, a Critic and a Man, I entertain a very high opinion; he was beloved by his friends, I understand, with an enthusiasm which his amiable qualities fully justified, and I have only to lament that his prejudices in favour of our elder poetry should so far have vitiated his judgment as to preclude any fair estimate ,of the value of modern genius.