1807
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

On the Traits and Concomitants of Poetical Genius.

Censura Literaria 5 (1807) 401-07.

Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges


Writing as The Ruminator, Samuel Egerton Brydges updates Joseph Warton's Essay on Pope by presenting victimization as a necessary part of the character of the romantic poet: "Something romantic and uncongenial with the ordinary routine of life, marks the whole progress of their existence. Their lot, as far as wealth and honours are concerned, is obscure; and their efforts are attended with the smallest success." Somewhat incongruously to modern sensibilities, Samuel Egerton Brydges instances Spenser's fear of the Irish as an example: "The Fairy Queen must have been composed amidst perpetual alarms, in a country of barbarous rebels, impelled by want, revenge, and despair; in momentary insecurity...."

Joseph Cooper Walker to Mr. O. Rees: "I was lately indulged by a friend with a loan of the two first volumes of Censura Literaria, which afforded me so much pleasure that I now regret that I did not subscribe to the work. I think the plan excellent; and the execution does much credit to Mr. Brydges. Every lover of elegant literature must feel obliged to him. As a literary antiquary he seems to be indefatigable, and as a critic and biographer he displays admirable talents. I sincerely hope he may be encouraged to proceed with his undertaking. I understand he has commenced, or means to commence, a new series on a new plan. Will his new plan embrace very scarce works in the French, Spanish, and Italian languages, which have some connection with English literature? If you are personally acquainted with Mr. Brydges, might I beg of you to ask him whether any of the Egerton family ever resided at Handford in Cheshire?" 2 May 1807; in Nichols, Illustrations (1817-54) 7:755-56.

Nathan Drake: "To the man of letters, to the liberal and generous-minded critic, to the genuine poet, and the enlightened antiquary, the Ruminations of our author will be truly acceptable. They breathe a lofty tone of feeling, a noble enthusiasm in behalf of literature and genius; and though, occasionally, too indignantly querulous, they impress the reader with a high, and, I am confident, a just, opinion of the talents and virtues of their author. Very sorry am I to perceive, that the next number of the Censura Literaria will put a final period to the labours of the Ruminator, who, with the best wishes of every disciple of the Muses, has reached his seventy-second paper. I must add, that I am acquainted with no essays which display a more exquisite taste, and excite a higher relish for the productions of genius, than many of the numbers of the Ruminator" Essays Illustrative of the Rambler (1809-10) 2:482-83.

Robert Southey: "Let no one suppose that Sir Egerton is disparaged by being thus classed among the pioneers of literature. It is no disparagement for any man of letters, however great his endowments, and however extensive his erudition, to take part in those patient and humble labours by which honour is rendered to his predecessors, and information preserved for those who come after him" The Doctor (1849) 173.

The Ruminator's catalogues of versifiers and poets consist almost entirely of imitators of Spenser, and his remarks on Cowper, Burns, and Gray underscore the importance of "character" to romantic criticism. Worth noting too, is the his early nineteenth-century sense of who matters among critics: he cites James Hurdis where we would expect Coleridge, and Charlotte Smith where we would expect Wordsworth.




It has seldom happened that a man has finally obtained the fame of a poet, whose life has not exhibited some traits in coincidence with the character of his art. The Muse is a jealous mistress, that will scarcely ever suffer any other to divide the attentions she considers due to her. And whoever is devoted to her alone, must necessarily possess many peculiarities.

There have been some poets indeed, who have held forth, that their productions were the mere amusement of a few leisure hours. But such assertions originated from a silly and unbecoming affectation. To have a taste for poetry, and to read it with delight, even though it be only occasionally and accidentally indulged, is very common; but to create it, requires a very different sort of power and habit.

If therefore we examine into the biography of those, who have aspired to this highest rank of authors, we shall find that those, who did not make it the principal, if not exclusive, object of their ambition, were either mere versifiers, deficient in all the main distinctions of this celestial art, or so weak in execution, that all their struggles fell lifeless in the attempt.

Ansty, and Cambridge, and Graves, might write doggrel verses; and John Hoole, and Potter, and Murphy, and Carlyle, might translate; but I can scarcely allow them the character of poets. The Wartons, Mason, Burns, Bampfylde, Cowper, Hurdis, Darwin, Beattie, Mrs. Carter, Mrs. Smith, and Kirke White, &c. exhibit a very different picture. In each of these will be found many prominent and striking features. It will be perceived that those of them especially, who have most the power of affection the heart, were themselves the victims of extreme sensibility. Something romantic and uncongenial with the ordinary routine of life, marks the whole progress of their existence. Their lot, as far as wealth and honours are concerned, is obscure; and their efforts are attended with the smallest success. Some of them absolutely incapable, and others enabled with great difficulty, to emerge from the gripe of poverty itself, they seem almost to prove, that the smile of the Muse is a signal for being condemned to pecuniary embarrassment, or anxiety.

The abstraction of mind, which generates and nourishes poetical excellence, is inconsistent with those minute attentions, by which people make their way in the world. Liberal sentiments, an indignant spirit, and a tender heart are all constantly checking the progress of such a journey. But these are the very fountains, from whence the bard draws the living colours of his song.

Hence the mere harmonious rhymer, the lively delineator of familiar manners, the writer of dry ethical precepts, which address the understanding only, even in verse most musical, and diction the most correct, may, perhaps, assort more advantageously with worldlings, and succeed as they do. But he is not a poet; he is deficient in the soul of poetry. If the composition neither furnishes food to the fancy, nor elevates or softens the heart, the very essence of the Muse is wanting.

Nothing disgust me more than the vulgar habit of confounding the versifier with the poet. The versifier is a very common kind of being; the gift of poetry is among the rarest of Nature's endowments. It requires no waste of the spirits; no exhausting thrills of the bosom; no world-forgetting excursions of the imagination to produce thousands of the most melodious rhymes. But the temperament of a poet is that of passion.

Perhaps of all the lately deceased poets the two most popular have been Burns and Cowper. And never was popularity more justly bestowed. They had both of them been steeped in the stream of Parnassus. They lived, as well as wrote, with every mark of the Muse upon their daily habits. They were children of sensibility, which was the bane, as well as the source, of their happiness. Had they deadened this sensibility, by giving up their talents to worldly pursuits, they might have been lawyers, or statesmen, or heroes, but the well-fount of poetry would have been dried up.

It seems extraordinary that the Muse should be able to exert herself with success in the midst of anxieties, sorrows, and sufferings; but experience furnishes perpetual instances of it. The "Fairy Queen" must have been composed amidst perpetual alarms, in a country of barbarous rebels, impelled by want, revenge, and despair; in momentary insecurity; when a successful incursion of the threatening hordes who surrounded the author, would, even if he could save himself and his family from murder, condemn the remainder of his days to poverty and ruin. The "Paradise Lost" was dictated by the sublime and inspired bard, under the clouds of proscription and disgrace, with the sword of the state dangling, almost by a hair, over his head. It is probable that their deep afflictions heightened the strong colours with which Nature had imbued the materials of their rich minds.

These peculiar faculties therefore are, beyond doubt, a dangerous and fearful gift; and we may forgive, though we may sometimes indulge a smile of contempt at, the cold and prudential, who shake their heads and bless themselves for having escaped it. But he, who is so stupid and so brutal-hearted as not to behold it with pity and reverence, even in its errors and misfortunes, is a wretch who scarcely deserves the name of an intellectual being. I never contemplate the fate of poor Collins without a mixture of indescribable grief, and awe, and admiration. How eloquently and affectingly has Johnson said, "How little can we venture to exult in any intellectual powers, or literary attainments, when we consider the condition of poor Collins! I knew him a few years ago, full of hopes and full of projects, versed in many languages, high in fancy, and strong in retention. This busy and forcible mind is now under the government of those who lately would not have been able to comprehend the least and most narrow of its designs."—"That man is no common loss. The moralists all talk of the uncertainty of fortune, and the transitoriness of beauty; but it is yet more dreadful to consider, that the powers of the mind are equally liable to change; that understanding may makes its appearance and depart; that it may blaze and expire!"

It cannot be denied that this excessive sensibility is a blessing or a curse according to its direction. But the good and the evil are so nicely and imperceptibly intermixed, that rash or at least very bold is the hand, that will venture to attempt the separation of them, without fearing to destroy the good and the evil together.

Of our old poets the minuter shades of character have not been preserved. Of those of our days, of most of whom the curiousity of modern literature has drawn forth a more familiar and private account, all the existing memorials furnish ample demonstration of the truth of these remarks. I have learned from several who knew him intimately, that the sensibility of Gray was even morbid; and often very fastidious, and troublesome to his friends. He seemed frequently overwhelmed by the ordinary intercourse, and ordinary affairs of life. Coarse manners, and vulgar or unrefined sentiments overset him; and it is probable that the keeness of his sensations embittered the evils of his frame, and aggravated the hereditary gout which terminated his life at a middle age. He perhaps gave his feelings too little vent through the channels of composition, and brooded in too much indolence over the unarrested workings of his mind.

The sensibility of Rousseau was indulged to a selfish and vicious excess. But still it would be a narrow and despicable prejudice to deny, that it exhibited in its ebullitions a high degree of genius. Burke, flaming with resentment at the political evils produced by this eloquent writer's delusive lights, has drawn a just but most severe character of him. Yet Burke himself, whose radiant mind was illuminated by all the rich colours of the rainbow, had nerves tremulous at every point with incontrolable irritability.

There are many, who require to be convinced of these important truths; who ought to be shamed out of their mean censures of the singularities or the weaknesses of genius; and who should learn, if they draw comfort, to suppress their triumph, at the mingled qualities of the most exalted of human beings!

August 8, 1807.


[pp. 401-07]