1809
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

On the allegorical Style of Poetry of Collins; — with a Comparison of it with that of Sackville.

Censura Literaria 9 (1809) 414-23.

Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges


Following Lessing's views on the distinction between verbal and plastic representation, Samuel Egerton Brydges, who greatly admired William Collins's Odes, finds the allegorical figures too close to painting; the "Ruminator" contrasts a passage from Thomas Sackville's Mirror for Magistrates. In a passage in Brydges's novel, Sir Ralph Willoughby (1820), the poet Willoughby writes a novel "partly allegorical" in the manner of Spenser, but more in the manner of Sackville's Induction.

Brydges's Censura Literaria, the first of three bibliographic journals he would undertake, was less specifically antiquarian than its successors. It included original poetry by Brydges and others, and seventy-four "Ruminator" essays, most by Brydges himself.

Robert Pearse Gillies: "The Censura Literaria of Sir Egerton Brydges ... riveted my attention, every number containing, here and there, traces of originality and vivid feelings such as were little to be expected from an author who proposed to his readers nothing more than an antiquarian repository" Memoirs of a Literary Veteran (1851) 1:251.

Robert Southey to C. W. W. Wynn: "Longman sent me the 'Censura Literaria.' You seem to appreciate it accurately; yet, execrable as it is, it is, like Duppa's story of the bad weather, better than none" 20 October 1805; in Letters (1856) 1:341.

C. H. Timperley: "For this highly interesting series of moral and sentimental essays, we are indebted to the editor of Censura Literaria, in which miscellany the first number of the Ruminator appeared, and continued monthly" Encyclopaedia of Literary and Typographical Anecdote (1842) 2:832.

George Saintsbury: "Brydges's work, less popular [than Isaac D'Israeli's], is of a higher quality. His extensive editing labours were beyond price at his date; in books like the Censura Literaria much knowledge is still readily accessible, which can only be picked up elsewhere by enormous excursions of reading at large; and his original critical power was much higher than is generally allowed. Such enthusiastic admiration of Shelley as is displayed in the notes to his Geneva edition of the English part of Phillips' Theatrum Poetarum in 1824, is not often shown by a man of sixty-two for a style of poetry entirely different from that to which he has been accustomed. And it shows, not merely how true a training the study of older literature is for the appreciation of newer, but that there must have been something to train" History of English Criticism (1911) 392-93.




I doubt whether there are any poems in our language more elegant and highly finished than those of Collins. There scarcely occurs an imperfect line, a lame sentence, or a flat and improper word. They are perhaps more marked by the singular praise of being such as none but himself have produced than the compositions of any other author. On the other hand they are, I think, deficient in some ingredients, which constitute the very first charms of poetry. Let me be forgiven, if with a love of this great poet above that of most men, I endeavour with candour to point these out; while I trust I shall shew myself fully sensible of his inimitable beauties.

His Odes are principally descriptive of single allegorical figures. We know that in painting no subjects are more generally tiresome than these. Whether it requires too great a habit of abstraction, or whether the condensing into one person all the varieties of a passion, too much narrows our ideas, or whatever be the cause, it is certain that even of those who are pleased with such exhibitions at first, the major part soon grow weary. Collins's delineations partake of this defect; and partake of them the more, because he has chosen to delineate them too much in the manner of a painter. He has not sufficiently enriched his figures with sentiment; and with that expression of the movements of the soul, which the pencil of the painter, and he who is merely conversant with matter, can never reach. I do not mean that he has not gone beyond the painter; because a painter cannot exhibit the successive movements of a figure, nor place it in a variety of situations and circumstances in the same picture, nor express any of those invocations, which the dulness of the spectator will seldom be able to supply to the lips of the person worshipping the goddess which may form the main feature on the canvas.

But why should the poet so much curtail, if he do not entirely forgo, his superiorities? Why should he leave those paths, whither the painter cannot follow him, for others, in which the painter in some important points has even the advantage. The finest Ode of Collins, next to that to the Passions, is the Ode to Fear; it contains the strongest expression of the internal workings of the spirit of the personified being addressed: but perhaps even this sublime composition is in some degree liable to these objections. The animated and inimitable groups of the PASSIONS themselves disclose their characteristic impulses by action only.

There is I think another trait in the allegorical personages of Collins. They are almost too abstract; too far removed from human creatures; instead of earthly beings somewhat elevated and purified. I can more easily illustrate this by instances, than by definition. When Gray personifies ADVERSITY, he manages his invention in such a manner, as to give it more moral effect, and bring it more "home to men's business and bosoms," while his composition loses nothing of the poetical character.

But there is a poet, who appears to me to have given this moral cast to description of this kind beyond all others. The vigour and solemnity of his personifications, and the powers of his language are entitled to the highest praise, without reference to the age in which he wrote, while the fact of their having appeared two hundred and sixty years ago must excite not only admiration but astonishment. I refer to the INDUCTION of Thomas Sackville, the first Earl of Dorset, in the Mirror for Magistrates.

The poet is conducted by SORROW to the classical hell, the place of torments and the place of happiness, where he describes the dreadful group of beings whom he found sitting within the porch.

—She forthwith uplifting me apace
Remov'd my dread, and with a stedfast mind
Bade me come on, for here was now the place,
The place where we our travel end should, find
Wherewith I arose, and to the place assign'd
Astoin'd I stalk, when strait we' approached near
The dreadful place, that you will dread to hear.

An hideous hole all vast, withouten shape,
Of endless depth o'erwhelm'd with ragged stone,
With ugly mouth, and grisly jaws doth gape,
And to our sight confounds itself in one.
Here entred we, and yeding forth, anon
An horrible loathly lake we might discern,
As black as pitch, that cleped is Averne.

A deadly gulf, where nought but rubbish grows,
With foul black sweith, in thicken'd lumps that lies,
Which up in th' air such stinking vapours throws,
That over there may fly no fowl but dies,
Choak'd with the pestilent vapours that arise.
Hither we come, whence forth we still did pace,
In dreadful fear amid the dreadful place.

And first within the porch and jaws of hell
Sat deep REMORSE OF CONSCIENCE, all besprent
With tears; and to herself oft would she tell
Her wretchedness; and cursing never stent
To sob and sigh; but ever thus lament
With thoughtful care, as she that all in vain
Would wear and waste continually in pain.

Her eyes unstedfast rolling here and there,
Whirl'd on each place, as place that vengeance brought,
So was her mind continually in fear,
Toss'd and tormented with the tedious thought
Of those detested crimes which she had wrought;
With dreadful chear, and looks thrown to the sky,
Wishing for death, and yet she could not die.

Next saw we DREAD, all trembling how he shook
With foot uncertain proffer'd here and there:
Benumb'd of speech, and with a ghastly look
Search'd every place, all pale and dread for fear,
His cap borne up with staring of his hair,
Storm'd and amaz'd at his own shade for dread,
And fearing greater dangers than was need.

And next within the entry of this lake
Sat fell REVENGE, gnashing her teeth for ire,
Devising means how she may vengeance take,
Never in rest till she have her desire;
But frets within so far forth with the fire
Of wreaking flames, that now determines she
To die by death, or veng'd by death to be.

When fell REVENGE, with bloody foul pretence
Had shew'd herself as next in order set,
With trembling limbs we softly parted thence,
Till in our eyes another sight we met;
When fro my heart a sigh forthwith I set,
Ruing alas upon the woeful plight
Of MISERY, that next appeard in sight.

His face was lean, and some-deal pin'd away.,
And eke his hands consumed to the bone;
But what his body was I cannot say,
For on his carcase raiment had he none,
Save clouts and patches pieced one by one;
With staff in hand, and scrip on shoulders cast,
His chief defence against the winter's blast.

His food, for most, was wild fruits of the tree,
Unless sometime some crums fell to his share,
Which in his wallet long, God wot, kept he;
As on the which full daintily he would fare:
His drink the running stream; his cup the bare
Of his palm clos'd, his bed the hard cold ground
To this poor life was MISERY ybound.

Whose wretched state when we had well beheld,
With tender ruth on him and on his fears,
In thoughtful cares forth then our pace we held;
And by and by another shape appears
Of greedy CARE, still brushing by the breers;
His knuckles knob'd, his flesh deep dented in,
With tawed hands, and hard ytanned skin.

The morrow gray no sooner hath begun
To spread his light e'en peeping in our eyes,
When he is up, and to his work yrun;
But let the night's black misty mantle rise,
And with foul dark never so much disguise
The fair bright day, yet ceaseth he no while;
But hath his candles to prolong his toil.

By him lay heavy SLEEP, the cousin of Death,
Flat on the ground, and still as any stone,
A very corpse, save yielding forth a breath;
Small keep took he, whom Fortune frowned on;
Or whom she lifted up unto the throne
Of high renown; but as a living death,
So dead alive, of life he drew the breath.

The body's rest, the quiet of the heart,
The travel's ease, the still night's seer was he;
And of our life in earth the better part,
Rever of sight, and yet in whom we see
Things oft that tide, and oft that never be;
Without respect esteeming equally
King Croesus' pomp, and Irus' poverty.

And next in order sad OLD AGE we found:
His beard all hoar, his eyes hollow and blind,
With drooping cheer still poring on the ground,
As on the place where Nature him assign'd
To rest, when that the sisters had utwin'd
His vital thread, and ended with their knife
The fleting course of fast declining life.

There heard we him with broken and hollow plaint
Rue with himself his end approaching fast,
And all for nought his wretched mind torment
With sweet remembrance of his pleasures past,
And fresh delights of lusty youth forewaste;
Recounting which, how would he sob and shriek,
And to be young again of Jove beseek.

But, an' the cruel fates so fixed be
That time forepast cannot return again,
This one request of Jove yet prayed he,
That in such wither'd plight and wretched pain
As eld, (accompanied with his loathsome train)
Had brought on him, all were it woe and grief,
He might awhile yet linger forth his life;

And not so soon descend into the pit,
Where Death, when he the mortal corpse hath slain,
With reckless hand in grave doth cover it,
Thereafter never to enjoy again
The gladsome light, but in the ground ylain,
In dept of darkness waste and wear to nought,
As he had never into the world been brought.

But who had seen him sobbing, how he stood
Unto himself, and how he would bemoan
His youth forerpast, as though it wrought him good
To talk of youth, all were his youth foregone,
He would have mus'd, and marvell'd much whereon
This wretched age should life desire to feign,
And knows full well life doth but length his pain.

Crook'd back'd he was, tooth-shaken, and blear eyed,
Went on three feet and sometimes crept on four,
With old lame bones, that rattled by his side,
His scalp all pil'd, and he with eld forlore:
His wither'd fist still knocking at death's door,
Fumbling and driveling as he draws his breath,
For brief, the shape and messenger of Death.

And fast by him pale MALADY was plac'd,
Sore sick in bed, her colour all foregone,
Bereft of stomach, savour, and of taste;
Ne could she brook no meat but broths alone.
Her breath corrupt, her keepers, every one,
Abhorring her; her sickness past recure;
Detesting phisick, and all phisick's cure.

But O the doleful sight that then we see;
We turn'd our sight, and on the other side
A grisly, shape of FAMINE mought we see,
With greedy looks, and gaping mouth that cried,
And roar'd for meat as she should there have died;
Her body thin and bare as any bone,
Whereto was left nought but the case alone.

And that, alas, was knawn on every where,
All full of holes, that I ne mought refrain
From tears, to see how she her arms could tear,
And with her teeth gnash on the bones in vain;
When all for nought she fain would so sustain
Her starven corpse, that rather seem'd a shade,
Than any substance of a creature made.

Great was her force, whom stone wall could not stay;
Her tearing nails snatching at all she saw;
With gaping jaws that by no means ymay
Be satisfied from hunger of her maw;
But eats herself as she that hath no law;
Gnawing, alas, her carcase all in vain,
Where you may count each sinew, bone and vein.

On her while we thus firmly fix'd our eyes,
That bled for ruth of such a dreary sight,
Lo, suddenly she shright in so huge wise,
As made hell gates to shiver with the might,
Wherewith a dart we saw how it did light
Right on her breast, and therewithal pale DEATH
Enthrilling it to reve her of her breath.

And by and by a dumb dead corpse we saw,
Heavy and cold, the shape of death aright,
That daunts all earthly creatures to his law;
Against whose force in vain it is to fight;
Ne peers, no princes, nor no mortal wight;
No town, ne realms, cities, ne strongest tower,
But all perforce must yeild unto his power.

His dart anon out of the corpse he took,
And in his hand (a dreadful sight to see)
With great triumph eftsoons the same he shook,
That most of all my fears affrayed me;
His body dight with nought but bones, perdie,
The naked shape of man there saw I plain,
All, save the flesh, the sinew, and the vein.

Lastly stood WAR, in glittering arms yclad,
With visage grim, stern looks, and blackly hued,
In his right hand a naked sword he bad,
That to the hilts was all with blood embrued;
And in his left, that kings and kingdoms rued,
Famine and fire he held, and therewithal
He razed towns, and threw down towers and all.

Cities be sack'd, and realms that whilom flower'd
In honour, glory, and rule above the best,
He overwhelm'd, and all their fame devour'd,
Consum'd, destroy'd, wasted, and never ceas'd,
Till he their wealth, their name, and all opprest,
His face forehew'd with wounds; and by his side
There hung his targe with gnashes deep and wide.

In midst of which depainted there we found
Deadly DEBATE, all full of snaky hair,
That with a bloody fillet was ybound,
Outbreathing nought but discord every where;
And round about were pourtray'd here and there
The hugy hosts; Darius and his power,
His kings, princes, his peers and all his power! &c.

[Author's note: Mirror for Magistrates, second edition, 1563. But these lines are extracted by Warton in his History of English Poetry, which I did not recollect when I first began to transcribe them.]

The merit of these descriptions does not require to be pointed out. They seem to me more picturesque, and of a more sombre and sublime cast than those of SPENSER himself. I trust my readers will think they illustrate the point, for which I have introduced them.

To return to Collins. His imagination, if not always quite as moral or as bold as Sackville's, was eminently beautiful and brilliant. In the Ode to the Passions the personifications are exquisitely picturesque, animated, and appropriate; the language is so purely poetical and finished, and the harmony of the numbers is so felicitous, as to leave it without a rival; and indeed without any attempt at rivalry in its own class.

Dec. 14, 1808.


[pp. 414-23]