1801
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Review of Sir James Bland Burges's Richard the First.

Monthly Mirror 11 (March 1801) 169-73.

Thomas Dermody


Thomas Dermody's extremely flattering review of Sir James Bland Burges's rather dull epic compares the poem to epics and romances ancient and modern, concluding that all the rules have been fulfilled in a poem nonetheless "completed with an enthusiastic rapidity." Dermody had been actively pursuing patronage from Burges, and may already have been in his employ when he wrote the review. Of all Dermody's patrons, Burges seems to have been the most tolerant of the wayward Irish poet. The review demonstrates Dermody's knowledge of eighteenth-century Spenserian poetry, much of it likely derived from his one-time schoolmaster, the Spenserian poet Henry Boyd.

The essay is signed "D." and can be ascribed to Dermody on the basis of his flattering poem to Burges, also signed "D.," appended to the flattering biography of Burges in the previous number. "Lines on reading Richard the First" is introduced with the comment that their author is "a young poet of uncommon merit, who is rising very fast into notice" 11 (February 1801) 77. Other verse by Dermody appears in the Monthly Mirror. By the time of publication he was nearing the end of his slippery rope: Dermody died, exhausted by dissipation, in July 1802; he was 28 years old.

Of particular note are Dermody's remarks about the Spenserian stanza: "It is composed in the flowing, and unrestrained stanza of Spenser, which we have ever esteemed the best vehicle of diffused sentiment and sonorous cadence, and peculiarly adapted to the purpose of translation, and works of any considerable extent. The concluding Alexandrine gives full scope to expression and is majestic and grand. This measure, we allow, is obsolete and rarely used, but its advantages are not the less obvious on that account; nor is even an old word, or epithet of more than usual sweetness and significancy, to be exploded, because it happens to be strange to the new-modeled car of a superficial redder, and discarded by the illiterate, but presumptuous dictionary-mongers of the day. An innovation, if it can be so titled, which has been authorized by the classic sanction of a Mickle, a West, and a Beattie, cannot be very modestly oppugned by the puny host, who soar in hexameter, or shine in sonnet" pp. 170-71.




The variety of extensive acquirement requisite for the formation and adornment of that noblest monument of the human mind, a complete epic poem, has been so seldom attained by the efforts of any one person, that the number of competitors, in that particular species of composition, is extremely small, and their success still more confined. The Greeks might produce their Homer, singly, against all competition; the ancient Romans their Virgil , and the moderns their Tasso; as, in like manner, the Portuguese might their Camoens, and the English their Milton; but to another class belong the names of such less qualified, though not less illustrious claimants, as Appollonius Rhodius, Valerius Flaccus, Dante, Ercilla, and the celebrated authors of Leonidas, and the Epigoniad. To attempt a minute disquisition into the genuine and indispensible powers of the epic poet, would be, needlessly, to repeat the decisive rules or accepted suppositions of Aristotle, Longinus, Bossu, the Daciers, and all their critical disciples. Though we are, decidedly, of Sir William Temple's opinion, "that rules never contributed in the least to the making of a poet," yet, as a standard of perfection has been appointed, and approved, by the unanimous consent of all commentators, we deem it proper that such standard should be observed to its fullest extent without the immediate appearance of a servile imitation. This exactitude of imitation has been, too often, unfortunately followed; and many eminent writers have, for that reason, incurred the restricted panegyric, or "faint praise," which Quintilian bestowed on Stesichorus, a copyist of Homer. We conceive the true epic to be, partly, historical, and that it actually demands some well-known, undisputed event for its basis, tho' it may be discreetly decorated, afterwards, with the fascinating graces of fable, not profusely lavished, but inserted with delicacy and taste. This judicious union of truth and fiction must be delightful, and the effect resulting from its harmonious proportion of parts irresistible. The mere historian, methodically informs us of distinguished characters that were in, real life, without any additional ornament; the poet places them in a novel light, by pourtraying them greater than they were, and casts a glory round their slightest achievements. Hence his labours are of a more imperishable nature than dry, circumstantial record; and hence, in another line, those stupendous luminaries, whose unextinguished brilliancy has enlivened posterity the most, such as Thucydides, Demosthenes, and Plato, were first kindled by the influence of the Muse. Of this superiority Zenophon's Cyropoedia is a splendid example. We shall now mention a luxuriant production, branching from the epic stock, which, has been recently particularized by the denomination of the Epic Romance. In it fable and fancy predominate, and Ariosto may, certainly, be applauded as its most attractive master, if not its primary creator. Innumerable have been his followers, but, in general, "haud passibus aequis."

To which of those classes the admirable poem, which we now undertake to review, most properly belongs, is no trifling matter of decision; yet, embracing, as it does, the prominent beauties of all, perhaps, it may be reckoned to pertain, with most accuracy, to the last. In point of subject it cannot be exceeded. A nobler hero than the "lion-hearted lord," Richard, who unites in his own person the separate excellencies of an Achilles and an Ulysses; the penetration and calamitous experience of the one, with the prowess, and heroic magnanimity of the other, could not be selected. The machinery, (which, in its management and introduction, is so arduous, as may be testified by the violent strictures on that part of the Henriade, some of them impartial and well-founded enough,) is highly appropriate to that age of superstition, in which the business of the piece is placed. Satanic machination, to such as have studied the progress of the Croisade, will not appear even quite improbable; at least, in this instance, the boundaries of formal belief may be transgressed with the most pardonable audacity. The costume and character of those remote times are well preserved throughout, certainly, with the guidance and aid of the old Chroniclers, to whose assiduity and observation, tho' often frivolous, and always uncouth, the genius of chivalry is deeply indebted. Little thought those venerable monks that they were enditing materials for the future amusement of our children of infidelity and fashion! — To expatiate on the happy conception of each individual personage, and distinct episode, would he to exceed the circumscribed limits of our publication; we regret this insuperable bar to a more dilated investigation, and must, of course, leave many of its most finished features unnoticed, to remark the style and metrical structure of the poem. It is composed in the flowing, and unrestrained stanza of Spenser, which we have ever esteemed the best vehicle of diffused sentiment and sonorous cadence, and peculiarly adapted to the purpose of translation, and works of any considerable extent. The concluding Alexandrine gives full scope to expression and is majestic and grand. This measure, we allow, is obsolete and rarely used, but its advantages are not the less obvious on that account; nor is even an old word, or epithet of more than usual sweetness and significancy, to be exploded, because it happens to be strange to the new-modeled car of a superficial redder, and discarded by the illiterate, but presumptuous dictionary-mongers of the day. An innovation, if it can be so titled, which has been authorized by the classic sanction of a Mickle, a West, and a Beattie, cannot be very modestly oppugned by the puny host, who soar in hexameter, or shine in sonnet. Some of our ancient phrases are eminently figurative and striking; we, therefore, see no objection why these beautiful flowers may not be transplanted, and cherished, with impunity. Perhaps the English language, at present, is too refined; much of its rude but masculine energy lost; and, perhaps, it also requires some adventitious vigour to strengthen its approaching effeminacy. A man might be witty on the revised, and reformed, and reorganized editions of our literary grandsires; and such mutilated modernizations might not be inaptly termed, The Castrations of Cowley, Crashaw, &c. &c. Upon the whole, there is a determined crisis, which when once gained, by any language, cannot be exceeded, but may degenerate, as evinced both by Greece and Rome; the style of Plutarch being as impure and corrupt, in comparison of that of Plato, as is the style of Juvenal, or Lucan, compared with that of Horace, Catullus, Virgil. Having thus far endeavoured to present a systematic, tho' short survey of the whole, we shall next exhibit a few passages, not. perhaps, the most distinguishable, but sufficient to corroborate our assertions. The following lines, descriptive of a regal banquet, may serve as a definitive specimen of lofty diction, accurate delineation, and striking design.

The herald's voice was heard the Peers to call,
A full and solemn festival to hold,
With more than 'custom'd state, in Rufus' hall.
Thither repair'd the Knights and Barons bold;
Their well-plum'd casques, their surcoats rich with gold,
Their gorgeous mails, magnificently shew'd:
While from the roof, triumphantly unroll'd,
Full many a Saracenic standard flow'd,
And heaps of Pagan spoils with gems resplendent glow'd.

High at the end, in seemly state was plac'd,
Fronting the northern gate, the royal throne,
Again by England's rightful Monarch grac'd.
On either hand a princely group was shewn:
Beauty might there herself reflected own;
There loveliness personified was seen,
And breathing sweetness youth and nature shone;
All whose perfections could adorn the scene,
From charms just beaming love to England's peerless Queen.

There valour too it's due precedence found:
The brave assertors of religion there,
Array'd in gay habiliments, around
The ample range forgot their former care,
And, intermingling with th' assemblage fair,
The pow'r of female excellence confess'd.
Each Chief was seen his lady's colours wear,
And, as with modest warmth his suit he press'd,
A sweet responsive glance his honest ardour bless'd.

The high roof echo'd with the trumpet's note,
O'er it's wide arch the sounds of gladness pour'd,
And joy on Zephyr's pinions seem'd to float:
In rich profusion, the capacious board
With all which appetite could tempt was stor'd,
With all which art or fancy could combine,
And all which bounteous nature could afford,
With goblets huge of hypocras and wine,
Pure as the nectar'd juice which greets Jove's guests divine.
Book XIII.

The sullen solemnity of the flight of the Daemons merits particular admiration, tho' our extract must, only serve to point out the passage.

Soaring reluctant thro' the troubled sky,
'Mid the dark regions of void space they pass'd,
Which never had explor'd created eye,
But from whose range, indefinitely vast,
Imagination sick'ning shrank aghast.
Now rag'd around them winds with fury dire,
Now black'ning waters, now the thunder's blast: &c. &c.
Ibid.

Before we conclude, it is necessary to observe that the author has displayed an amazing fund of abstracted erudition, and elegant research, throughout his entire performance; indeed, no performance of recent date, can boast an equal portion. Correctness and perspicuity are, likewise, discernible; which do not frequently occur in a production of such extent, and complicated contrivance; and am more remarkable, as we have been informed that the last books were completed with an enthusiastic rapidity. Being a man of fortune, and, consequently, possessed of learned leisure, a lot not so common to other poets, our admiration may be abated, but cannot he annihilated, by that circumstance. It was said of an ancient bard, and may be now applied anew,

Such was his genius, like the quick eye's wink,
He could write sooner than another think,
His play was fancy's flame, a lightning wit,
So shot, that it could sooner pierce than hit.

We sincerely wish that a work of such national importance, which not only reflects credit on the author, but, likewise, on the kingdom which produced that author and his subject, may awaken, from their lethargic indifference, some men of superior talents, who,, sheltered in the bosom of affluence, and, as Voltaire expresses it, "nourished by the flowers of the Belles Lettres," are qualified to exalt the glory of their native land, without deducing any excuse for their intellectual imbecility from the unfavourable countenance, of the times, from the cold depression of unregarded penury, or the supercilious inattention of protracted patronage.


[pp. 169-73]