David Carey prefaces his book of "beauties" (short lyrics and extracts from longer poems) with an allegorical vision in which the living poets compete for the laurel. After a somewhat elaborate narrative, the characters prove extremely conventional, though the essay does give an accurate sense of popular taste at the time. Leigh Hunt is omitted, one suspects deliberately. Spenserian poetry is scantly represented in the Beauties of the Modern poets, consisting only of excerpts from the fourth canto of Byron's Childe Harold and Campbell's Gertrude of Wyoming. The collection contains no pastoral poetry at all.
Monthly Magazine: "David Carey, Esq. has recently published a collection from the living poets, entitled Beauties of the Modern Poets; being Selections from the Works of the most popular Authors of the present day, including many original pieces, never before published. To this there is prefixed an Introductory View of the Modern Temple of Fame, as a sort of inspiring prospect, we presume, for the yet unfledged offspring of Parnassus. As there is very little art or judgment required to extract tolerably good poetry out of the voluminous works of contemporary genius, we have no hesitation in saying that it is well selected; but how far this habit of condensing the matter held as copyright by others, may be agreeable to book-law, and booksellers, is rather a more doubtful point. There is, however, no such dearth of literary genius, that we need seriously to quarrel about it" 49 (May 1820) 358.
After a visit to Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey, David Carey imagines himself falling into a reverie in which he is transported to the mansions of Apollo. He encounters the figure of Modesty, who permits him a sip of the Castalian waters, while explaining their various effects on different kinds of person. Modesty then accompanies him to the Temple of Fame, where several of the busts are discovered mouldering into decay: "The names of Shakspeare, Milton, Spencer, Dryden, and of Pope, were conspicuous for their brilliancy; whilst the Poets of Greece and Rome, Homer and Horace excepted, were growing very dim" vi-vii.
Upon inquiring about living poets, he is directed to a mansion of modern construction at a little distance, "a pleasing mixture of all the orders of architecture" in which each apartment is fitted out in accordance with the tastes of the inmates. It so happens that on this particular day, they are appearing in the Hall of Competition, in which laurels are to be bestowed on some of the living writers. They perform in turn, beginning with Thomas Campbell, and concluding with George Colman the Younger and Charles Dibdin. Carey, recollecting that he had himself been a poet in his youth, is pressing forward for a vacant crown when the vision disperses, leaving him, however, with the idea of producing a book of beauties.
I have often thought, notwithstanding the jealous dislike expressed by Plato towards the followers of the Muses, that the Poets have not been the least benefactors to the world. The pleasures bequeathed by the imaginations and the labours of the poetic mind, panting to mingle delight with its zeal for Truth and Virtue, and trying to erect a tuneful monument to itself in the bosoms of all who feel keenly and earnestly the charms of nature and the eloquence of genius, constitute one of the purest and most permanent sources of happiness which mankind possess. The Muses have seldom ceased to foster the tender affections, and to incite to praiseworthy and honourable actions. Independent of the stimulus breathed into the bosom of sensibility by the powers of high poetic fame, awaking the generous throb for Virtue and distinction, the fairy creations of romantic pleasure, the inexhaustible sources of visionary delight, which are the result of the poetic faculty, and are imparted to all whose conceptions are calculated to relish such enjoyments, are means of affording innocent gratification, for which the gratitude of society is due in no small degree to the fancies of the bards, though their toils have not always been well requited. For myself, (if I may be allowed to mingle with humility the expression of a testimony that may seem to savour of egotism) I feel that I am indebted to the Poets and the pages of romantic fiction for the purest and the most tranquil of my enjoyments, for mitigating many pains, and for preserving to me scenes and pleasures which would have otherwise fleeted away on the wings of the hours that are gone never to return. Amidst the beauties of the vernal season, when the flowers begin to solicit our love and attention, and the fields invite to survey the reviving face of nature — on Summer evenings when the air is fresh and clear, and the birds in the groves are chanting their farewell music to the setting sun — in the Autumnal alcove, when the leaves of the trees are rustling over the brook that is murmuring almost inaudibly by, and the glories of the sky are tinging and fading on the distant shore; or by the side of the Winter fire, when we are obliged to have recourse to the sources of mental enjoyment, and the page of fancy becomes dearer by the pleasures it supplies, it is delicious to muse over the works of our best bards, for it is then that we feel their excellencies most, and can appreciate the truth of their delineations.
Life, it is said, is but a dream. It is certain that existence is brightened by the power of fancy. I love to indulge in the visions where taste and genius come to chace away the shades of darkness by the light of their magical and delightful illusions. One evening lately as I rested in my arbour from the perambulations of the day, I fell into a sort of reverie, which furnished images far from displeasing to poetical contemplation. I had, in the previous part of the day, paid a visit to Westminster Abbey, where the names and monumental remembrances of many of the poetical ornaments of Great Britain, crammed into a corner, were brought into review; and hence my thoughts took a colour and direction corresponding with the impressive objects I had there been contemplating. A clear bubbling fountain played beside me, and a green hill rose in the west, on the summit of which the rays of the evening sun seemed to linger with a fond delay. Musing on the prospect, and the fairy visions which the spirit of poesy had diffused around me, after dwelling on the beauties of the bards, who have left this terrestrial scene for the regions of immortal light; and passing from these to the poets of my own time, insensibly comparing the latter with some who had gone before, I imagined I was transported to the celebrated abode of Apollo and the Muses. Methought I was placed in a delightful spot in the midst of romantic eminences, which rose gradually ever a beautiful and fertile valley; a small stream murmured through it, forming several cascades, the appearance of which was highly picturesque, and the waves of that water seemed of the brightest crystal I had ever witnessed. I knew by the music of the spring, the majestic ruins of temples that overshadowed the face of the rock whence the harmonious streamlet issued, and the statues placed around the fountain, cut as it were from the adamantine rock, and ranged in small separate arches, that I was in the region of Parnassus; though I was at a loss to conceive how I had been permitted to visit the sacred ground. The sides of the spring were ornamented with verdant ivy and a variety of beautiful flowers, which it was not easy to reach; and a large plane tree, the roots of which penetrated the fissures of the rock with its wide-spreading branches, threw a cool and refreshing gloom over the interesting spot. I eagerly approached the fountain, anxious to ascertain the quality of the water. I found it, however, much more difficult to obtain a portion of the limpid current than I had imagined. The approach was craggy and precipitous, and the waves seemed to recede from the hand like the sensitive plant. Having struggled through the narrow passage that leads to the spring, I found myself in front of the fountain. Here I was agreeably surprised by the appearance of a beautiful female figure, whom I mistook for one of the Castalian nymphs, or maids of the country, who had been making free with the Muses' brook. Not being provided with a vessel to contain the water, I begged a small draught from the urn of this fair Pythoness. She smiled at my audacity, and gave me to understand that she was no mortal fair, but an attendant upon one of the Muses. I was a good deal awed by this declaration, and the idea that I was in the presence of an immortal beauty, though she was but a handmaid to a goddess. Her name, I discovered, was MODESTY; and to shew my respect for her, I desired to be favoured with a portion of her inspiration. She permitted me to taste the water of the hallowed spring. To me it seemed to possess no unpalatable or unwholesome qualities, but I observed that several other persons who partook of it were instantly seized with a poetical frenzy, and left the place in a high rhyming disorder. The effect of the beverage, I was given to understand, depended upon the nature of the constitution of those who drank it; if vanity was a predominant quality in the brain of the votary, he was sure ever afterwards to make a noisy and frothy appearance. The satirists always pronounced the water impregnated with gall. One discovery I made, which was not flattering to the character of some of those who have aspired to the poetic laurel. I found, on inquiring the names of the persons who had visited, and been permitted to partake of the inspiring fountain, that many have boasted of having enjoyed that favour, who never were within the sacred precinct.
I had a strong desire to examine a spot so celebrated, and ventured to express this wish to the attendant goddess. I had no claim of merit to urge as ground for this permission; but the fair guardian of the brook said, that because of the love I bore to the favourites of the Muses, she would not only permit me to view the places of their immortal rest, but that she would herself show me the beauties of the poetical paradise. I expressed my gratitude as well as I could for this extraordinary condescension; and followed my benignant guide till we arrived at the fane or Temple of Apollo. This is what has been denominated the Temple of Fame, the wonders of which have employed the pens and imaginations of some of our best bards, particularly Pope, who was almost as careful as Cerberus, whom he admitted into the abode of immortality. Here, however, the meed of impartial justice was bestowed upon all who had claims to a place in the temple. Time had, indeed, a perceptible effect on the busts and names of some of the inmates, destroying and obliterating some, whilst it revived and brightened the appearance of others. Even the fabric itself seemed mouldering in several places. It was highly pleasing, however, to my national pride, to perceive, that whilst the proudest boast of Grecian lore was yielding to the corroding effect of years, and the increasing enlightenment of other states, the names that have illumined the pages of British fame by the splendour of their genius, and the renown of their achievements, seemed enshrined in imperishable glory. The names of Shakspeare, Milton, Spencer, Dryden, and of Pope, were conspicuous for their brilliancy; whilst the Poets of Greece and Rome, Homer and Horace excepted, were growing very dim. I expressed my regret to behold these marks of decay upon some of my old favorites, but I was desired to observe that the old stocks were surrounded by new shoots, which promised, in time, to give fresh beauty to the temple. When my eyes had run over the wonders of this venerable gallery, I ventured to remark to my fair attendant that I had heard much of the honours paid to the illustrious dead, and had now been a pleased spectator of the distinctions allotted to them in the palace of immortality; but I wished to be informed if there was no spot or honours dedicated to the living, and whether it was always necessary that a man should die, before he should he allowed to claim a niche in the Temple of Fame. The handmaid of the Muse, turning to me with a look, in which reproof was mingled with celestial mildness, desired me never to believe for an instant that the gods were unjust to any of their creatures, it was one of the most pleasing occupations of the guardians of mankind, and the patrons of science and of song, to record the progress of genius; for the triumph of virtue, and the happiness of human society depend on the success of mental improvement. She then pointed to a Mansion at some distance, entirely of modern construction, where she said I might probably find some of my acquaintances not forgotten in the reward destined for poetic genius. Pleasure and curiosity were excited in my breast by this information. The edifice alluded to seemed neat and regular in its form, and appeared rising between dark mountains, which sheltered it from unkindly blasts, and formed a barrier against the incursions of barbarians. The vale in which it was situate was as pleasant as that of Tempe; the grounds around it were well cultivated; flowers and parterres abundantly diversified the scene, and a rivulet supplied from the true Castalian, musically flowed in transparent waves through the middle. As I perceived from the smoothness of the way that led to the modern residence of the votaries of poesy, I should stand in no need of a guide, I gratefully bade adieu to the fair inhabitant of the ancient pile, who had condescended to be visible to me, and to the solemn shades which inclose the venerable forms of departed worthies. I fancied, as I approached the building of my own time, that I could discern in its construction a pleasing mixture of all the orders of architecture, and that the apartments of the different inhabitants might be discerned from the character of the inmates, for they seemed fashioned according to the tastes of the writers who composed the poetical society. As I drew nearer, I could plainly perceive several of the living poets drawing water from the stream, some walking idly about among the pleasure grounds, and others busily employed at the work of composition. Those who wrote for bread or money, laboured at the desk, as if they were carrying on a correspondence in Lombard-street, and seemed often at a loss for ideas and materials. These classes of persons were very numerous, and were allotted the ground-floor and garrets. Such as wrote for pleasure alone inhabited the middle part of the building: and those who courted only fame and the applause of posterity, occupied the more retired parts. The latter were comparatively few, and seldom appeared in public. All their works were recorded in the Register of the mansion; but only such as were approved by the great Tribunal, which was composed of judges selected from the public, were preserved. In the centre of the building was the hall of competition, where the annual prize of a crown of laurel, or a garland of appropriate flowers, was awarded to the candidates. It happened, by a fortunate chance, that the day appointed for this solemn ceremony was the very one on which I had been led to this poetical mansion. The examination had been going on, and some of the prizes had been awarded before I arrived; but I was luckily in time to hear the recitation of some of the pieces, and to catch a few of the beauties of these compositions.
The first that drew my attention and admiration was a bard of prepossessing appearance, whose countenance beamed with the fire of intellect, and expressed delightful anticipations of the treasures of hope. The charms of his composition I found to be a spell, which served to reader a few wild aberrations from the beaten paths of his predecessors and contemporaries, only appear like so many spots of wild and romantic scenery interspersed over the surface of a rich, verdant, and placid lawn. Sublimity as well as pathos were the characteristics of his muse, and the fire and zeal with which he espoused the cause of liberty and of man, elicited thunders of applause from the judges.
I remarked that the eloquent and impassioned manner in which he recited his own compositions, was infinitely superior to that of many authors, who are generally incapable of doing justice to their own lucubrations in this respect. His votive offering at the shrine of taste and judgment, though short, was universally applauded, and a laurel crown of perennial green was awarded to him, with which he modestly withdrew into the shade of retirement. This successful candidate I found to be CAMPBELL, the Bard of Hope.
He was succeeded by a candidate of equally interesting aspect; his countenance, however, bore the traces of premature and anxious thoughtfulness, but his was the thoughtfulness of a mighty mind, sensible of the crimes and imperfections of our nature, and depicting them in nervous and flowing numbers. He wore on his head a coronet, which had descended to him from his ancestors; but scorning to owe his fame to such adventitious honors, with true nobility of soul he aimed at superadding the laurel crown to his paternal distinctions.
With slow and solemn step he advanced towards the tribunal, and, with a seeming confidence in his own powers, as if defying the shafts of criticism, commenced his probationary recitation. He sung the guilty pleasures of youth, when left to its own untutored guidance, and depicted, with a fearful truth and terrible effect, the consequent misery and vacuum of the mind which is induced by the indulgence of the violent passions of our natures.
This poet, though favoured by fortune, and formed by nature to relish the enjoyments of life; though still in the period of youthful prime, when the spirits are light and the heart is disposed to be joyous and happy without enquiring the cause, delighted to indulge his fancy in pourtraying scenes of the darkest and most appalling kind, and to exert his powerful energies in exhibiting characters which are the reverse of those that dignify and adorn human nature.
The judges, whilst they shuddered with dismay at some of his pictures, applauded the bard who had embodied them into such glowing images, and painted the phrenzy and wretchedness that inseparably attend the victims of lawless and licentious passion as beacons to his fellow men. Whilst they bestowed upon him a wreath composed of the laurel and cypress tree, interspersed with the flowers that are sacred to melancholy and severed affection, inscribed with the name of Byron, they could not refrain from expressing their regret that one who possessed so much of the fire and classic taste of the Grecian muse, should not have employed his powers in the service of virtue, and in painting the loveliness of those pleasures and innocent enjoyments which leave no sting behind them.
Next advanced a stately personage, in the guise of a minstrel. His habiliments and antiquated manners seemed to have been formed on the models of the age of chivalry. He sung, to the sound of a small harp which he carried, some peculiarly wild and martial romances, which were well suited to interest and influence a warlike people. There was, in his manner and air, a sportive buoyancy, which shewed, that though he had assumed the garb of old age, his frame had not acknowledged the power of its frigid hand. He touched the strings, not with the constraint of art, but with the wildness and playfulness of nature, and in a manner peculiarly calculated to charm and to interest the young, the enthusiastic, and the romantic.
His tales of border feuds, of Highland forays, and his description of semi-barbarous manners, interested and pleased, whilst his descriptive powers were the themes of universal eulogium.
A crown, composed of the simple heath-bell and the thistle, enriched with gold and jewels, was vouchsafed to the bard, who was announced to be WALTER SCOTT.
He retired, expressing his grateful acknowledgments, and promising soon to present himself to the judges again in another guise.
The next candidate who presented himself advanced with a free and sprightly air. There was a soft, melting and amatory lustre in his eye. He commenced by reciting some Anacreontic odes. They were approved as equally ardent and tender, and powerfully excited the softer passions of his hearers. He next delighted the members of the tribunal with some gorgeous, striking, and critically correct descriptions of oriental manners, and the magnificence of the Sultans and Satraps of the East. To these he added some Hibernian songs, breathing a spirit of patriotism and of mournful recollections. He was designated by the name of THOMAS MOORE. A chaplet, composed of myrtle mixed with oriental flowers and shamrocks, was presented to this poet of love and tenderness.
After him, methought, came a personage of grave and somewhat dejected countenance. He recited a piece of his poetry, which breathed a strong spirit of liberty and hostility to the authority of kingly government; but suddenly stopping short, he bit his lip, and appeared as if he wished to retract his words; it was, however, too late. He then described with much felicity the revolting and sanguinary ceremonies enjoined by the religion of Hindostan; the last struggles of the Goths in Spain, and the heroine of France. He concluded by singing the praises of kings, like those who are habituated to tune their harps to strains of flattering eulogy, within the precincts of a court. He appeared already decorated with the laureate wreath, and therefore could claim very few further distinctions which the judges had to confer. Having ended his Carmen Triumphale, he was permitted to retire with this observation, — "that the place which he should hold in the temple of fame should be left to posterity." It was SOUTHEY.
Next to the Laureate appeared a serene and majestic figure. He was clad in the simplest manner, and the placid expression of his countenance intimated that lie was the votary of nature and of temperate desires; that the voice of riot and of irregular appetite was unknown to him; and that all was pure and calm within.
His compositions were extremely simple, and copied from the views of nature which were spread around him: they contained many of the essentials of true poetry. It was WORDSWORTH. He obtained a chaplet of lilies and daisies, and withdrew into retirement with a look at the world which shewed with what philanthropic benevolence he quitted its toils and turbulent pleasures.
The succeeding candidate advanced with a diffident but winning air, and sung the joys arising from the pleasurable recollections of a blameless life. He was much applauded. Having made a long pause, it was supposed that he intended to recite no more, but he unexpectedly produced a second piece, depicting in equally tuneful and beautiful strains the various stages of human life. This personage was announced to be ROGERS, the poet of Memory. He obtained a chaplet of unfading violets, mixed with classic flowers, and passed again into the trellissed bowers of elegant enjoyment.
Then advanced, or rather sauntered forward, a grave and melancholy figure. He recited various pieces, its all of which there were many traces of fervid devotion. He appeared as if he would have been content with a small portion of admiration; but the patrons of genius were so pleased with the unassuming character of this votary of the muses, that they concurred in awarding to him a title which conferred a pleasing sign of their satisfaction, as well as a very high moral distinction. This bard I knew to be MONTGOMERY. He took his departure with a look of religious humility.
Now came forward from a very inferior part of the building, a reverend looking personage, and with a firm and steady countenance, proceeded towards the tribunal. He was clad in the garb of a clergyman. His composition was strong, nervous, and pourtrayed in powerful and glowing colours the characteristics of rural and lowly life. He was loudly cheered, and invited to take up his abode in a more elevated part of the mansion. It was CRABBE.
A person, whose whimsical dress and appearance attracted considerable attention, next approached. His poetry contained many beautiful passages, but it was disfigured so much with quaintness of expression and metaphysical mystery, that he obtained but partial approbation. This candidate I learned to be COLERIDGE.
When these personages had passed in review, I marked a genius of lively, but philosophical mien, struggling through the crowd to get into notice. He seemed as if he had received the stimulus of his poetical feelings amidst the solitudes of the lakes, and I at first mistook him for one of the votaries of that school; but I found that he had only amused himself for a time amidst the inhabitants and the wild beauties of that romantic region. His muse now took a more lofty and distant flight, and he sung of the charms of islands embosomed in the deep, the creations of a fertile fancy, in strains which excited a degree of approbation that gave promise of a richer and more universal reward. His name, I understood, was WILSON, and he was honoured with one of the Palms which are considered as a symbol of superior merit. He withdrew into the shade, to strew the rugged paths of legal erudition with the more captivating flowers of poesy, and was followed by a number of votaries of the Muses, to enjoy the pleasures of his conversation.
Nor were the sallies of wit and humorous entertainment wanting in this consecrated retreat of genius. You might perceive pleasure in every countenance, and "laughter holding both his sides," whilst those comic followers of Euphrosyne, COLMAN and DIBDIN, indulged in the sportive effusions of their imaginations. Even the solemn faces of the judges were distended with "Broad Grins" to a most risible degree; and it was not until they had enjoyed the whole Budget of Wit, and laid aside their wigs and statutes, that they could decide on an appropriate reward. The candidates were at length distinguished by a wreath formed of the myrtle and the vine, and further rewarded with the power of killing care whenever that enemy of pleasure threatened to invade their happiness.
Several candidates afterwards appeared, but their compositions were of so inferior a description, that they were interrupted soon after the commencement of their recitations, and they could not command any degree of attention.
Though aware of the danger of incurring a rebuff, and of the extreme labour and superior attainments necessary to ensure success, I felt a strong inclination to approach the tribunal, and try the effect of the untutored strains of romantic feelings and of early days. My fond imagination already pictured a vacant crown, destined to encircle my own brows; and I began to chaunt some of the wild ditties with whose uncouth melody I have endeavoured to soften the rugged paths of life; but before I could ascertain the opinion of the judges, and receive the flowery object of my ambition, the effect awoke me, and lo! like the fleeting pleasures of sublunary existence, I found that the speculations in which my fancy had been indulging, were nothing more than the visions of a dream. The fabric of fame was dissolved, like the workings of fiction at the touch of Ithuriel's spear. I, however, took the hint thus suggested by the effect of the productions of genius on an enamoured mind, and have thus striven to collect into a narrow focus, some of the Beauties or excellencies of the poets of our own times; not doubting that what has already delighted the public, will please again, and that the real Tribunal which awards the wreaths of deathless fame, will bestow its approbation on these leaves from the book of living genius and the Muses.