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Specimens of the British Poets; with Biographical and Critical
Notices, and an Essay on English Poetry. By THOMAS CAMPBELL. 7 vols. 8vo. London: 1819.
We would rather see Mr. Campbell as a poet, than as a commentator on poetry :- because we would rather have a solid addition to the sum of our treasures, than the finest or most judicious account of their actual amount. But we are very glad to see him in any way :-and think the work which he has now given us very excellent and delightful. Still, however, we think there is some little room for complaint; and, feeling that we have not got all we were led to expect, are unreasonable enough to think that the learned author still owes us an arrear; which we hope he will handsomely pay up in the next edition.
When a great poet and a man of distinguished talents announces a large selection of English poetry, “ with biographical and critical notices,” we naturally expect such notices of all, or almost all the authors, of whose works he thinks it worth while to favour us with specimens. The biography sometimes may be unattainable
- and it may still more frequently be uninteresting — but the criticism must always be valuable; and, indeed, is obviously that which must be looked to as constituting the chief value of any such publication. There is no author so obscure, if at all entitled to a place in this register, of whom it would not be desirable to know the opinion of such a man as Mr. Campbell — and none so mature and settled in fame, upon whose beauties and
defects, and poetical character in general, the public would not have much to learn from such an authority. Now, there are many authors, and some of no mean note, of whom he has not condescended to say one word, either in the Essay, or in the notices prefixed to the citations. Of Jonathan Swift, for example, all that is here recorded is, “ Born 1667 — died 1744;" and Otway is despatched in the same summary manner — “ Born 1651 — died 1685.” Marlowe is commemorated in a single page, and Butler in half of one. All this is rather capricious: But this is not all. Sometimes the notices are entirely biographical, and sometimes entirely critical. We humbly conceive they ought always to have been of both descriptions. At all events, we think we ought in every case to have had some criticism,-since this could always have been had, and could scarcely have failed to be valuable. Mr. C., we think, has been a little lazy.
If he were like most authors, or even like most critics, we could easily have pardoned this ; for we very seldom find any work too short. It is the singular goodness of his criticisms that makes us regret their fewness; for nothing, we think, can be more fair, judicious and discriminating, and at the same time more fine, delicate and original, than the greater part of the discussions with which he has here presented us. It is very rare to find so much sensibility to the beauties of poetry, united with so much toleration for its faults; and so exact a perception of the merits of every particular style, interfering so little with a just estimate of all. Poets, to be sure, are on the whole, we think, very indulgent judges of poetry; and that not so much, we verily believe, from any partiality to their own vocation, or desire to exalt their fraternity, as from their being more constantly alive to those impulses which it is the business of poetry to excite, and more quick to catch and to follow out those associations on which its efficacy chiefly depends. If it be true, as we have formerly endeavoured to show, with reference to this very author, that poetry produces all its greater effects, and works its more me- · morable enchantments, not so much by the images it
DANGERS HE HAS ESCAPED.
directly presents, as by those which it suggests to the fancy; and melts or inflames us less by the fires which it applies from without, than by those which it kindles within, and of which the fuel is in our own bosoms, — it will be readily understood how these effects should be most powerful in the sensitive breast of a poet; and how a spark, which would have been instantly quenched in the duller atmosphere of an ordinary brain, may create a blaze in his combustible imagination, to warm and enlighten the world. The greater poets, accordingly, have almost always been the warmest admirers, and the most liberal patrons of poetry. The smaller only — your Laureates and Ballad-mongers—are envious and irritable — jealous even of the dead, and less desirous of the praise of others than avaricious of their own.
But though a poet is thus likely to be a gentler critic of poetry than another, and, by having a finer sense of its beauties, to be better qualified for the most pleasing and important part of his office, there is another requisite in which we should be afraid he would generally be found wanting, especially in a work of the large and comprehensive nature of that now before us — we mean, in absolute fairness and impartiality towards the different schools or styles of poetry which he may have occasion to estimate and compare. Even the most common and miscellaneous reader has a peculiar taste in this wayand has generally erected for himself some obscure but exclusive standard of excellence, by which he measures the pretensions of all that come under his view. One man admires witty and satirical poetry, and sees no beauty in rural imagery or picturesque description ; while another doats on Idyls and Pastorals, and will not allow the affairs of polite life to form a subject for verse. One is for simplicity and pathos; another for magnificence and splendour. One is devoted to the Muse of terror ; another to that of love. Some are all for blood and battles, and some for music and moonlight — some for emphatic sentiments, and some for melodious verses. Even those whose taste is the least exclusive, have a 6
CAMPBELL-FAIR TO ALL THE SCHOOLS OF POETRY.
leaning to one class of composition rather than to another; and overrate the beauties which fall in with their own propensities and associations -- while they are palpably unjust to those which wear a different complexion, or spring from a different race.
But, if it be difficult or almost impossible to meet with an impartial judge for the whole great family of genius, even among those quiet and studious readers who ought to find delight even in their variety, it is obvious that this bias and obliquity of judgment must be still more incident to one, who, by being himself a Poet, must not only prefer one school of poetry to all others, but must actually belong to it, and be disposed, as a pupil, or still more as a Master, to advance its pretensions above those of all its competitors. Like the votaries or leaders of other sects, successful poets have been but too apt to establish exclusive and arbitrary creeds; and to invent articles of faith, the slightest violation of which effaces the merit of all other virtues. Addicting themselves, as they are apt to do, to the exclusive cultivation of that style to which the bent of their own genius naturally inclines them, they look everywhere for those beauties of which it is peculiarly susceptible, and are disgusted if they cannot be found. Like discoverers in science, or improvers in art, they see nothing in the whole system but their own discoveries and improvements, and undervalue every thing that cannot be connected with their own studies and glory. As the Chinese map-makers allot all the lodgeable area of the earth to their own nation, and thrust the other countries of the world into little outskirts and by-corners - so poets are disposed to represent their own little field of exertion as occupying all the sunny part of Parnassus, and to exhibit the adjoining region under terrible shadows and most unmerciful foreshortenings.
With those impressions of the almost inevitable partiality of poetical judgments in general, we could not recollect that Mr. Campbell was himself a Master in a distinct school of poetry, and distinguished by a very peculiar and fastidious style of composition, without
EASIER TO BE FAIR TO THE DEAD.
being apprehensive that the effects of this bias would be apparent in his work; and that, with all his talent and discernment, he would now and then be guilty of great, though unintended injustice, to some of those whose manner was most opposite to his own. We are happy to say that those apprehensions have proved entirely groundless; and that nothing in the volumes before us is more admirable, or to us more surprising, than the perfect candour and undeviating fairness with which the learned author passes judgment on all the different authors who come before him ; — the quick and true perception he has of the most opposite and almost contradictory beauties — the good-natured and liberal allowance he makes for the disadvantages of each age and individual — and the temperance and brevity and firmness with which he reproves the excessive severity of critics less entitled to be severe. No one indeed, we will venture to affirm, ever placed himself in the seat of judgment with more of a judicial temper —though, to obviate invidious comparisons, we must beg leave just to add, that being called on to pass judgment only on the dead, whose faults were no longer corrigible, or had already been expiated by appropriate pains, his temper was less tried, and his severities less proved, than in the case of living offenders, and that the very number and variety of the errors that called for animadversion, in the course of his wide survey, must have made each particular case appear comparatively insignificant, and mitigated the sentence of individual condemnation.
It is to this last circumstance, of the large and comprehensive range which he was obliged to take, and the great extent and variety of the society in which he was compelled to mingle, that we are inclined to ascribe, not only the general mildness and indulgence of his judgments, but his happy emancipation from those narrow and limitary maxims by which we have already said that poets are so peculiarly apt to be entangled. As a large and familiar intercourse with men of different habits and dispositions never fails, in characters of any force or generosity, to dispel the prejudices with which