Imágenes de página



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 i.. 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 memorable enchantments, not so much by the images it



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, accord

' ingly, have almost always been the warmest admirers, and the most liberal patrons of poetry. The smaller onlv — your Laureates and Ballad-mongers—are envious and irritable — jealous even of the dead, and less desi ujus of the praise of others than avaricious of their

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

But though a poet is thưs 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



| 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 fast dious style of composition, without



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



we at first regard them, and to lower our estimate of our own superior happiness and wisdom, so, a very ample and extensive course of reading in any department of letters, tends naturally to enlarge our narrow principles of judgment; and not only to cast down the idols before which we had formerly abased ourselves, but to disclose to us the might and the majesty of much that we had mistaken and contemned.

In this point of view, we think such a work as is now before us likely to be of great use to ordinary readers of poetry— not only as unlocking to them innumerable new springs of enjoyment and admiration, but as having a tendency to correct and liberate their judgments of their old favourites, and to strengthen and enliven all those faculties by which they derive pleasure from such studies. Nor would the benefit, if it once extended so far, by any means stop there. The character of our poetry depends not a little on the taste of our poetical readers ;—and though some bards have always been before their age, and some behind it, the greater part must be pretty near on its level. Present popularity, whatever disappointed writers may say, is, after all, the only safe presage of future glory ; — and it is really as unlikely that good poetry should be produced in any quantity where it is not relished, as that cloth should be manufactured and thrust into the market, of a pattern and fashion for which there was no demand. A shallow and uninstructed taste is indeed the most flexible and inconstant — and is tossed about by every breath of doctrine, and every wind of authority ; so as neither to derive any permanent delight from the same works, nor to assure any permanent fame to their authors ; — while a taste that is formed upon a wide and large survey of enduring models, not only affords a secure basis for all future judgments, but must compel, whenever it is general in any society, a salutary conformity to its great principles from all who depend on its suffrage.—To accomplish such an object, the general study of a work like this certainly is not enough:— But it would form an excellent preparation

« AnteriorContinuar »