Page images
PDF
EPUB

who died in 1742, in his thirty-second year, driven mad, and eventually sent to his grave, it is affirmed, by the inexorable cruelty of the lady, a Miss Dashwood, who, under the name of Delia, is the subject of his verses, and who, we are told, survived him for thirtyseven years without finding any one else either to marry or fall in love with her. The character, as Johnson remarks, that Hammond bequeathed her was not likely to attract courtship. Hammond's poetry, however, reflects but coldly the amorous fire which produced all this mischief; it is correct and graceful, but languid almost to the point of drowsiness. Gilbert West was born about 1705, and died in 1756: besides other verse, he published a translation of a portion of the odes of Pindar, which had long considerable reputation, but is not very Pindaric, though a smooth and sonorous performance. The one of his works that has best kept its ground is his prose tract entitled Observations on the Resurrection, a very able and ingenious disquisition, for which the University of Oxford made West a Doctor of Laws. Aaron Hill, who was born in 1685 and died in 1750, and who lies buried in Westminster Abbey, was at different periods of his life a traveller, a projector, a theatrical manager, and a literary man. He is the author of no fewer than seventeen dramatic pieces, original and translated, among which his versions of Voltaire's Zaire and Merope long kept possession of the stage. His poetry is in general both pompous and empty enough ; and of all he has written, almost the only passage that is now much remembered is a satiric sketch of Pope, in a few lines, which have some imitative smartness, but scarcely any higher merit. Pope had offended him by putting him in the Dunciad, though the way in which he is mentioned is really complimentary to Hill. A good view of the character of Aaron Hill, who was an amiable and honorable man, although he overrated his own talents and importance, is to be got from the published correspondence of Richardson the novelist, in the first of the six volumes of which Hill's letters, extending from the year 1730 to 1748, fill about 130 pages. Mrs. Barbauld, by whom the collection was prepared for the press, was not aware that in publishing two of these letters of Hill's, those inserted at pp. 53 and 55, she was letting out a literary secret. The letters, as given by her, are mutilated ; but they are in part the same with those published by Richardson himself at the head of the second edition of his Pamela, as from “a gentJeman of the most distinguished taste and abilities,"

an incomparable writer,” &c., in which both that work and its author are extolled in a way that must have left the most inordinate vanity nothing to desire. The laudation, however, as we see, was liberally repaid on Richardson's part: if Pamela was unequalled among books, Pamela's critic was incomparable among writers: there was a fair interchange between the parties. Perhaps, however, if it had been announced that the incomparable critic and fine writer was only Aaron Hill, the effect designed to be produced on the public mind might have been somewhat damaged.

COLLINS. SHENSTONE. GRAY.

By far the greatest of all the poetical writers of this age who, from the small quantity of their productions, or the brevity of each of them separately considered, are styled minor poets, is Collins. William Collins, born in 1720, died at the early age of thirty-six, and nearly all his poetry had been written ten years before his death. His volume of Odes, descriptive and allegorical, was published in 1746; his Oriental Eclogues had appeared some years before, while he was a student at Oxford. Only his unfinished Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlanders was found among his papers after his death, and it is dated 1749. The six or seven last years of his short life were clouded with a depression of spirits which made intellectual exertion impossible. All that Collins has written is full of imagination, pathos, and melody. The defect of his poetry in general is that there is too little of earth in it: in the purity and depth of its beauty it resembles the bright blue sky. Yet Collins had genius enough for anything ; and in his ode entitled The Passions, he has shown with how strong a voice and pulse of humanity he could, when he chose, animate his verse, and what extensive and enduring popularity he could command.

Gray and Shenstone were both born before Collins, though they both outlived him, — Shenstone dying at the age of fifty in 1763, Gray at that of fifty-five in 1771. Shenstone is remembered for his Pastoral Ballad, his Schoolmistress, and an elegy or two; but there was very little potency of any kind in the nusic of his slender

oaten pipe. Gray's famous Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, his two Pindarics, his Ode on Eton College, his Long Story, some translations from the Norse and Welsh, and a few other short pieces, which make up his contributions to the poetry of his native language, are all admirable for their exquisite finish, nor is a true poetical spirit ever wanting, whatever may be thought of the form in which it is sometimes embodied. When his two celebrated compositions, The Progress of Poesy and The Bard, appeared together in 1757, Johnson affirms that “the readers of poetry were at first content to gaze in mute amazement”; and, although the difficulty or impossibility of understanding them which was then, it seems, felt and confessed, is no longer complained of, much severe animadversion has been passed on them on other accounts. Still, whatever objections may be made to the artificial and unnatural character and over-elaboration of their style, the gorgeous brocade of the verse does not hide the true fire and fancy beneath, or even the real elegance of taste that has arrayed itself so ambitiously. But Gray often expresses himself, too, as naturally and simply in his poetry as he always does in his charming Letters and other writings in prose : the most touching of the verses in his Ode to Eton College, for instance, are so expressed ; and in his Long Story he has given the happiest proof of his mastery over the lightest graces and gayeties of song.

YOUNG. THOMSON.

Of the remaining poetical names of this age the two most considerable are those of Young and Thomson. Dr. Edward Young, the celebrated author of the Night Thoughts, was born in 1681 and lived till 1765. He may be shortly characterized as, at least in manner, a sort of successor, under the reign of Pope and the new style established by him and Dryden, of the Donnes and the Cowleys of a former age. He had nothing, however, of Donne’s subtle fancy, and as little of the gayety and playfulness that occasionally break out among the quibbles and contortions of Cowley. On the other hand, he has much more passion and pathos than Cowley, and, with less elegance, perhaps makes a nearer approach

in some of his greatest passages to the true sublime. But his style is radically an affected and false one; and of what force it seems to possess, the greater part is the result not of

any

real principle of life within it, but of mere strutting and straining. Nothing can be more unlike the poetry of the Night Thoughts than that of the Seasons. If Young is all art and effort, Thomson is all negligence and nature ; so negligent, indeed, that he pours forth his unpremeditated song apparently without the thought ever occurring to him that he could improve it by any study or elaboration, any more than if he were some winged warbler of the woodlands, seeking and caring for no other listener except the universal air which the strain made vocal. As he is the poet of nature, so his poetry has all the intermingled rudeness and luxuriance of its theme. There is no writer who has drunk in more of the inmost soul of his subject. If it be the object of descriptive poetry to present us with pictures and visions the effect of which shall vie with that of the originals from which they are drawn, then Thomson is the greatest of all descriptive poets; for there is no other who surrounds us with so much of the truth of Nature, or makes us feel so intimately the actual presence and companionship of all her hues and fragrances. His spring blossoms and gives forth its beauty like a daisied meadow; and his summer landscapes have all the sultry warmth and green luxuriance of June ; and his harvest fields and his orchards “hang the heavy head” as if their fruitage were indeed embrowning in the sun ; and we see and hear the driving of his winter snows, as if the air around us were in confusion with their uproar. The beauty and purity of imagination, also, diffused over the melodious stanzas of the Castle of Indolence, make that poem one of the gems of the language. Thomson, whose Winter, the first portion of his Seasons, was published in 1726, died in 1748, in his forty-eighth year. Two years before had died his countryman, the Rev. Robert Blair, born in 1699, the author of the well-known poem in blank verse called The Grave, said to have been first published in 1743. It is remarkable for its masculine vigor of thought and expression, and for the imaginative solemnity with which it invests the most familiar truths; and it has always been one of our most popular religious poems.

ARMSTRONG. AKENSIDE. WILKIE. GLOVER.

Among the more eminent, again, of the second-rate writers of longer poems about this date, the latter part of the reign of George II., immediately after the death of Pope, may be noticed Dr. John Armstrong, who was born in Scotland in 1709, and whose Art of Preserving Health, published in 1744, has the rare merit of an original and characteristic style, distinguished by raciness and manly grace; and Dr. Mark Akenside, likewise a physician, the author, at the age of twenty-three, of The Pleasures of Imagination, published in the same year with Armstrong's poem, and giving another example of the treatment of a didactic subject in verse with great ingenuity and success. Akenside's rich, though diffuse, eloquence, and the store of fanciful illustration which he pours out, evidence a wonderfully full mind for so young a man. Neither Akenside nor Armstrong published any more verse after the accession of George III. ; though the former lived till 1770, and the latter till 1779. Wilkie, the author of the rhyming epic called The Epigoniad, who was a Scotch clergyman and professor of natural philosophy at St. Andrews, would also appear from the traditionary accounts we have of him to have been a person of some genius as well as learning, though in composing his said epic he seems not to have gone much farther for his model or fount of inspiration than to the more sonorous passages of Pope's Homer. The Epigoniad, published in 1753, can scarcely be said to have in any proper sense of the word long survived its author, who died in 1772. Nor probably was Glover's blank verse epic of Leonidas, which appeared so early as 1737, much read when he himself passed away from among men, in the year 1785, at the age of seventy-four, although it had had a short day of extraordinary popularity, and is a performance of considerable rhetorical merit. Glover, who was a merchant of London, and distinguished as a city political leader on the liberal side (a circumstance which helped the temporary success of his epic), also wrote two tragedies: Boadicea, which was brought out in 1753; Medea, which appeared in 1761: they have the reputation of being cold and declamatory, and have both been long ago consigned to oblivion. He is best remembered for his ballad of Admiral Hosier's Ghost, which he wrote when he was seven-and-twenty, and was accus

« PreviousContinue »