Page images
PDF
EPUB

himself to his uncle at their meeting in the prison, which surely out-rants anything ever before attempted in decent prose or rhyme. Nor must that superlative pair of lovers, the vicar's eldest son George and Miss Arabella Wilmot, be overlooked, with the singularly cool and easy way in which they pass from the most violent affection to the most entire indifference, and on the lady's part even transference of hand and heart to another, and back again as suddenly to mutual transport and confidence. If Goldsmith intended George for a representation of himself (as their adventures are believed to have been in some respects the same), we should be sorry to think the likeness a good one; for he is the most disagreeable character in the book. His very existence seems to have been entirely forgotten by his family, and by the author, for the first three years after he left home; and the story would have been all the better if he had never chanced to turn up again, or to be thought of, at all. Was ever such a letter read as the one he is made in duty and affection to write to his father in the twenty-eighth chapter! Yet there is that in the book which makes all this comparatively of little consequence : the inspiration and vital power of original genius, the charm of true feeling, some portion of the music of the great hymn of nature made audible to all hearts. Notwithstanding all its improbabilities, the story not only amuses us while we read, but takes root in the memory and affections as much almost as any story that was ever written. In truth, the critical objections to which it is obnoxious hardly affect its real merits and the proper sources of its interest. All of it that is essential lies in the development of the characters of the good vicar and his family, and they are one and all admirably brought out. He himself, simple and credulous, but also learned and clearheaded, so guileless and affectionate, sustaining so well all fortunes, so great both in suffering and in action, altogether so unselfish and noble-minded; his wife, of a much coarser grain, with her gooseberry-wine, and her little female vanities and schemes of ambition, but also made respectable by her love and reverence for her husband, her pride in, if not affection for, her children, her talent of management and housewifery, and the fortitude and resignation with which she too bears her part in their common calamities; the two girls, sou nlike and yet so sister-like ; the inimitable Moses, with his black ribbon, and his invincibility in argument and bargain-making ; nor to be omitted the chubby-cheeked rogue little

a

Bill, and the “ honest veteran ” Dick ; the homely happiness of that fireside, upon which worldly misfortune can cast hardly a passing shadow; their little concerts, their dances; neighbor Flamborough's two rosy daughters, with their red top-knots ; Moses's speculation in the green spectacles, and the vicar's own subsequent adventure (though running somewhat into the extravaganza style) with the same venerable arch-rogue, “ with grey hair, and no flaps to his pocket-holes”; the immortal family picture; and, like a sudden thunderbolt falling in the sunshine, the flight of poor passion-driven Olivia, her few distracted words as she stept into the chaise, “O! what will my poor papa do when he knows I am undone ! ” and the heart-shivered old man's cry of anguish — “ Now, then, my children, go and be miserable ; for we shall never enjoy one hour more”; — these, and other incidents and touches of the same kind, are the parts of the book that are remembered; all the rest drops off, as so much mere husk, or other extraneous enwrapment, after we have read it; and out of these we reconstruct the story, if we will have one, for ourselves, or, what is better, rest satisfied with the good we have got, and do not mind though so much truth and beauty will not take the shape of story, which is after all the source of pleasure even in a work of fiction which is of the lowest importance, for it scarcely lasts after the first reading. Part of the charm of this novel of Goldsmith's too consists in the art of writing which he has displayed in it. The style, always easy, transparent, harmonious, and expressive, teems with felicities in the more heightened passages. And, finally, the humor of the book is all good-humor. There is scarcely a touch of ill-nature or even of satire in it from beginning to end — nothing of either acrimony or acid. Johnson has well characterized Goldsmith in his epitaph as sive risus essent movendi sive lacrymo, affectuum potens at lenis dominator — a ruler of our affections, and mover alike of our laughter and our tears, as gentle as he is prevailing. With all his lovable qualities, he had also many weaknesses and pettinesses of personal character; but his writings are as free from any ingredient of malignity, either great or small, as those of any man. As the author, too, of the Traveller and the Deserted Village, published in 1765 and 1771, Goldsmith, who lived till 1774, holds a distinguished place among the poetical writers of the middle portion of the last century. He had not the skyey fancy of his predecessor Collins, but there is an earnestness

and cordiality in his poetry which the school of Pope, to which, in its form at least, it belongs, had scarcely before reached, and which make it an appropriate prelude to the more fervid song that was to burst fortli among us in another generation.

CHURCHILL.

[ocr errors]

in our

But perhaps the writer who, if not by what he did himself, yet by the effects of his example, gave the greatest impulse to our poetry at this time, was Churchill., Charles Churchill, born in 1731, published his first poem, The Rosciad, in 1761; and the rest of his pieces, his Apology to the Critical Reviewers — his epistle to his friend Lloyd, entitled Night - The Ghost, eventually extended to four Books — The Prophecy of Famine — his Epistle to Hogarth

The Conference The Duellist — The Author — Gotham, in three Books The Candidate The Farewell — The Times Independence — all within the next three years and a half. He was suddenly carried off by an attack of fever in November, 1764. If we put aside Thomson, Churchill, after all deductions, may be pronounced, looking to the quantity as well as the quality of his productions, to be the most considerable figure that appears poetry in the half-century from Pope to Cowper. But that is, perhaps, rather to say little for the said half-century than much for Churchill. All that he wrote being not only upon topics of the day, but addressed to the most sensitive or most excited passions of the mob of readers, he made an immense impression upon his contemporaries, which, however, is now worn very faint. Some looked upon him as Dryden come to life again, others as a greater than Dryden. As for Pope, he was generally thought to be quite outshone or eclipsed by the new satirist. Yet Churchill, in truth, with great rhetorical vigor and extraordinary fluency, is wholly destitute of either poetry or wit of any high order. He is only, at the most, a better sort of Cleveland, not certainly having more force or pungency than that old writer, but a freer flow and broader sweep in his satire. Of the true fervor and fusing power of Dryden he has nothing, any more than he has of what is best and most characteristic in Pope, to whose wit his stands in the relation or

[blocks in formation]

contrast of a wooden pin to a lancet. The most successful ten continuous lines he ever wrote in the same style are certainly not worth the ten worst of Pope's. But, indeed, he scarcely has

anywhere ten lines, or two lines, without a blemish. In reading Pope, the constant feeling is that, of its kind, nothing could be better; in reading Churchill, we feel that nearly everything might be better, that, if the thought is good, the setting is defective, but generally that, whatever there may be of merit in either, there are flaws in both. Instead of there being nothing to be mended, everything might be mended. The ore, indeed, is hardly ever purified or properly extracted from the clay and gravel ; in no other poetry is there such an intermixture of the prosaic. But much even of the poetry is nothing more than an echo — an unscrupulous appropriation and parroting — of the phrases of preceding writers, often of such as had become universally current and familiar. What best suited Churchill was, for the most part, whatever came readiest to hand. Yet there was a fine animal spirit about him ; and, as we have said, his example probably contributed a good deal to give more freedom and cordiality to our poetry. But it was much as the adventurousness of a drunken man may sometimes inspire those who are sober. Cowper, who was at school with Churchill, and had a high admiration of his writings (some of which, however, that he praises most he can hardly be supposed to have looked into from the time of their first appearance), seems to have made him his model in some respects.

FALCONER. BEATTIE. ANSTEY. J. H. STEVENSON. MASON.

To the present date belongs Falconer's pleasing descriptive poem, The Shipwreck, the truth, nature, and pathos of which, without much imaginative adornment, have made it a general favorite. It was first published in 1762, and its author, who was a native of Scotland, was lost at sea in 1769, in his thirty-ninth

1 For a much higher estimate of Churchill's poetry than we have been able to form the reader may be referred to an article in the Edinburgh Review, No. clxiü., which is especially interesting for its eloquent and generous survey of the life of Churchill. See also Southey's Life of Cowper, vol. i. pp. 45–105.

BEATTIE. ANSTEY. J. H. STEVENSON. MASON.

307

year. Another poem of this age, by a countryman of Falconer's, is Beattie's Minstrel, the first book of which was published in 1770, the second in 1774. The Minstrel is an harmonious and eloquent composition, glowing with poetical sentiment; but its inferiority in the highest poetical qualities may be felt by comparing it with Thomson's Castle of Indolence, which is perhaps the other work in the language which it most nearly resembles, but which yet it resembles much in the same way as gilding does solid gold, or as colored water might be made to resemble wine. Everybody knows that, besides this and other pieces in verse, Beattie, who survived till 1803, wrote an Essay on Truth, and some other prose works, which everybody has long given up reading. The New Bath Guide, by Anstey, who lived till 1805, and wrote a considerable quantity of more verse, may be noticed as another of the poetical productions of this time which for a season enjoyed great popularity, though now neglected. It first appeared in 1766, and the edition before us, printed in 1772, is the eighth. The New Bath Guide does not rise or aspire to rise above a rattling vivacity, and has been far surpassed in brilliancy by later productions in the same style ; but it is entitled to be remembered as the earliest successful attempt of its class. Among the lighter versifiers of this time may be mentioned John Hall Stevenson, the author of the Crazy Tales, and other collections of satiric pieces, which are impregnated by a much airier spirit of wit and humor than those of Anstey. We may here also notice the celebrated Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers, which, with several other effusions in the same vein, appeared in 1773, and is now known to have been, what it was always suspected to be, the composition of Gray's friend, Mason, who commenced poet so early as 1748 by the publication of a satire on the University of Oxford, entitled Isis, and afterwards produced his tragedies of Elfrida in 1752 and Caractacus in 1759, and the four Books of his English Garden in 1772, 1777, 1779, and 1781, besides a number of odes and other shorter pieces, some of them not till towards the close of the century. Mason, who died, at the age of seventy-two, in 1797, enjoyed in his day a great reputation, which is now become very small. His satiric verse is in the manner of Pope, but without the wit; and the staple of the rest of his poetry too is mostly words.

« PreviousContinue »