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of a passion drawn from the living world, and though
changed and exalted in the poet's mind, yet bearing with
it, as it rushes out in his song, the imperishable elements
from which it was composed '/ Or does it not rather seem
to be the voice of a spirit which does not feed on the
breath of this world, but has thinly veiled from human
apprehension the thoughts and feelings of its own spiritual
being, in imagery of that world which is known to men?
And of that imagery how much is supplied to him from
other poets? We dare not say that nature was veiled
from his sight ; the feeling in wjiich he speaks is so tender,
native, and pure. He has caught from her hues and
ethereal forms ; but surely we may say, that he does not
speak as a passionate lover of nature. He does not speak
as one to whom Nature, in all her aspects and moods, is
health and life ; whose soul by delighted verse is wedded
to the world ; but by the force of its own inherent creative

330 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

power changes into new shapes, and brings forth into new
existence, its own impressions from outward creation.

A generation of poets has appeared in our day, who have
gone back to nature ; and have sought the elements of
poetry immediately in the world of nature and of human
life. Cowper was perhaps the first. The charm of his
poetry is a pure, innocent, lovely mind, delighting itself in
pure, innocent and lovely nature ; — the freshness of the
fields, the fragrance of the flowers, breathes in his verse.
His own delight in simple, happy, rural life, is there; and
we are delighted, as, with happy faces, and with endeared
familiar love we walked by his side, and shared with him
in his pleasures. How shall we speak of Burns? Of him
whose poetry, so full of himself, is almost one impassioned
strain of delight in nature, and in the life he drew from
her breast? Of him, ploughman as he was, whose en-
nobling songs have fed with thought, and lifted up with
passion, the minds of the high born and the learned?
But all the poets who now occupy the places of eminence
in the literature of the island, many and high in talents
as they arc, it may be said generally, that the great cha-
racter of their poetry is, that return to the great elementary
sources of poetry ; to the world of nature and liuman life.
Wordsworth searching deeply in his own spirit, the laws
of passion, and lavishing eloquence to delineate nature
with almost a lover's fondness; Scott, the painter of all ho
sees, and of all that his imagination has seen, who has
brought back departed years, and clothed them in the
shape and colours of real life ; Southey, with wild and
creative power, multiplying before our sight visions from
unreal worlds, but making for them a dwelling-place of
the beautiful and mighty scenes of our own, and ever
touching their fanciful natures with pure and gentle feeling,
springing up from the deep fountains of human loves;
Campbell, who seemingly .speaks but to embody ecstacy
in words, touching, and but touching, the forms of nature
and the passions of men, with a pencil of light ; Moore,
full of delight, and breathing in enchanting words and
verse his own delight, through all ears and hearts; Byron,
who — but suffice it for the present to say, that all these,
and many other writers of genius, though of less fame,


tlipir contemporaries have filled their poetry with the
passionate impressions which have been flung from the
face and bosom of nature upon their spirits, or have risen
up to them in strong sympathy with the affections and
passions of other men, or yet deeplier from their own.
Though there may be much in the poetry which this
age has produced, which will be condemned as false to
nature; and more, far more, which must be censured
and rejected, as violating the severe and high canons of
art — yet this must be admitted, we think, as a comprehen-
sive description, as its great and honourable distinction,
that it is full to overflowing of the love of the works of

The great diflerence between the poetry of Milton and
that of our own day, is the severe obedience to an intel-
lectual law which governed his mind in composition.
The study of his poetry would be as much a work of
exact intellectual analysis, as that of the logical writings
of Aristotle. It is evident that he was not satisfied with
great conception ; it was not enough that language yielded
her powerful words to invest those conceptions with a
living form. But he knew that when he wrote, he prac-
tised an intellectual art : — that both the workings of
imagination and the vivid impression of speech, must
be reduced into an order satisfying to intelligence ; and
hence, in his boldest poetry, in the midst of wonder and
astonishment, we never feel, for a moment, that reason is
shaken in her sovereignty over all the actions of the
mind : we are made to feel, on the contrary, that her
prevailing, over-ruling power rises in strength and ma-
jesty, as all the powers that are subjected to her kindle
and dilate.

Such a character in composition, testifies not only to
the high intellectual power of the mind which formed the
work, but it shows the spirit of the age. We are assured
by that evidence, if we had no other, that the age which
gave Milton birth, had cultivated, to the highest, the intel-
lectual faculties. We read, in his poetry, the severe and
painful studies, the toiling energies of thought, the labours
of abstract speculation, and long-concatenated reasonings,
which tried the strength of the human faculties in the

332 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

schools. Imagination has clothed that strength in her
own forms; but the strength is of that nurture. The
"giant of mighty bone" has heroic beauty; but the struc-
ture of his unconquerable frame is of Titan origin.

In the poetry of our own age, we miss the principle of
intellectual strength. The two most ])opular poets of the
day, Scott and Byron, arc, above all the known writers of
the country, remarkable for the confusion of intellectual
processes, and the violation of intellectual laws, almost
throughout their composition. They rest upon concep-
tion. Imagination and passion yield them abundant crea-
tion ; language, vivid and living, clothes the brood of
their minds in visible form ; and there is their composition.
Take their writings, and analyse them by any laws,
known or possible, of human speech, and you would
expel thought from them : there arc passages of great
splendour and fascination, which may be demonstrated to
be unintelligible. But what then ? The sympathy of a
reader is sometimes stronger than the laws of language.
He ivill understand. He asks satisfaction to his own
imagination and passion; and in the truths of imagination
and passion he finds it.

The fault is one which does not prove that there is not,
in the minds of both these illustrious writers, vast intel-
lectual capacity and vigour. But it does appear to argue,
that their minds have not undergone due intellectual dis-
cipline ; and might justify an observer in suspecting, that
out of the walk of their own genius, they would not be
found of formidable strength. But the chief deduction
from the extraordinary prevalence of such a defect in
writers of such pre-eminent reputation and favour, is intel-
lectual weakness in the age to which they belong. That
high ancient discipline of the intellectual |)0wers must
long have disappeared, when those who write for the
sympathy of the minds of highest cultivation, write in
fearless scorn of intellectual laws, and yet win the wreath
of the games.

This defect has not impeded their living reputation, but
it may possibly obstruct their future. We apprehend it
can hardly do otherwise than take from the authority of
their genius.


Now, in an age when so much true poetry — true and
high, with all its delects — blushes and breathes over the
land — a crop of indigenous flowers — there will be much
that is false and low, though with a certain show and
seeming of truth and splendour. Poetry is scarcely imi-
tation of Nature, so much as Nature's self; but there
will be imitation — skilful or unskilful — of poetry ; — and
thus the art of mimicry will be cultivated by hundreds
who, possess talent, but no genius. So is it with us of
this generation. The population of versifiers doubles
itself every ten years. They, too, belong to schools.
Each school — be it of Scott, or Wordsworth, or Byron —
is like a room hung round with mirrors, all reflecting an
Eidolon of a great master. The images — mere shadows
— are all alike; yet each pretends to think itself no
image, but an original substance. While often, to hide
from the world and themselves the utter hollowness of
their characters, they dress up the Eidolon in uncouth
and fantastic habiliments, and try to impose the nothing
upon our eyes as a something self-existent. But the
mockery and the delusion is seen through ; and such
apparitions are chased off the day into chaos and old

People, now-a-days, will write, because they see so
many writing ; the impulse comes upon them from with-
out, not from within ; loud voices from streets and squares
of cities call on them to join the throng, but the still small
voice, that speaketh in the penetralia of the spirit, is mute;
and what else can be the result, but, in place of the song
of lark, or linnet, or nightingale, at the best a concert of
mocking-birds, at the worst, an oratorio of ganders and
bubbleys ?

At this particular juncture or crisis, the disease would
fain assume the symptoms of religious inspiration. The
poetasters are all pious — all smitten with sanctity — Chris-
tian all over — and crossing and jostling on the course of
time — as they think, on the high road to heaven and
immortality. Never was seen before such a shameless
set of hypocrites. Down on their knees they fall in
booksellers' shops, and, crowned with foolscap, repeat to
Blue-Stockings, prayers addressed in doggerel to the

334 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

Deity ! They bandy about the Bible as if it were an
album. They forget that the poorest sinner has a soul to
be saved, as well as a set of verses to be damned ; they
look forward to the first of the month with more fear and
trembling than to the last day; and beseech a critic to
be merciful upon them with far more earnestness than
they ever beseeched their Maker. They pray through
the press — vainly striving to give some publicity to what
must be private for evermore; and are seen wiping a>vay,
at tea-parties, the tears of contrition and repentance for
capital crimes perpetrated but on paper, and perpetrated
thereon so paltrily, that so far from being worthy of hell
fire, such delinquents, it is felt, would be more suitably
punished by being singed like plucked fowls with their
own unsaleable sheets. They are frequently so singed ;
yet singeing has not the effect upon them for which
singeing is designed ; and like chickens in a shower, that
have got the pip, they keep still gasping and shooting
out their tongues, and walking on tip-toe with their tails
down, till finally they go to roost in some obscure corner,
and are no more seen among bipeds.

Among those, however, who have been unfortunately
beguiled by the spirit of imitation and sympathy into
religious poetry, one or two — who, for the present, must
be nameless — have shown feeling ; and would they but
obey their feeling, and prefer walking on the ground with
their own free feet, to attempting to fly in the air with
borrowed and bound wings, they might produce something
really poetical, and acquire a creditable reputation. But
they are too aspiring; and have taken into their hands
the sacred lyre without due preparation. He who is so
familiar with his Bible, that each chapter, open it where
he will, teems with household words, may draw thence
the theme of many a pleasant and pathetic song. For is
not all human nature, and all human life, shadowed forth
in those pages? But the soul, to sing well from the
Bible, must be imbued with religious feelings, as a flower
is alternately with dew and sunshine. The study of the
HOOK must have begun in the simplicity of childhood,
when it was felt, indeed, to be divine — and carried on
through all those silent intervals in which the soul of


manhood is restored, during the din of life, to the purity
and peace of its early being. The Bible must be to such
a poet even as the skies — with its sun, moon, and stars —
its boundless blue, with all its cloud-mysteries — its peace
deeper than the grave, because of realms beyond the
grave — its tumult louder than that of life, because heard
all together in all the elements. He who begins the study
of the Bible late in life, must, indeed, devote himself to it
— night and day — and with a humble, and a contrite
heart, as well as an awakened and soaring spirit, ere he
can hope to feel what he understands, or to understand
what he feels, — thoughts and feelings breathing in upon
him, like spiritual scents and sounds, as if from a region
hanging, in its mystery, between heaven and earth. Nor
do we think that he will venture on the composition of
poetry drawn from such a source. The very thought of
doing so, were it to occur to his mind, would seem irreve-
rent ; it would convince him that he was still the slave of
vanity, and pride, and the world.

They alone, therefore, to whom God has given genius
as well as faith, zeal and benevolence, — will, of their
own accord, fix their Pindus either on Lebanon or Cal-
vary — and of these but few. The genius must be high —
the faith sure — and human love must coalesce with divine,
that the strain may have power to reach the spirits of
men, immersed as they are in matter, and with all their
apprehensions and conceptions blended with material
imagery, and the things of this moving earth and this
restless life.

So gifted and so endowed, a great or good poet, having
chosen his subject well within religion, is on the sure road
to immortal fame. Ilis work, when done, must secure
sympathy for ever ; a sympathy not dependent on creeds,
but out of which creeds spring, all of them manifestly
moulded by imaginative affections of religion. Christian
poetry will outlive every other ; for the time will come
when Christian poetry will be deeper and higher far than
any that has ever yet been known among men. Indeed,
the sovereign songs hitherto have been either religious or
superstitious ; and as " the day-spring from on high that
has visited us," spreads wider and wider over the earth,

336 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

•' the soul of the world, dreaming of things to come,"
shall assuredly see more glorified visions than have yet
been submitted to her ken. That poetry has so seldom
satisfied the utmost longings and aspirations of human
nature, can only have been because poetry has so seldom
dealt in its power with the only mysteries worth knowing
— the greater mysteries of religion, into which the soul of
a Christian is initiated only through faith, an angel sent
from heaven to spirits struggling by supplications and
sacrifices to escape from sin and death.


(Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1837.)

It is remarked by Mr. Dyce, in the preface to his Spe-
cimen of British Poetesses (1827,) that of the selections
which have been made from the chaos of our past poetry,
the majority has been confined ahiiost entirely to the
writings of men ; and from the great collections of the
English poets, where so many worthless compositions find
a place, that the productions of women have been care-
fully excluded. It is true, he admits, that the grander
inspirations of the Muse have not been often breathed into
the softer frame. The magic tones which have added a
new existence to the heart — the tretnendous thoughts
which have in)pressed a successive stamp on the fluctua-
tion of ages, and which have almost changed the character
of nations — these have not proceeded from woman ; but
her sensibility, her tenderness, her grace, have not been
lost nor misemployed : her genius has gradually risen with
the opportunities which facilitated its ascent. To exhibit
the growth and progress of the genius of our country-
women in the department of poetry was the object of his
most interesting volume ; and he expresses an honest satis-
faction in the reflection that his tedious chase through the
jungles of forgotten literature — for by far the greater num-
ber of female effusions lie concealed in obscure publica-
tions — must procure to his undertaking the good-will of
the sex. For though, in the course of centuries, new an-
thologies will be found, more interesting and more exqui-
site, because the human mind, and, above all, the female
mind, is making a rapid advance, yet his work will never
be deprived of the happy distinction of being one of the

* The Birth-day, a Poem, by Caroline Bowles, now Mrs. Southey.
VOL. r. 29

338 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

first that has been entirely consecrated to women. The
specimens begin with Juliana Berners, and end with
Letitia Landon.

We are not going to give an account of this selection,
but having taken it down from Shelf Myra in a mistake
for Caroline Bowles's " Birth-day," — though 'tis bigger by
half — we have passed a pleasant hour in turning over the
leaves, skipping some, glancing at others, perusing a kw,
and sing-songing two or three by heart, forgetful how,
where, or when we had committed them to memory, yet
feeling they were old friends, and worthy of being wel-
comed the moment we saw their faces. Probably, till we
come near our own times, there is but little of what one
would call poetry in these specimens. The British poet-
esses seem a series of exceedingly sensible maids and
matrons — not " with eyes in a fine frenzy rolling" — nor
with hair dishevelled by the tossings of inspiration, but of
calm countenances and sedate demeanour, not very distin-
guishable from those we love to look on by "parlour twi-
light" in any happy household we are in the habit of
dropping in upon of an evening a familiar guest.

Poetry, or not poetry, such verses are to us ofien very
delightful ; and there are many moods of mind in which
good people prefer Pomfret to Pindar.

Why should we always be desiring fancy, imagination,
passion, intellect, power, in poetry, as if these were essen-
tial to it, and none were poets but those gifted with " the
vision and the faculty divine?" Surely the pure expres-
sion of pure thoughts and feelings — the staple of common
life — if imbued with a certain sweetness of soulfelt sound
beyond that of ordinary speech — coloured, if that image
please you better, with a somewhat greener light than is
usual to our eyes — is poetry. Surely they who are moved
so to commune with their own hearts, or with the hearts
of them they love — since forms and hues of sentiment are
thus produced that else had not been — are poets. There
is genius in goodness ; and gratitude beautifies the bless-
ings bestowed by heaven on the pure of heart.

There is Katherine Philips — born 1631, died 1664 —
known as a poetess by the name of Orinda. She was the
daughter of John Fowler, a London merchant, and mar-
ried James Phili))?; of tlie Priory, Cnrdigan. " Her devo-


tion to the muses," says Mr. Dyco, " did not prevent her
from discharging, in the most exemplary manner, the
duties of domestic Hfe." Doubtless, it assisted her in
doing so ; and therefore, though she was praised more
than once by Dryden, and was renowned by Cowley, a
greater glory was hers; for Jeremy Taylor addressed to
her his discourse on the Nature, Offices, and Measures of
Friendship. Anne Killegrew, a kindred spirit, immortalized
by Dryden in a memorable strain, says lovingly of her: —

" Orinda, Albion's and her sex's grace,
Owed not her glory to a beauteous face ;
It was her radiant soul tliat shone within,
Which struck a lustre through her outward skin;
That did her lips and cheeks with roses dye,
Advanced her height, and sparkled in her eye ;
Nor did her sex at all obstruct her fame.
But higher 'niong the stars it fix'd her name."

That she was very beautiful there can be no doubt ; yet
Orinda was celebrated against her will — for her poems,
which had been dispersed among her friends in manuscript,
were first printed without her knowledge or consent, and
the publication caused her a fit of illness. You wish to
read some of her verses 1 As you love us, believe them


" How sacred and how innocent
A country life appears,
How free from tumult, discontent,
From flattery or fears !

" This was the first and happiest life.
When man enjoy'd himself;
Till pride exclianged peace for strife.
And happiness for pelf.

" 'Tvvas here the poets were inspired.
Here taught the multitude;
The brave they here with honour fired,
And civilized the rude.

" That golden age did entertain
No passion but of love :
The thoughts of ruling and of gain
Did ne'er their fancies move.

340 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

" Then welcome, clearest solitude,
My great felicity ;
Though some are pleased to call thee rude,
Thou art not so, but we.

" Them that do covet only rest,

A cottage will suffice:

It is not brave to be possest

Of earth, but to despise.

" Opinion is the rate of things,

From hence our peace doth flow ;
I have a better fate than kings.
Because I think it so.

" When all the stormy world doth roar,
How unconcern'd am I !
I cannot fear to tumble lower
Who never could be high,

" Secure in these unenvy'd walls
I think not on the state,
And pity no man's case that falls
From his ambition's height.

" Silence and innocence are safe ;
A heart tliat's nobly true
At all these little arts can laugh
That do the world subdue.

" While others revel it in state
Here I'll contented sit,
And think I have as good a fate
As wealth and pomp admit.

" Let others (nobler) seek to gain
In knowledge happy fate.
And others busy thetn in vain
To study ways of state.

" But I resolved from within,
Confirmed from without,
In privacy intend to spin
My future minutes out.

" And from this hormitarjc of mine,
I banish all wild toys,
And nothing that is not divine
Shall dare to tempt my joys.


" There are below but two things good,
Friendship and honesty,
And only those of all I would
Ask for felicity.

" In this retired and humble seat,
Free from both war and strife,
I am not forced to make retreat,
But choose to spend my life."

She was cut off by the small-pox — so was Anne Killi-
grew (1655), daughter of Sir Henry Killigrew, Master of
the Savoy, and one of the prebendaries of Westminster.
She was maid of honour to the Duchess of York ; and
licr portrait, prefixed to her poetical compositions pub-
lished after her death, a mezzotint from a picture by her-
self, is at once a proof, says Mr. Dyce, of her skill in
painting. These lines are good.


" See'st thou yonder craggy rock,

Whose head o'erlooks the swelling main,
Where never shepherd fed his flock,
Or careful peasant sow'd his grain 1

" No wholesome herb grows on the same.
Or bird of day will on it rest ;
'Tis barren as the hopeless flame,
That scorches my tormented breast.

" Deep underneath a cave does lie.
The entrance hid with dismal yew.
Where Phoebus never shovv'd his eye,
Or cheerful day yet pierced through.

" In that dark melancholy cell
(Retreat and solace of my wo,)
Love, sad despair, and I, do dwell,

The springs from whence my grief do flow.

" Sleep, which to others ease doth prove,
Comes unto me, alas in vain;
For in my dreams I am in love.
And in them too she does disdain."

342 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

Mary Monk, daughter of Lord Molesworth, and wife of
George Monk, Esq., (died 171.5,) was a delightful being,
and thou wilt read, perhaps not with unmoistened eyes,
my Dora — these words of the dedication to the Princess of
Wales, of her poems, written after her deatlj by her father.
" Most of them are the product of the leisure hours of a
young gentlewoman lately deceased ; who, in a remote
country retirement, without omitting the daily care due to
a lai'ge family, not only perfectly acquired the several
languages here made use of (Latin, Italian, Spanish, and
French,) but the good morals and principles contained in

Online LibraryJohn WilsonCritical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 29 of 34)