Poems (1802): Critical Review

Critical Review, series 2, 36 (Dec. 1802): 413-8.

A century ago–notwithstanding we had never been altogether without female attempts, and those occasionally successful–it was still thought wonderful in England that a woman should versify; her poems were ushered into the world under the patronage of the great, and prefaced by the praise of the learned; she acquired fame equal to her wishes; and it perished with her. The females of our own age claim a more just and durable celebrity. Miss Seward, Mrs. Barbauld, Charlotte Smith, will take their place among the English poets for centuries to come. Mrs. Opie’s talents are already known to the public. Her contributions to the Annual Anthology have been generally selected for commendation; and her ‘Father and Daughter’ has been deservedly praised as a novel.

            The productions of this lady are always in a melancholy strain, and therefore more effectually convey their moral import. What follows will not be read without emotions.

[quotes “The Dying Daughter to her Mother”]

            ‘The Maid of Corinth to her Lover.’ This is the longest poem in the volume: the story is well known.

[quotes from “Yes–I beheld thee … I saw the outline still unchang’d remain”]

This epistle is extended to too great a length; the prophecy of the progress of painting, and the vision, might have been well omitted.

            ‘The Negro Boy’s Tale’ is told in the broken language of the slaves; peculiarities of this kind always excite the reader’s attention; but when the language is thus dramatically preserved, the thoughts also should be in character. Zambo is too poetical.

[quotes from “Missa, dey say dat our black skin … De milk vidin be Zambo’s heart”]

            Many other pieces in this volume are alike excellent in their design. ‘The Address of a Felon to his Child,’ ‘Fatherless Fanny,’ ‘The Orphan Boy’s Tale,’ ‘Lines to the Society for the Relief of Persons confined for small Debts’–all these deserve to be mentioned with praise for the feeling as well as for the genius they discover.

            There are some defects in the versification of the following poem, which is perhaps the most beautiful in the collection:

[quotes “The Virgin’s first Love”]

th’ effect is too harsh an elision: it would be unpleasant in any metre, and is particularly so in the anapæstic.

            The songs are mostly upon the subject common to all songs; but they are not of common-place merit. Perhaps no language is so destitute of even tolerable songs as our own. The vilest rhymes that a Vauxhall verse-monger can string together become fashionable, and are committed to memory by half our women, if the composer have succeeded in his part. Music was once the secondary art, and became of consequence only when ‘married to immortal verse’–now verse is become the mere vehicle of sound; the nonsense of the nursery is set to music, and is not more nonsensical than the volumes full of love songs that load the harpsichord. Are we become more sensual and less intellectual? ‘Feare not,’ said Fletcher of Saltoun, “who makes the laws of a country, so I might make the ballads.’ But Fletcher was a Scotchman. Were we to arrange nations in the scale of intellect by the merit of their popular songs (and the test at first sight appears a fair one) Scotland would rank highest, and England last.

            In ‘Fatherless Fanny,’ and other pieces of the same class, there is a want of dramatic truth. Their characters speak with a refinement of feeling which cannot belong to them. Liberty of this kind is granted to poets; but this liberty too often becomes licence–poets and peers confess themselves guilty when they plead privilege in their defence. On the whole, we have derived considerable pleasure from this little volume.