Poems (1802): Edinburgh Review

Edinburgh Review, 1 (Oct. 1802): 113-21.

THE anxiety of a young writer, who yields, with trembling hands, the first production of his genius, to the survey of a world, unknown to him in all but this one fearful circumstance, that the praise, of which he is ambitious, and the neglect or scorn which he dreads, are dependent on its voice, whether of judgment or caprice, is a feeling that requires, for compensation, a large share of the fame, which it is probably never to receive; as, however great the multitude who have shared alike the misery of expectation, the happy recompense must belong only to a few.  Yet, there is a feeling, perhaps more painful than this first anxiety, when the young writer of a work which has raised him to popularity, submits his powers a second time to criticism, of which he has already exhausted the indulgence, and which now expects to applaud, rather than to forgive.  The favour excited by past excellence, is a favour which requires progression in its object; and though, in some, it may be the heedless partiality of friendship, is, in those higher minds that may be considered as representing posterity, more like the interest felt by an upright judge, which, though it allow him to delight in merited acquittal, never induces him to palliate guilt, but rather to consider delinquency as aggravated by the previous character of the culprit.  There is, besides, an innocent selfishness, which modifies our opinions by an influence unperceived, and persuades us, that success is more difficult of attainment, because we have ourselves succeeded.  It is not so much, however, in this imagined increase of difficulty, as in the actual increase of penalty, that the evil of reputation is felt by the fortunate.  It is now no longer a simple, and almost unknown failure, which he has to dread.  He has brought a multitude around him by his triumph; and a failure would now have all the disgrace of degradation.  There has not been a single voice of applause, that would not add to his remembrance its whole weight of ignominy; and amid the variety of possible sentences, there is thus only one to which he can look with desire, because all those less degrees of praise, which would have satisfied his humbler ambition, must now be accompanied with the mortifying ideas, of disappointment in his readers, and of inferiority in himself.

            It was probably with feeling similar to those we have described that Mrs Opie committed to the world her volumes of poems.  To a very large number of readers, “The Father and Daughter” had already made its appearance a promise of much delight.  That it has completely satisfied the expectations which her novel had excited in us, we will not say.  It would be, at best, an ambiguous compliment; and preferring therefore an opinion, which has no reference to the past, we are ready to admit, that her volume of poems has afforded us much pleasure, and that it would have obtained for its author a very considerable reputation, though her former work had been wholly unknown.

            But, while we thus express our praise of Mrs Opie’s miscellany, we do not wish it to be considered as applicable to the whole, or even to the greater number, of the pieces of which it consists.  These are of very various species of composition, and are perhaps still more different, in merit, than in subject.  In the tender song of sentiment and pathos, there is uncommon elegance; but, in pieces of greater length, which require dignity, or even terseness of expression, and an easy development of thoughts, which rise complicated in the moment of fancy, there is a dissimilarity of character, in every respect, which contrasts, without relieving, the sweetness of the simpler pictures.  Mrs. Opie’s mind is evidently more adapted to seize situation, than to combine incidents. It can represent, with powerful expression, the solitary portrait, in every attitude of gentler grief; but it cannot bring together a connected assemblage of figures, and represent each in its most striking situation, so as to give, as it were, to the glance of a moment, the events and the feelings of many years. When a series of reflections is to be brought by her to our view, they must all be of that immediate relation, which allows them to be introduced at any part of the poem, or we shall probably see before us a multitude, rather than a group. She is therefore wholly unfit for that poetry, which endeavours to reason, while it pleases; and powerful as she is in solitary pathos, we do not think that she is well fitted for bringing before us the connected griefs and characters of the drama. She has, indeed, written a novel; and it is one which excites a very high interest: But the merit of that novel does not consist in its action, nor in any varied exhibition of character. Agnes, in all the sad changes of her fortune, is still the same: and the action, if we except a very few situations of the highest excitement, is the common history of every seduction in romance. Indeed, we are almost tempted to believe, that the scene in the wood occurred first to the casual conception of the author, and that, in the design of fully displaying it, all the other events of the novel were afterwards imagined.

            But Mrs. Opie’s novel is not under our criticism; and the character of her powers may be sufficiently ascertained, in the variety which her volume before us presents. She has attempted the gay anacreontic; she has only expressed a very common thought, in a very common manner, p. 47 [Song–“Bring the song, and join in chorus”].  She has attempted the song of sportive humour; and, if things unexisting could be stolen, she might almost be suspected of having pilfered one of the futurities of Vauxhall, p. 105 [Song–“A youth for Jane with ardour sighed”]. She has attempted a long Ovidian epistle in elegiac verse; and in the dull and feeble detail which it presents, she has made us feel doubly the dull solemnity of the measure, p. 15 [“Epistle supposed to be addressed by Eudora, the Maid of Corinth, to her lover Philemon”].  She has attempted blank verse, p. 135 [“Consumption”]; but with the real music of blank verse she is wholly unacquainted; From its uniformity of pause, it is nothing more than the regular couplet, with a perpetual disappointment of rhyme. The regular heroic couplet she has also attempted; but a line of ten syllables is too large for the grasp of her delicate fingers; and she spans her way along, with an awkward and feeble weariness, whenever she lays aside the smaller verse. It is in the smaller verse of eight syllables, which requires no pomp of sound, and in the simple tenderness, or simple grief, to which the artlessness of such numbers is best suited, that the power of Mrs. Opie’s poetry consists: And, unsparing as our friendly criticism may have appeared, in its censure of the trials which it deemed injudicious, we are happy that she has enabled us to make atonement, by our just praise of those pieces which accord better with the character of her imagination. The verses of feeling on which she must rely for the establishment of her fame, are certainly among the best in our opuscular poetry.  As a specimen, we select the following song, which is scarcely surpassed by any in our language–

[quotes “Go, youth beloved, in distant glades”]

            The first verse of the second stanza is perhaps too much dilated, in expression, or rather too feeble in its syllabic flow. But the simple emphasis of the last line of each stanza, and particularly the thought which introduces it at the conclusion of the whole, have a truth of tenderness which will be acknowledged and loved by the rudest, as well as by the most cultivated apprehension.

            Mrs. Opie, if she have rightly learned her own powers, will forgive us for illustrating, by specimens of an opposite nature, our unfavourable opinion of her heroic verse. The following is a part of an ‘Epistle fo a Friend on New-Year’s Day.’

[quotes “But scorn not thou the sorrows of the muse … Must my confession with contempt behold.”]

            Of the Duke of Bedford she says that, had Mr Burke lived a few years longer, he would hve changed his contemptuous opinion, and joined in lamenting his Grace’s death.

                        ‘Thy “few and idle years” no longer scorn’d,

                        But as a public loss thy death be mourn’d’  p. 191.

            And a very charitable society she thus addresses, with much praise, but with little poetry.

                        ‘If Rome to him a civic garland gave,

                        Who of one citizen the life could save,

                        What should your grateful country give to you?

                        What to your patriot services is due?

                        From you, Society true aid derives;

                        Your timely bounty saves unnumbered lives.’  p. 168.

            That the lines we have just quoted were written by the author of the preceding song, it would not have been easy for us to believe, if we had not known, that the powers of poetry and prose are not more different, than the powers which enable a writer to excel in the two great classes of poetry; and it is probably because Mrs Opie has not succeeded in verses of dignity and reflection, that she has succeeded in the verses of simple feeling. He whose taste has been long habituated to the full majesty of heroic versification, and to all the rhetorical ornaments of figurative poetry, is, by the very circumstance of the pomp to which he has been accustomed, less fitted for the exhibition of a simple thought in numbers as simple; since the humbleness of phraseology and of sound, which he before despised, is now a perfection, which he must studiously elaborate. Such a thought would be to him, what a Scottish or Irish melody is to a bravura singer: In the execution of the one, we should see poetry rather than pathos; as, in the other, we listen to the voice, rather than to the soul. We own, indeed, that many poets have excelled in both species of verse; but many poets have also excelled in prose. We do not say, that the powers necessary to both species are incompatible; we mean only, that, as in the case of the volume before us, there may be considerable excellence in the one, with a total want of excellence in the other.

            We must not be so partial, however, to the degree of excellence which Mrs Opie has shown, as to say that she has yet attained the full command, even of that style of poetry to which her powers should particularly attach her. The true artifice of that poetry, which consists in a happy artlessness, she frequently forgets. There are particularly three great faults; her abuse of reflection, of inversion, and of personification; to which, if she will accept advice, in return for pleasure received, we wish especially to direct her attention.

            We remember, that, in “the Father and Daughter,” we frequently regretted the intrusion of the writer of the tale, when we were wholly occupied with the misfortunes of her heroine.  Reflections of anticipation are always injurious to the interest excited, as they diminish curiosity; and reflections on the past are superfluous, and offensive to the reader’s vanity, if they state what may naturally be inferred from the circumstances of the tale, and call us away too coldly to reason, when the inference is forced.  But, above all, reflection is unnatural, when introduced by a sufferer in the midst of distress.  Dear thought!  Blest thought!  Sad thought!  &c. are parentheses which we wish to see banished from poetry. Who pauses, in impassioned soliloquy, to determine the classification of his own feelings?

                        ‘That guilty child, so long disown’d,

                        Can then, blest thought! no more offend.’

A repentant and dying daughter would not have used the interjection.

            In forced inversion, Mrs Opie is often a delinquent, and particularly in her separation of the agent and the action; or, to talk technically, of the nominative case and the verb which it influences. In every other species of poetry, this is admissible, and even requisite; but, in the simple expression of present feeling, it is generally misplaced, because it violates the usual associations of our language. ‘I to thy rays prefer deep gloom,’ strikes us immediately as an artificial construction; and the mourner as immediately becomes a mere poet.

            Personification is an ornament so tempting, that the abuse of it is the most frequent, and the most fatal of all errors, in poetry of feeling. There are few pieces in the volume before us, which it has not affected. Guilt of this kind is, indeed, often to be found, even in the coldest productions of age; and more indulgence, therefore, must be given to a young and inexperienced writer; but, still, it is indulgence, and not praise, which it must demand. ‘The Despairing Wanderer,’ which is, upon the whole, of bolder execution than Mrs Opie’s usual manner, is altogether vitiated by the excess of this imagined ornament. Pale Terror leading the shadowy scene, and Fancy listening to a sailor’s knell, and Thunder rending the ear of Night, and rousing the form of pale Affright, are not the images which pass through the mind of mad Despair. Prosopopœia is more suited to the narrator of such a state, than to the soliloquizer, who will think only of the state of real things, though the things themselves may appear in much brighter colours, or much darker shade. Miserable and happy men, not Misery and Happiness, are the companions of such a mind, even in the wildest of its musings.

            Having dwelt so long on the general character of the volume, we have little room for particular criticism; and we must therefore add only a few observations.

            It has become fashionable in modern verse, to make use of the word ‘ah!’ whenever a syllable is wanting. But ‘ah’ is not an expletive; it is an interjection of distress; and we see no reason that any one should complain, because, with a pleasure which others have not, he enjoys the moon still more in Winter than in Summer.–p.2.

            In ‘the Dying Daughter to her Mother,’ with several faults of carelessness, there are many passages of great interest. The lines–

                        ‘And when thou think’st upon the cause,

                        That paleness will have charms for thee.’  p.9.

–presents a very affecting thought, in a very pleasing manner. The phrase, ‘in thy good time,’ in the last verse, is very objectionable, and must certainly have been introduced for the rhyme’s sake. Such a cold reservation might have occurred to a hypocrite, who had been accustomed to repeat, without regard, the phraseology of the pulpit; but it is immediate protection for her child, which alone can be present to the wish of a dying mother.

            The first of the two pieces, entitled ‘the Mourner,’ has some real feeling, but more quaintness, particularly in the whole passage about the reverend form of Woe. A mourner is too sad for the fine play of a long metaphor. In the following piece, the situation, at the moment of Henry’s death, is too minutely described. It is no very great proof of love, to be regardless of thunder without, at such a time. But there is the opposite error, in the representation of herself as tossing away her child with fury, which supposes absolute frenzy; and Henry’s death was not sudden, as his bloom is said to have marked him for the grave. The close, however, is more than atonement–

[ quotes from “When to my heart my child I fold … ‘Tis Henry’s child.”]

            Of ‘The Negro Boy’s Tale,’ from the happiness with which the circumstances of this scene are imagined, much more ought to have been made. His argument on the natural equality of the Negro, and his sarcasms against those who practise not what they preach, are more in the character of the poet, than of the supposed speaker. Even had they been natural, as addressed to any other person, they certainly are not, as addressed to her who had always been his friend.

            The song of a Hindustàní girl is interesting, chiefly from the circumstances of the story on which it professes to be founded. It concludes with the following verse–

                        ‘Oh! how fast from thee they tear me!

                                    Faster still shall death pursue:

                        But ’tis well–death will endear me,

                                    And thou’lt mourn THY POOR HINDOO.’

            The last two lines are affecting; but nothing can exceed, in unnatural absurdity, the measurement of the comparative velocity of Death.

            In the little song, p. 104 [“Yes, Mary Anne, I freely grant”] Mrs Opie must surely have suffered much from the wretched necessity of a rhyme, before she submitted to the introduction of so formal a word as ‘impart’ into verses of easy conversation. To impart, and to confess, are words of very different meaning.

            In the ‘Stanzas written under Æolus’s Harp,’ the thought, in the introductory verses, of each woe finding in the varieties of the music its own appropriate plaint, is good; and, if traced out, might have formed an ode worth of Collins. The stanzas which follow, are merely of the better order of such verses as are usually addressed to Æolian harps.

            ‘The Orphan Boy’s Tale,’ is, in several passages, affecting, by its simplicity. After stating, that he had asked his mother why she called him orphan, it is happily again introduced–

                        ‘Ah! lady, I have learn’d too well

                        What ’tis to be an orphan boy.’

            But the sudden death of his mother after the question, is, like all sudden grief-strokes, narrative or dramatic, founded on observations so rare in real nature, that, when adopted as poetic incidents, they strike us as made for the poem, rather than as deduced from truth.

            ‘Symptoms of love,’ is almost a paraphrase on Mrs Barbauld’s song, ‘Come here, fond youth;’ or, rather, both are derived from Sir John Suckling’s song, ‘Honest lover whosoever.’ The symptoms are so very sickly, that they correspond more with the idle fanciful effeminacy of poetic love, which has descended, in exaggerated description, from bard to bard, than with the many tenderness of real passion.

            In the song, p. 157 [“Fond dream of love by love repaid”], the thought of the last verse is put too much in the cold form of a syllogism.

                        ‘Love as the soul of life I view:

                        Then, if the soul immortal be,

                        My love must be immortal too.’

How different from the lines of Florian, which it imitates!

                        ‘Si l’âme est immortelle,

                        L’amour ne l’est-il pas?’

The same reasoning is delicately implied, without the formality of a logical demonstration.

            Of the song, p. 163 [“I know you false, I know you vain”], the first stanza is light and elegant. The second is spoiled, by the affectation of something more. The conceit of tones binding the soul in fetters, is ridiculously quaint; and the eyes of an expert coquette are certainly not the best in which to trace every feeling as it rises.

            The ‘Ode to Twilight’ is in lyrical blank verse, a style so unsuitable to our language, that, instead of the usual ornament which versification gives to thought, the greatest excellence of imagery is necessary to give ornament to the verse. It is unfortunate to write in the measure of Collins, on a subject so similar to his own.

            In passing under our review the contents of this interesting miscellany, though the praise which we have given has been the praise of our judgement, as well as of our gratitude, we own, that a little selfishness has been mixed with our censure; as, in correcting the misapplication of Mrs Opie’s powers, we looked forward to the enjoyment which they must afford us, whenever they are exerted on their proper objects. By her marriage with a celebrated artist, she may be said to have united, in conjugal rivalry, two of the most elegant of arts; and if, as we trust, she will submit o abandon all idle decoration, and to give her whole fancy to simplicity and tenderness, though the pencil of her competitor should even increase in power, ‘ut pictura poesis’ will be a compliment, not of flattery, but of truth.