Eclectic Review, 5 (Mar. 1809): 274-7.*
IT is a well known fact, that pleasure in memory, as well as in hope, is sometimes sweeter than in enjoyment. This may be the case with us at present; and our fond recollection and preference of Mrs. Opie’s earlier poems, may be a mistaken estimate of our former feelings and of her maturer works. Be it so; we hope the book before us is even superior to its forerunner, — and we shall be happy to think so seven years hence; at present we are not persuaded that it is equal.
The principal merits of Mrs. Opie’s poetry are elegance and tenderness; its principal faults, feebleness and insipidity; merit and faults so congenial, that we rarely find the former, without an alloy of the latter. The converse of the proposition, however, is not true; every feeble and insipid writer is not consequently, at any time, elegant and tender.
The contents of this volume are exceedingly miscellaneous. It opens with two of the most horrible takes we ever read; which seem to have been written with the true German intention, and for no other purpose, — to cauterize and harden the feelings, by making them familiar with scenes and occurrences the most shocking and repulsive to humanity. Had these been written in the German tongue as well as in the German taste, and two stories, English in substance and English in style, substituted for them, every reader of unsophisticated sentiment, would have been pleased with the exchange. We do not blame Mrs. Opie so much for having told the tales ill, as for not having told better stories as well. The first is the legend of a warrior, who returns from the Holy Land, and finds, in his first interview with this wife, that his son has followed him thither; and after further mutual inquiries and explanations, discovers also that he has killed that son in combat. Unfortunately for the interest of the piece, this discovery is made much sooner by the readers, than by the parties; and the catastrophe, which should have broken like a flash of lightning upon both in the same moment, at the very last line, is anticipated about the middle of the poem, and we hurry over the latter part with impatience, in the vain hope that our anticipation may be a mistaken one, that the gallant son may have survived, and that he will appear in the crisis of their alarm to rescue his parents from despair and madness. We therefore felt all the bitterness of disappointment, because our expectation was fulfilled. Mrs. Opie is not very successful, because she is very negligent, in the management of the measure which she has adopted in this poem. It ought to be anapaestic; but it is often very weak, and generally very uneasy, from the number of monosyllables which cripple the lines, and make the disjointed syllables fall like pebbles on a stone pavement, instead of rippling like a rivulet, as the true melody of the metre requires.
With the second story, bearing the romantic title of ‘Julia, or the convent of St. Claire,’ we are even less satisfied. It is indolently written in stanzas of four eight-syllable lines, the first and third having blank terminations, the second and fourth only rhyming: a score of which, (as far as the mere mechanism of the verse goes) might be made by any of the poets of the Westmoreland lakes, stans pede in uno. We were vexed at this slovenliness in Mrs. Opie, because it is unworthy of her, and of her sex; ladies’ verses, like their persons, should not only be attended with the Loves, but attired by the Graces. The story itself is, however, more exceptionable than the form in which it is related: it is one of the most wanton and wicked suicides ever committed in verse. A young lady kills herself, because a cruel and unnatural father has doomed her to take the veil, that he may enrich her brother with her portion; and she kills herself in the very moment when her lover arrives at the door of her cell, to inform her that her brother is dead, her father has relented, and she is the sole heir of her family! – had she waited only one stanza longer, all would have been well, and the story would have ended, as all good stories ought, in a wedding. We mention this melancholy event as a warning to all young ladies, both in prose and rhyme, who are within a syllable of dispatching themselves; and we affectionately advise them in all such cases, to suspend the fatal stroke for a comma or two, or even a semicolon, longer than is necessary to do their business; as it is impossible to tell who may arrive in the very next line, or what miracle may be wrought to deliver them should the author happen to turn over a new leaf in their favour.
Among the numerous little pieces that form the bulk of this volume, we prefer thos in which the name of Henry occurs. It is of no consequence to us who Henry was, or who he is; the name is inspiration to Mrs. Opie’s muse, and love is the theme on which she sings the sweetest and the best; no other can raise her harp above the middle pitch, but this brings tones from it that would vibrate through the heart of Apathy. We know not whether the Henry of the following ‘Ballad, founded on fact,’ be the general hero of Mrs. Opie’s song, or some other interesting swain. The tale itself is very simple, and would have been very striking, if the sixth stanza, in which the issue is most improperly forestalled, had been omitted.
[quotes “Round youthful Henry’s restless bed”]
The four copies of verses called “Secret Love” are reprinted, without acknowledgement, from Mrs. Opie’s own tale of ‘The Orphan.’ They are exquisitely delicate and touching; and possess an inexpressible charm of tenderness, which all who read must feel. The concluding couplet of the third of these beautiful bagatelles resembles, (probably without plagiarism) a couplet in one of Dr. Young’s Satires.
‘My look the type of Aetna’s snows,
My heart of Aetna’s secret first.’ P. 156.
‘Zara’s like Aetna, crown’d with lasting snows;
Without she freezes, but within she glows.’
Young’s Universal Passion.
In her following ingenious simile, Mrs. Opie seems to have imitated a very exquisite one of her own.
‘And oft we wee gay ivy’s wreath
The tree with brilliant bloom o’erspread,
When, part its leaves, and gaze beneath,
We find the hidden tree is dead.’ P. 144.
In her former volume we find, page 38,
‘A face of smiles, a heart of tears!
So in the churchyard (realm of death,)
The turf increasing verdure wears,
While all is pale and dead beneath.’
Mrs. Opie is frequently careless and prosaic both in her diction and in her verse; as for instance in the following lines.
‘Till cold Reality her hand applies.’ P. 90.
‘A shield to guard thee against Fancy’s power.’ P. 91.
Sometimes she admits inadmissible rhymes, as
‘How blest were I to watch each charm,
That decks they vale in storms or calm.’ P. 61.
Occasionally she is obscure and incongruous in metaphor.
‘And thee, Sublimity, I hail,
Throned on the gloom of Borrowdale.’ P.60.
We have freely found fault wit this favourite of the public; because she is a favourite of ours also, — because she has more occasion for one friend to tell her of the blemishes, than for a thousand to tell her of the beauties of her poetry, — and because we are persuaded that she seldom writes as well as she can, though her undistinguishing admirers may think that she writes well enough.