« AnteriorContinuar »
appeared at this time). For he had in 1795 attacked them in his Mæviad, a satire in heroic couplets modelled on Horace, characterising them as “lumbering, monotonous stupidity.” But his chief satiric interest had been in the style of the Dellacruscan school of poetry, which had attempted dramas as well as odes, elegies, and didactic poems. This is clear when we turn to his Baviad (1794), which, paraphrasing Persius, deals wholly with this new poetic degeneration.
2. One of the most singular phenomena in English poetry was the sudden appearance in 1785 of a mania for writing silly sentimentalism in the shape of sonnets, odes, and elegies. It started with the English colony in Florence. Mrs. Piozzi, the friend of Dr. Johnson, was the best known amongst them ; most of the names have passed into oblivion. But they gathered their productions into The Florence Miscellany. They grew so proud of their mutual admiration society and its verses that they soon began to publish them in the English newspapers. A Mr. Robert Merry brought over the contagion to England, and, by a sonnet to love, inoculated the readers of The World newspaper with it. Another newspaper The Oracle, caught the epidemic, and for some years it raged in the two. Merry had signed himself Della Crusca from the name of the famous Florentine Academia della Crusca, devoted to the compilation of a dictionary, and to new editions of the
Another mutual admiration circle of versewriters sprang up, and, adopting names, which they thought as romantic as Della Crusca, kept up a continual volley of sentimental panegyrics ; they took most of their pseudonyms from the fiction of the time. The chief of them were Mrs. Hannah Cowley, the dramatist, author of “A Bold Stroke for a Husband”, Mrs. Robinson, the actress, Countess Cowper, a Mr. Parsons, a Mr. Greathead, a Mr. Williams, a Mr. Adney, a Mr. Weston, a Mr. Jerningham ; their poetic names were Anna Matilda, Laura Maria, Edwin, Orlando, Arley, Bertie, Pasquin, Yenda. The phenomenon was to some extent a phase of Wertherism ; Goethe's Sorrows of the Young Werther (1774) had made tears and sentimental suicide fashionable. The latent revolutionism that could
not find vent in politics or war sought it in literary weeping and sentiment. Of course it had already found this expression in Richardson's novels, in Rousseau's Julie, and even in the Vicar of Wakefield. But Werther brought it to a head. Hundreds, who felt the poetic sentiment and the tendency to tears, persuaded themselves that they had the burden of the world's sorrow upon them and also the genius
It was the Florentine emigrants that opened the sluicegates ; and everyone who could fit rhymes longed to commit suicide in verse or drop a poetic tear upon a suicide's grave. The most artificial feeling and imagery came into vogue, and hid from the writers the fact that they were writing nonsense. The epidemic spread into other circles. Erasmus Darwin and the Lichfield set, including Miss Seward, felt its effects; and most of the womenwriters of the day and most of the novelists were touched by the fashion. Of course it had much that was symptomatic of the coming age in it; there was much emotional appeal to nature, if not insight into it; it was the precursor of the passionate expression of Shelley, Keats, and Byron ; and the last began his career with his Hours of Idleness, consisting of lyrics that were not far off the Dellacruscan; it drew poetry from the didactic to the lyrical and the emotional; it roused interest in the romance of love. But it had its falsetto notes; it exaggerated passion, preferred the morbid, filled its writers with conceit, and substituted a new conventional language and imagery for the old. On one side, the form, it was the last term of the decay of the Pindaric ode of the Gray and Collins school ; on the other, it was the first premonition of a poetic revolution. John Bell, the publisher of The World, gathered the poems into two volumes called The British Album. And the only item of the collection that has survived is the song, “Wapping old Stairs”, by Mr. Parsons ; doubtless it survived because it chose a lower plane of life and language than the others.
3. Gifford had a splendid field for satire in the book and the fashion that produced it. And he wrote his Baviad just at the turning of the tide. The new audience were beginning to be tired of the iteration of threadbare sentiments; the British public were beginning to fear
the revolutionism that they had so long toyed with, and the political reaction was about to set in. 'Wordsworth and Coleridge were writing their Lyrical Ballads, and Southey was giving expression to real passion. Verses like these, then, were the natural prey of the satirist ;
“ Thou couldst the tear of rapture weep;
And feed on agony, and banish sleep
And with my mind's thick gloom obscure the sun ”.
And silky ocean slept in glossy green”.
“the explosion came,
In black negation's sea than reach the coast ”. The Baviad did not burlesque, (the poems were already burlesque,) but poured invective, scorn, and indignation upon their authors in the style of Churchill with a touch of Pope. It is in dialogue between a mild defender of the school and the poet himself. Like the Anti-Jacobin, it is not very discriminating in its attack, classifying with the Dellacruscans Morton and Holcroft, the dramatists and actors, and Kemble, the antiquarian and historian. It seems also to satirise prose of the Johnsonian type, choosing Beaufoy's travels in Africa as the specimen;
There Fezzan's thrum-capped tribes, Turks, Christians, Jews,
And brushwood breaks the amplitude of space But it is the Dellacruscan poetry it ridicules chiefly; “Topham's fustian”, “Reynolds? flippant trash “ Andrews' doggerel”, “Greathead's idiot line”, “Bertie's namby-pamby_madrigals of love”, “Cowley's ding-dong chime “ Thrale's laboured nothings", " canker'd Weston's loathsome rhymes”, and “Merry's Moorfields whine”. The Dellacruscans evidently considered that they were more modern and "sweet” than Pope; their “tender strains” called "for the moist eye, bow'd head, and
lengthened drawl". For Gifford apologises to the memory of Pope for such desecration. He also sets “Burns' pure healthful nurture” against this sickly and often prurient sentiment, this “metromania”.
“ Now fools and children void their brains by loads,
And itching grandams spawl lascivious odes”. The morbid fashion spread to the aristocracy, to “lords and dukes cursed with a sickly taste”. The movement was manifestly connected with that amongst women for the acquisition of the learning of men ; for Gifford describes a meeting at Mrs. Piozzi's house, where the Dellacruscans weep over and applaud a poem called “The Wreath of Liberty”;
“With lemonade he gargles first his throat
Then sweetly preludes to the liquid note”.
Lur'd by the love of Poetry—and tea”.
“ “sense to sound”, false glare, “incongruous images", “noise and nonsense”, that marked the school, were combined with all the forward movements of the time, all that might be called revolutionism. He even connects with it the new fashion of studying and reviving the oldest English literature. He afterwards himself edited the plays of Massinger, Ford, Shirley, and Ben Jonson. But that was after the study of older English literature had come to be completely established. When he wrote The Baviad, conservatism, stirred by the Revolution, was militant, and attacked everything that departed from the fashion established by the age before. Hence his laughter at the harmless study of books that preceded the period of Dryden and Pope.
Section 16. I. But he was right in affiliating this to revolutionism. It was the study of the older literature that was to overthrow the dominion of the Queen Anne writers, and give new scope to poetic imagination. It was this study that was to change the face of English literature, and make his own work old-fashioned. In the Quarterly Review, of which he was editor from its starting in 1808 till his death in 1826, he
kept up the crusade against all who gave expression to the new spirit and taste, or who followed the older poets in looking into nature direct-Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, Hunt. He came himself from the new audience; he was the son of a small tradesman in Devonshire (born 1756), and was sent to Oxford somewhat late in life; Lord Grosvenor befriended him, and he repaid the kindness by devoting all his talents to reaction in poetry, criticism, and politics; he adopted the style and canons of the Queen Anne period, and struggled all his life, by aid of its somewhat virulent weapons too, against their inevitable effacement. His criticism, like his Baviad and his Maeviad, and the Anti-Jacobin, was destined to become as antiquated as the ideas and poetry that he defended.
2. The reactionary crusade that he conducted was not natural to him, if we are to judge by his appreciation of Burns. Had he followed his natural bent, and looked to the signs of the times in the poetry of Chatterton and Blake, Cowper and Burns, he would have seen that the artificial standards of the earlier part of the century were about to pass away ; he would not have spent his time on such a temporary form as Queen Anne satire. All the currents of poetry that we have already traced in the period, though full of indications of the coming time, were of the immediate past, and were about to vanish. Those that were to flow on through the new age, through the nineteenth century, had their sources in an older past, in a past that was nearer to the natural fountains of national greatness. It was the Elizabethan literature that was to mould the new passion; and it was even older literature (the floating débris of an unwritten literature, the popular ballads and songs, the tales and legends of a half-mythical Celtic past,) that was to give the deepest impulse to the literary spirit. All that was nearer to the springs of the feeling and imagination of the people, to the new and larger audience, was certain to reappear in poetry as soon as the Revolution had emancipated the popular element. The Cavalier, Restoration, and Queen Anne literature was written to please a small section of the court, an aristocracy, that to some extent belonged ethnographically, like most of the aristocracies of Central