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Few poets have exhibited a greater delicacy of taste in his own writings than Oliver Goldsmith, and yet he was but a very ordinary person when seated in the critic's chair, if we may judge from his brief comments in his collection of the “Beauties of English Poetry.” He had the imprudence and audacity to insert amongst these selections, intended chiefly for the use of schools, two of the most flagrantly indecent of Prior's Tales, which effectually ruined it as a pecuniary speculation, and perhaps somewhat injured the moral character of the compiler. As a specimen of Goldsmith's style of criticism in his “Beauties of English Poetry,” a work very rarely met with, I will quote a few of his notices entire. It is just the kind of criticism that one might expect from a school girl; it is vague and common
place, and full of verbal repetitions.
Philips' Epistle to the Earl of Dorset. “The opening of this poem is incomparably fine, the latter part is tedious and trifling.” Baucis and Philemon. “This poem is very fine; and though the same strain as the preceding (Han's Carvel), is yet superior.” On the Use of Riches. “This poem, as Mr. Pope tells us himself, cost much attention and labour; and from the easiness that appears in it one would be apt to think as much.” An Epistle to a Lady. “This little poem by Mr. Nugent is very pleasing. The easiness of the poetry and the justness of the thoughts constitute its principal beauty.” A Pastoral ballad. “The ballads of Mr. Shenstone are chiefly commended for the matural simplicity of the thoughts and the harmony of the versification. However they are not excellent in either.”
Phaebe, a Pastoral.
“This by Dr. Byron (m. 2) is a better effort than the preceding.”
These are not partial or broken extracts—they are entire notices. That Goldsmith should deny to Shenstone's ballads the merit of “harmony” is strange enough, but it is still stranger that esteeming them good neither in the versification nor the thoughts, he should have inserted one of them amongst his “Beauties of British Poetry.” Goldsmith's verbal repetitions remind me of the criticism in a late publication which is got up with great external elegance—I allude to the “Book of Gems.” Every poet is there represented as remarkable for some excellence or defect “To A DEGREE.” Of Coleridge it is said “his judgment and taste were sound to a degree”—of Lamb that he was “amiable to a degree,”—of Wilson, that his countenance is “gentle to a degree,” —and of Hogg, that he “ was kind and liberal to a degree.”
Amongst the poets of the nineteenth century, we have a melancholy display of bad critics upon productions in their own art. Byron called Spenser “a dull fellow,” and said, “he could see nothing in him”.” He considered that Chaucer was “contemptible,” and owed his celebrity merely to his antiquity, and that he was inferior to Pierce Plowman and Thomas of Ercildoune. He placed Rogers at the head of all his contemporaries, and looked (or pretended to look) with supreme scorn upon Southey and Wordsworth. He thus spoke of the most ambitious of the latter's
* If Byron ever read Gabriel Harvey's letter to Spenser, in which he discourages him from proceeding with the Fairy Queen, he must have been delighted with such congeniality of taste. Harvey was a man of great learning and elegant accomplishments, and wrote verses which were well thought of by Spenser himself and other good judges of poetical merit. Spenser sent Harvey a specimen of the Fairy Queen for his opinion, and his “most special friend” returned it with a prayer that “God or some good angel would put him in a better mind.” This condemnation of Spenser's noblest work is accompanied with high praises of some of his inferior productions.
“A clumsy, frowzy poem called the Eccursion,
He said Cowper was “no poet,” and intimated that Pope was at least equalif not superior to Shakespeare, for whom he had no very passionate admiration. He thought the author of the “Essay on Man” was the greatest of poets, because the science of morals is the greatest of all subjects;–though he contradicted himself by an equally foolish position, that a poet ranks by his execution alone, and not by the nature of his subject or undertaking; so that the author of a good epigram must be equal in rank to the author of a good Epic, which Dryden calls the greatest work of which the mind of man is capable. Young’s “Revenge” was Byron's favorite play, though he had read “Othello !”
Wordsworth calls Dryden's celebrated music-ode, “a drunken song*,” and professes to entertain a profound contempt for some of the finest poetry of Burns. The celebrated Dr. Wolcott (Peter Pindar) used to speak in the same style of Dryden's ode. “How woefully,” he would often exclaim, “have mankind been mistaken in their admiration of this paltry production /* In a note to the first stanza of “Frogmore Fete” he thus alludes to it. “In spite of all the praises bestowed on “Alexander's Feast, I dare pronounce it a downright drunken Bartholomew-fair scene: the poetry too but little superior to the subject,” Perhaps Peter Pindar himself has too much of the coarseness and vulgarity which he here attributes to Dryden to deserve the name of a poet; but he was a truly popular writer in his day, and the booksellers granted him an annuity for the copy-right of his works. He, however,
* Mason objected “that this ode was too much of the Ballad species—too remote from the lyric genius.” The line of pathetic iteration, Fallen, fallen, fallen, fallen, he said was devoid of all meaning, and tended to excite something bordering on the ludicrous rather than to add to the pathetic impression already excited. He thought Polwhele's translations from Theocritus for smoothness and harmony of versification considerably exceeded the original.
very nearly survived his reputation, though he anticipated immortality as an author, and prided himself on the reflection that his verses had been translated into six different languages. The famous Polish general, Kosciusko, was one of his admirers, and amused himself with his poems in his prison at St. Petersburgh. When the Duke of Kent was in America he saw a pretty little girl in a cottage, and on asking her what books she read, she replied, “the Bible and Peter Pindar.” A popularity, however extensive, seems no certain indication of lasting fame. Mrs. Hemans in one of her letters (published in Chorley’s “Memorials” of her) records the following very remarkable conversation between herself and the great poet of the Lakes. “We were sitting on a bank” (she writes) “overlooking Rydal Lake, and speaking of Burns. I said, ‘Mr. Wordsworth, do you not think his war ode ‘Scots wha hae wi Wallace bled, has been a good deal overrated especially by Mr. Carlyle, who calls it the noblest lyric in the language P’ ‘I am delighted to hear you ask the question;' was his reply, overrated?—trash !—stuff!—miserable inanity without a thought— without an image l’ &c. &c. Then he recited the piece in a tone of unutterable scorn; and concluded with a Da Capo of ‘wretched stuff!—’” Wordsworth and Coleridge see no beauty in Gray's Elegy, though the latter had the most extravagantly favourable opinion of the sentimental poetry of Bowles, and praises it for its “manliest melancholy.” He could write too a laudatory address to the Muse of Amos Cottle ! Keats styled all the poets of the Frenchifted English school, “a school of dolts.”
“Ye taught a school
Perhaps Keats would not have found the composition of another “Rape of the Lock,” quite so easy a task as he imagined. There is even in the “Essay on Man” and the “Prologue to Cato,” something more than
“A puling infant's force That swayed about upon a rocking-horse, And thought it Pegasus.” Sir Walter Scott, though he exhibited a noble impartiality and a rare self-insight when speaking of his own poems, was not a first rate judge of the poetry of other men. “He often said to me,” (says his friend Ballantyne,) “that neither his own nor any modern popular style of composition, was that from which he derived most pleasure. I asked him what it was ; he answered,”— (what does the reader suppose Shakespeare's, Spenser's, Milton's, Dryden's, Pope's, Burns' Oh! no—) “Dr. Johnson's (7) and that he had more pleasure in reading London' and ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes' than any other poetical composition he could men
tion.” Scott, however, is the only poet I have read of, who judged fairly and yet unfavourably of his own poetical compositions. He always said that they could never live : and were not to be compared with the works of many of his contemporaries. In the meridian of his own poetical popularity he felt that those comparatively neglected writers, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, were far greater poets, and more deeply touched with the holy fire of inspiration. Nor did Scott ever prefer his worst pieces to his best. In this respect he exhibited a far clearer judgment than many other celebrated authors. Petrarch doted on his Africa, Milton on his Paradise Regained, Prior on his Solomon, and Byron on his Hints from Horace. I have now, I think, sufficiently established my position that good poets are not always good critics, and that we ought not to trust too implicitly to their authority on a question of poetical criticism. But I should not wish it to be supposed either that I am hostile to the poets, to whom we are all so much indebted,
or that I consider them worse judges of poetry than other men. I