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Sketches of the Living Poets. Mr. Campbell.
The Examiner  No. 710  (12 August 1821)  506-08.
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No. 710. SUNDAY, Aug 12, 1821.


No. 3.—Mr. Campbell

We learn from a memoir of Mr. Campbell in the magazines that he was born at Glasgow in the year 1777, and christened by the hand of the venerable Dr. Reid. He received the rudiments of his education at the grammar-school of his native city under the tuition of Dr. David Alison, a man equally celebrated for the skill and kindness of his mode of imparting knowledge; and at twelve was removed to the University in the same place. Here he became so diligent and successful, that he gained prizes every year. He particularly distinguished himself by translations from the Greek drama; some of which, perhaps, are those which he has preserved at the end of his Pleasures of Hope. The fondness is natural; but they are hardly worthy of their place. At Glasgow he also attended the philosophical lectures of Dr. Millar, by whom he is said to have been habituated to that liberality of opinion, which pervades all his writings. In these, we presume, are included some anonymous ones of a political nature, which he is supposed to have written more from a sense of duty than choice, but which are distinguished, we believe, for the freedom of their politics, Mr. Campbell being a Whig of the old school.—On quitting Glas-
gow, our author lived for a short time in Argyleshire and then removed to Edinburgh, where he surprised his new and eminent friends,
Stewart, Playfair, and others, with the production of his Pleasures of Hope, a poem written at twenty and published at twenty-one. In 1800 he made a tour in Germany, where he had the pleasure of passing a day with Klopstock. We have had the pleasure of falling into Mr. Campbell’s company several times, and think we have heard him relate, that he had the singular fortune of witnessing, from the top of a convent, the great battle of Hohenlinden, upon which he has written some stately verses. We think we remember also, that he spoke of hearing the French army singing one of their national hymns before the engagement, and of seeing their cavalry enter the town, wiping their bloody swords on their horses’ manes. But whether he related this of himself or others, or indeed whether others told it us of him, we must leave among those doubtful recollections, which are apt, at a distance of time, to put one’s veracity upon its candour. On his return from Germany, Mr. Campbell visited London for the first time; and in 1803, upon marrying, retired to Sydenham in Kent, where he has resided ever since. His second and latest volume of poems, containing Gertrude of Wyoming, was published in 1809. Not long afterwards, he accepted the appointment of Professor of Poetry to the Royal Institution, and hie has delivered lectures in that character, which appear from time to time at the head of the New Monthly Magazine.

In his person Mr. Campbell is perhaps under the middle height, with a handsome face inclining to too much delicacy of features and a somewhat prim expression about the mouth. His eyes are keen and expressive; his voice apt to ascend into sharpness, with a considerable Scotch tone. He has experienced the usual sickness of the sedentary and industrious.

The writer of a sketch of Mr. Campbell’s life in the Magazines is inclined to attribute the best part of his poetry to his assiduous study at college; and to doubt, whether he would have made so great an impression on the public “had he not received precisely that education which he did.” We are inclined to suspect, on the other hand, that Mr. Campbell’s “precise” education was far from being the best thing in the world for a man of imagination and feeling. We cannot but think we see in it the main cause why he has not impressed the public still more, and ventured to entertain it oftener. Doubtless, it must have found in him something liable to be thus controulled. He had not the oily richness in him, which enabled Thomson to slip through the cold hands of critics and professors, and tumble into the sunnier waters. But we will venture to say, that if he had gained fewer prizes at college, or been less studious of Latin and lecturers, he would have given way more effectively to his poetical impulses, and not have reminded us so often of the critic and rhetorician. There was an inauspicious look in the title of his first production, the Pleasures of Hope. It seemed written not only because Mr. Rogers’s Pleasures of Memory had been welcomed into the critical circles, but because it was the next thing to writing a prose theme upon the Utility of Expectation. A youth might have been seduced into this by the force of imitation; but on reading the poem, it is impossible not to be struck with the willing union of the author’s genius and his rhetoric. When we took it up the other day, we had not read it for many years, and found we had done it injustice; but the rhetoric keeps a perverse pace with the poetry. The writer is eternally balancing his sentences, round his periods, epigrammatizing his paragraphs; and yet all the while he exhibits so much imagination and sensibility, that one longs to have rescued his too delicate wings from the clippings and stintings of the school, and set him free to wander about the universe. Rhyme, with him, becomes a real chain. He gives the finest glances about him, and afar off, like a bird; spreads his pinions as if to sweep to his object; and is pulled back by his string into a chirp and a flutter. He always seems daunted and anxious. His versification is of the most received fashion; his boldest imaginings recoil into the coldest and most customary personifications. If he could have given up his pretty finishing common-places, his sensibility would sometimes have wanted nothing of vigour as well as tenderness:—
Yes, at the dead of night by Lonna’s steep,
The seaman’s cry was heard along the deep;
There on his funeral waters, dark and wild,
The dying father blest his darling child;
Oh! Mercy shield her innocence, he cried,
Spent on the prayer his bursting heart, and died.
The following passage contains most of his beauties and defects:—
Yet there, perhaps, may darker scenes obtrude,
Than Fancy fashions in her wildest mood;
There shall he pause, with horrent brow, to rate
What millions died—that Cæsar might be great!
Or learn the fate that bleeding thousands bore
March’d by their Charles to Dnieper’s swampy shore;
First in his wounds, and shivering in the blast,
The Swedish soldier sunk—and groan’d his last!
File after file the stormy showers benumb,
Freeze every standard-sheet, and hush the drum!
Horsemen and horse confess’d the bitter pang,
And arms and warriors fell with hollow clang!
Yet ere he sunk in nature’s last repose,
Ere life’s warm torrent in the fountain froze,
The dying man to Sweden turn’d his eye,
Thought of his home, and clos’d it with a sigh!
Imperial Pride look’d sullen on his plight,
And Charles beheld—nor shudder’d at the sight!
Here is an event of so deep and natural an interest, that the author might surely have had faith enough in it to leave out his turns, his hyphens, and his Latinities. The dying man thinking of his home, which is well borrowed from
Virgil,—the aweful circumstance of the drum’s hushing, and those three common words “the bitter pang,” are in the finest taste; but the horse and horseman must confess this pang, because confess is Latin and critical. Horrent brow is another unseasonable classicality, which cannot possibly affect the reader like common words; and the antithesis, instead of the sentiment, is visibly put before us in the pause of the last line.—In the concluding paragraph of the poem, Mr. Campbell has ventured upon giving one solitary pause in the middle of his couplet. It has a fine effect, and the whole passage is deservedly admired; yet the last couplet, in our opinion, spoils the awful generalization of the rest, by introducing Hope again in her own allegorical person, which turns it into a sort of vignette.

We should not have said so much of this early poem, had the line been more strongly marked between the powers that produced it, and those of his later ones.

The Gertrude of Wyoming however is a higher thing, and has stuff in it that should have made it still better. The author here takes heart, and seems resolved to return to Spenser and the uncritical side of poetry; but his heart fails him. He only hampers himself with Spenser’s stanza, and is worried the more with classical inversions and gentilities. He does not like that his hero should wear a common hat and boots; so he spoils a beautiful situation after the following critical fashion:—
A steed, whose rein hung loosely o’er his arm,
He led dismounted; ere his leisur’d pace,
Amid the brown leaves, could her ear alarm,
Close he had come, and worshipped for a space
Those downcast features;—she her lovely face
Uplift on one whose lineament, and frame
Were youth and manhood’s intermingled grace:
Iberian seem’d his boot—his race the same,
And well his Spanish plume his lofty looks became.
This is surely arrant, trifling, and makes us think of the very things it would have us forget. Yet pretty are his worshipping a space, “those downcast features.” We are in love, and always have been, with his Gertrude, being very faithful in our varieties of attachment. We have admired ever since the year 1809 her lady-like inha-
bitation of the American forests, albeit she is not quite robust enough for a wood-nymph. She is still and will for ever be found there, in spite of the author’s report of her death, and as long as gentle creatures, who cannot help being ladies, long to realize such dreams with their lovers. We like her laughing and crying over
Shakspeare in her favourite valley,—the “early fox” who “appeared in momentary view.”—
“The stock-dove plaining through its gloom profound,”
the sloes with “their everlasting arms,” and last not least, the nuptial hour “Ineffable,”
While, here and there, a solitary star
Flush’d in the darkening firmament of June.
Lines like these we repeat in our summer loitering, as we would remember an air of
Sacchini or Paesiello. We like too what every body likes too, the high-hearted Indian savage,
The stoic of the woods—the man without a tear—
not omitting the picture of his bringing the little white boy with him, which the critics objected to,
—Like Morning brought by Night.
As to the passage which precedes the wild descant into which he bursts out, when the prostrate Waldegrave after the death of his bride is observed convulsively shivering with anguish under the cloak that has been thrown over him, our eyes dazzle whenever we read it, and we are glad to pick a quarrel with the author for ever producing any thing inferior. He certainly has the faculties of a true poet; and it is not the fault of the poets of his country that he has not become a greater.

Mr. Campbell’s favourite authors appear to be Virgil and Racine; which may serve to shew both the natural and artificial bent of his genius. He has imagination and tenderness, but he has also a great opinion of criticism; so he leans to those poets, ancient and modern, who have at once a genius from nature, and the most regular passports for the reputation of it from art. He forgets that what the critics most approve of in the long run, as distinguished from the more intuitive preferences of the uncritical lovers of poetry, obtains the approbation because it flatters their egotism with the nearest likeness to their own faculty. Mr. Campbell’s own criticism would be perhaps worse than it is in this respect, if it were really any thing else but ingenious and elegant writing. But there is a constant struggle in him between the poetical and the critical, which he doubtless takes for a friendly one; and in his prose he is always slipping from an exercise foreign to his nature into mere grace and fancy. After reading the Essay prefixed to his Selection of English Poetry, we recollected nothing but three things, which are characteristic enough;—first, that he seemed disagreeably mystified at the great praises bestowed on our old dramatists by certain living writers;—second, that he allows Shakspeare to put us wherever he pleases in a first act, but protests against a repetition of the illegality in a second; and third, that he has written a considerable number of beautiful similes.*

* Of the share, also characteristic, which Mr. Campbell has had in the unlucky controversy on Pope, we need not say any thing; especially after the masterly settlement of it, to which we referred in our last.

[The week after next, Mr. Coleridge.]