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CAMPBELL'S GERTRUDE OF WYOMING,
(APRIL, 1809.) Gertrude of Wyoming, a Pensylvanian Tale; and other Poems.
By Thomas CAMPBELL, author of “ The Pleasures of Hope,"
dc. 4to. pp. 136. London: Longman & Co.: 1809. We rejoice once more to see a polished and pathetic poem in the old style of English pathos and poetry. This is of the pitch of the Castle of Indolence, and the finer parts of Spenser; with more feeling, in many places, than the first, and more condensation and diligent finishing than the latter. If the true tone of nature be not everywhere maintained, it gives place, at least, to art only, and not to affectation — and, least of all, to affectation of singularity or rudeness.
Beautiful as the greater part of this volume is, the public taste, we are afraid, has of late been too much accustomed to beauties of a more obtrusive and glaring kind, to be fully sensible of its merit. Without supposing that this taste has been in any great degree vitiated, or even imposed upon, by the babyism or the antiquarianism which have lately been versified for its improvement, we may be allowed to suspect, that it has been somewhat dazzled by the splendour, and bustle, and variety of the most popular of our recent poems; and that the more modest colouring of truth and nature may, at this moment, seem somewhat cold and feeble. We have endeavoured, on former occasions, to do justice to the force and originality of some of those brilliant productions, as well as to the genius (fitted for much higher things) of their authors — and have little doubt of being soon called upon for a renewed tribute of applause. But we cannot help saying, in the mean time, that the work before us belongs to a class which comes nearer to our conception of pure and perfect poetry. Such productions do not, indeed, strike so strong a blow
TO WHAT ORDER OF POETRY IT BELONGS.
as the vehement effusions of our modern Trouveurs ; but they are calculated, we think, to please more deeply, and to call out more permanently, those trains of emotion, in which the delight of poetry will probably be found to consist. They may not be so loudly nor so universally applauded; but their fame will probably endure longer, and they will be oftener recalled to mingle with the reveries of solitary leisure, or the consolations of real sorrow.
There is a sort of poetry, no doubt, as there is a sort of flowers, which can bear the broad sun and the ruffling winds of the world, — which thrive under the hands and eyes of indiscriminating multitudes, and please as much in hot and crowded saloons, as in their own sheltered repositories; but the finer and the purer sorts blossom only in the shade; and never give out their sweets but to those who seek them amid the quiet and seclusion of the scenes which gave them birth. There are torrents and cascades which attract the admiration of tittering parties, and of which even the busy must turn aside to catch a transient glance: But “ the haunted stream" steals through a still and a solitary landscape; and its beauties are never revealed, but to him who strays, in calm contemplation, by its course, and follows its wanderings with undistracted and unimpatient admiration. There is a reason, too, for all this, which may be made more plain than by metaphors.
The highest delight which poetry produces, does not arise from the mere passive perception of the images or sentiments which it presents to the mind; but from the excitement which is given to its own internal activity, and the character which is impressed on the train of its spontaneous conceptions. Even the dullest reader generally sees more than is directly presented to him by the poet; but a lover of poetry always sees infinitely more; and is often indebted to his author for little more than an impulse, or the key-note of a melody which his fancy makes out for itself. Thus, the effect of poetry, depends more on the fruitfulness of the impressions to which it gives rise, than on their own individual force or novelty;
178 BEST POETRY WHAT MOST STIRS NATURAL FEELINGS.
and the writers who possess the greatest powers of fascination, are not those who present us with the greatest number of lively images or lofty sentiments, but who most successfully impart their own impulse to the current of our thoughts and feelings, and give the colour of their brighter conceptions to those which they excite in their readers. Now, upon a little consideration, it will probably appear, that the dazzling, and the busy and marvellous scenes which constitute the whole charm of some poems, are not so well calculated to produce this effect, as those more intelligible delineations which are borrowed from ordinary life, and coloured from familiar affections. The object is, to awaken in our minds a train of kindred emotions, and to excite our imaginations to work out for themselves a tissue of pleasing or impressive conceptions. But it seems obvious, that this is more likely to be accomplished by surrounding us gradually with those objects, and involving us in those situations with which we have long been accustomed to associate the feelings of the poet, — than by startling us with some tale of wonder, or attempting to engage our affections for personages, of whose character and condition we are unable to form any distinct conception. These, indeed, are more sure than the other to produce a momentary sensation, by the novelty and exaggeration with which they are commonly attended; but their power is spent at the first impulse: they do not strike root and germinate in the mind, like the seeds of its native feelings; nor propagate throughout the imagination that long series of delightful movements, which is only excited when the song of the poet is the echo of our familiar feelings.
It appears to us, therefore, that by far the most powerful and enchanting poetry is that which depends for its effect upon the just representation of common feelings and common situations; and not on the strangeness of its incidents, or the novelty or exotic splendour of its scenes and characters. The difficulty is, no doubt, to give the requisite force, elegance, and dignity to these ordinary subjects, and to win a way for them to the
DIFFICULTIES AND DISCOURAGEMENTS,
heart, by that true and concise expression of natural emotion, which is among the rarest gifts of inspiration. To accomplish this, the poet must do much ; and the, reader something. The one must practise enchantment, and the other submit to it. The one must purify his conceptions from all that is low or artificial; and the other must lend himself gently to the impression, and refrain from disturbing it by any movement of worldly vanity, derision, or hard heartedness. In an advanced state of society, the expression of simple emotion is so obstructed by ceremony, or so distorted by affectation, that though the sentiment itself be still familiar to the greater part of mankind, the verbal representation of it is a task of the utmost difficulty. One set of writers, accordingly, finding the whole language of men and women too sophisticated for this purpose, have been obliged to go to the nursery for a more suitable phraseology; another has adopted the style of courtly Arcadians; and a third, that of mere Bedlamites. So much more difficult is it to express natural feelings, than to narrate battles, or describe prodigies !
But even when the poet has done his part, there are many causes which may obstruct his immediate popularity. In the first place, it requires a certain degree of sensibility to perceive his merit. There are thousands of people who can admire a florid description, or be amused with a wonderful story, to whom a pathetic poem is quite unintelligible. In the second place, it requires a certain degree of leisure and tranquillity in the reader. A picturesque stanza may be well enough relished while the reader is getting his hair combed; but a scene of tenderness or emotion will not do, even for the corner of a crowded drawing-room. Finally, it requires a certain degree of courage to proclaim the merits of such a writer. Those who feel the most deeply, are most given to disguise their feelings; and derision is never so agonizing as when it pounces on the wanderings of misguided sensibility. Considering the habits of the age in which we live, therefore, and the fashion, which, though not immutable, has for some time run steadily
180 CAMPBELL'S GERTRUDE, ITS RIGHTS AND RISKS.
in an opposite direction, we should not be much surprised if a poem, whose chief merit consisted in its pathos, and in the softness and exquisite tenderness of its representations of domestic life and romantic seclusion, should meet with less encouragement than it deserves. If the volume before us were the work of an unknown writer, indeed, we should feel no little apprehension about its success; but Mr. Campbell's name has power, we are persuaded, to insure a very partial and a very general attention to whatever it accompanies, and, we would fain hope, influence enough to reclaim the public taste to a juster standard of excellence. The success of his former work, indeed, goes far to remove our anxiety for the fortune of this. It contained, perhaps, more brilliant and bold passages than are to be found in the poem before us: But it was inferior, we think, in softness and beauty; and, being necessarily of a more desultory and didactic character, had far less pathos and interest than this very simple tale. Those who admired the pleasures of Hope for the passages about Brama and Kosciusko, may perhaps be somewhat disappointed with the gentler tone of Gertrude; but those who loved that charming work for its pictures of infancy and of maternal and connubial love, may read on here with the assurance of a still higher gratification.
The story is of very little consequence in a poem of this description ; and it is here, as we have just hinted, extremely short and simple. Albert, an English gentleman of high character and accomplishment, had emigrated to Pensylvania about the year 1740, and occupied himself, after his wife's death, in doing good to his neighbours, and in educating his infant and only child, Gertrude. He had fixed himself in the pleasant township of Wyoming, on the banks of the Susquehana; a situation which at that time might have passed for an earthly paradise, with very little aid from poetical embellishment. The beauty and fertility of the country, — the simple and unlaborious plenty which reigned among the scattered inhabitants, — but, above all, the
, singular purity and innocence of their manners, and the