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Sketches of the Living Poets. William Lisle Bowles.
The Examiner  No. 706  (15 July 1821)  444-46.
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No. 706. SUNDAY, July 15, 1821.


No. 1.—The Rev. William Lisle Bowles

The intention of this series of articles is, literally, to give sketches of the principle features of the living poets, as an artist might sketch those of their faces. We may be led away to do more; but we are not yet well enough to speculate upon it. Our wood-cuts and our paper-cuts are just meant to be worthy of each other.—With respect to the former, we give them only where we can feel assured of the likeness. There is none, for instance, to the article before us; but one will appear in the next; and so on, as it happens, through the whole series. If we do not notice the living poetesses, Miss Baillie, Mrs. Barbauld, &c. it is not because some of them (the ladies just mentioned, for instance) are not eminent writers; but because, to say the truth, we are afraid of entering so wide and delicate a field,—so luxuriant a crop of sensitive plants: and even our list of poets must be reduced as much as possible, or the task would be enormous. We have, therefore, confined it to such names as have received the only sanction, which has a right to put a stop to a wider admission;—we criticise none but those, whose publications would excite an unequivocal curiosity among the lovers of poetry, as soon as they appeared.

To begin then, with proper alphabetic wisdom, at the letter B; and as the French would say, at the interesting Bowles.—Mr. Bowles is the son of a clergyman of a Wiltshire family, by a daughter of Dr. Grey, author of Memoria Technica. A late Memoir of him, though
written upon a very courteous principle, has not been able to tell us the date of his birth; but in 1776 he was sent to Winchester school under
Dr. Warton, the critic on Pope; and afterwards went to Trinity College under the Doctor’s brother Thomas, the historian of English poetry. He attracted much notice from both these ingenious men. In 1797 he married the sister of a lady, with whom he had formerly anticipated a similar union, and whose death he has lamented in his sonnets; and about 1803 was presented to the rectory of Bremhill in Wiltshire, where he has since resided. It appears, that the zeal of some dissenting preachers in his neighbourhood has excited him to laudable efforts of counteraction as a minister; and he performs his part also in the county as a magistrate. His leisure time he amuses, like Shenstone, with cultivating his garden, and sentimentalizing it with inscriptions. The engraved portrait which has appeared of Mr. Bowles is, we understand, not like him; but they say he has something better in his face; and by what we have otherwise heard of him, he appears to be an amiable man, who has no more business with controversy than the sparrow on his house top.

Mr. Bowles is a poet of that minor branch of the school of Collins and Gray, which was set up by the Wartons, and which is rather negative than positive in its departures from the artificial system which they opposed. It feels it’s way timidly into nature, and retains most of the common-place dressing in versification as well as fancy. Critics, partly from the natural progress of change, and more from the new track of reading into which they were led by inquiries into the old drama, had begun to feel that Pope was overrated as a poet. Collins, who was a man of genius; Gray, who had a genius reflected from Greece and Italy; and the Wartons, who may be said to have had a taste for genius, all contributed, in their several degrees, to unsettle the notion that poetry was a thing of wit and breeding about town. But the first, whose temperament was morbid and over-sensitive, was confessedly awe-stricken at the new world he had re-opened;—Gray, whose most original powers lay on the side of humour and the conversational, wrote exquisite centos rather than any thing else, and reminded us at least as much of the scholar as the poet;—and the Wartons took up the same cause, more like amiable disciples, accidentally and easily impressed, than masterly teachers who knew the depths of the question. To be bred up therefore in the Warton school was to become proselytes and proselyte-makers, a little too much in the spirit of young men educated at a dissenting college. There was more faith than works, and an ungenial twist to the controversial. Mr. Bowles came a little too soon. He was helped to his natural impulses by the critics, instead of to his critical by nature. It remained for the French Revolution to plough up all our common-places at once; and the minds that sprang out of the freshened soil set about their tasks in a spirit not only of difference but hostility. But more of this when we come to speak of Mr. Wordsworth. As to poor Cowper, he stood alone, “Like to the culver on the bared bough.” The same misery which rendered him original in some things, made him too feeble to be so in others. He was alone, not because he led the way, but because he was left on the road side. His greatest claims are higher and more reverend things,—claims on another state of existence; and we trust they have bee made up to him.

The reader may now guess the nature of Mr. Bowles’s poetry. It is elegant and good-hearted, with a real tendency to be natural but pulled back by timidity and a sense of the conventional. Talking much of nature, it shews more of art, and that art too more contented with itself than it might be, for one that is so critical upon art in others. No man, however, with a heart in his body, and any poetry in his head, woos nature for nothing. Mr. Bowles’s most popular publication is his Sonnets, written during various excursions which he took to relieve his mind under the loss of his first love. They were his first publication, and whatever he or others may say, they are his best. They were his first love. There are good passages scattered here and there in his other works, but even in those we think we can trace the overflowing of his earlier inspiration. The rest is pure, good-natured common-place. He had real impulses and thoughts upon him when we wrote his Sonnets. His other works rather seem to have been written, because he had a reputation for writing. He may even boast, as we believe he does, and ought, that his Sonnets connect him in some measure with the greater sources of living genius; for Mr. Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria, has recorded the effect they produced upon him in youth, when we understand he and Mr. Lamb used to go spouting them up and down the cloisters of Christ’s Hospital. We well quote two of them, and wish we could quote more:—

Written at Ostend, July 22, 1787.
How sweet the tuneful bells’ responsive peal!
As when, at opening morn, the fragrant breeze
Breathes on the trembling sense of wan disease,
So piercing to my heart their force I feel!
And hark! with lessening cadence now they fall,
And now, along the white and level tide,
They fling their melancholy music wide;
Bidding me many a tender thought recall
Of summer days, and those delightful years
When by my native streams, in life’s fair prime,
The mournful magic of their mingling chime
First wak’d my wondering childhood into tears!
But seeming now, when all those days are o’er,
The sounds of joy once heard, and heard no more.
At a Convent.
If chance some pensive stranger, hither led,
(His bosom glowing from majestic views,
The gorgeous dome, or the proud landscape’s hues),
Should ask who sleeps beneath this lonely bed—
’Tis poor Matilda!—To the cloister’d scene,
A mourner, beauteous and unknown, she came,
To shed her tears unmark’d, and quench the flame
Of fruitless love: yet was her look serene
As the pale moonlight in the midnight aisle;—
Her voice was soft, which yet a charm could lend
Like that which spoke of a departed friend,
And a meek sadness sat upon her smile!—
Now, far remov’d from every earthly ill,
Her woes are buried, and her heart is still.

The public have since been used to strains of “higher mood.” But let many of them recollect what they once admired. Is it nothing to have written such verses as these, mixed as they may be, at a time, when it was rare to express emotion so naturally? Men cannot be every thing which it would be fine in men’s eyes to be. Even poets cannot add a cubit to their stature, but are such as times and circumstances, as well as nature, make them. If they have any thing at all in them of a gift so uncommon as poetry, they ought to be grateful. Petrarch expected to be admired by posterity for his Latin epic poem, and has prefaced even his sonnets with an apology; yet his sonnets have been like bells for the whole earth to hear; while who knows any thing of his epic? Mr. Bowles should not trouble himself with odes and heroics, any more than with town matters and great tables. His forte, to use an Irish pun, is his piano. He belongs to quiet and the shade; and if he would write some more sonnets out of his real unsophisticated feelings (we would not quarrel about their being legitimate as to rhyme) he might rival the best fame of the Costanzos and Casas of Italy.

Above all, being what he is, an elegant sonneteer and an amiable country Clergyman, he should never meddle with critical controversy, nor even with the morals of Pope. Though a Clergyman, he has too much good-nature to visit other men’s differences in moral opinion with severity in his heart, and he should not affect to do it in public, especially when those men, whether great poets or not, were greater men than he is and quite as good. It is beneath him to put on airs as a Clergyman, which he does not affect as a man.

As to the controversy, which lately brought him so
much before the public, it has been completely settled by an
article in the London Magazine for last June.

[Next week, Lord Byron.]