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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

V. Thomson and Natural Description in Poetry

§ 12. Somervile’s Chace and other Poems

Somerville himself had nothing to teach Thomson; and his Chace, when it appeared, shows the influence of the verse of The Seasons, or, at any rate, a strong inclination to come into line with it. The poet’s “hoarse-sounding horn” invited the prince of Wales, the friend of Lyttelton and the patron of Thomson,

  • to the Chace, the sport of kings;
  • Image of war, without its guilt.
  • After a short sketch of the history of hunting from the rude but thorough methods of Nimrod to the days of William the conqueror, and a compliment to Britain, the “fair land of liberty,” as the true home of horse and hound, the country gentlemen of Britain are summoned to hear the poet’s instructions upon his favourite sport. He discusses at length and with much practical knowledge and good sense, the position and proper design of the kennels, with the advice, not inapplicable to a day when Palladian symmetry was being pursued to excess by the architects of country houses and their out-buildings, “Let no Corinthian pillars prop the dome.” The habits of hounds, the best breeds—a subject which gives Somerville the true hunter’s opportunity to express his contempt for coursing—and the mysteries of scent conclude the first book. Hare-hunting is the main subject of the second and fox-hunting of the third; but Somerville was not a mere sportsman, and his literary digressions and allusions to the great Mogul’s battue of wild beasts “taken from Monsieur Bernier, and the history of Gengiscan the Great,” and to the story of the tribute of wolves, heads imposed by Edgar, show that he followed his own advice and spent days on which sport was impossible in improving converse with his books. From one of these digressions upon oriental methods of hunting, his “devious muse” is recalled, with an appropriate reference to Denham’s Cooper’s Hill and a flattering eulogy of the royal family, to Windsor and the king’s buckhounds; and the third book ends with an example of royal clemency to the stag and a compliment to the throne. The concluding book contains instructions upon breeding and the art of training puppies, from which a transition is made to the diseases of hounds and the fatal effect of bites. Otter-hunting concludes the series of descriptions, and is followed by a final congratulation, in the spirit of Vergil’s O fortunatos nimium, on the felicities of the hunter in his unambitious country life.

    The Chace was followed a few years later by the short poem entitled Rural Sports, also dedicated to the prince of Wales. Hobbinol, a burlesque narrative in blank verse, dedicated to Hogarth, was inspired by Philips’s Splendid Shilling, and is a lively account of the quarrelsome May games of some rustics in the vale of Evesham. In his preface, as in that to The Chace, Somerville indulged in a short critical explanation of his chosen form of verse, and defined his burlesque as “a satire against the luxury, the pride, the wantonness, and quarrelsome temper, of the middling sort of people,” which he condemned as respon sible for the decline in trade and the depressed condition of the rural districts. These poems do not add anything to the qualities displayed in The Chace, and the mock heroics of Hobbinol are unduly prolonged into three cantos. Somerville, however, was always lively in description; he knew his subject, whether he wrote of sport, or of the amusements of the Gloucestershire rustic “from Kiftsgate to remotest Henbury,” and he had a genuine feeling for classical poetry. Philips appears to have been his favourite English author, appealing to his rural tastes and to his particular vein of somewhat coarse humour. Natural description is purely incidental to his verse; but the scene and atmosphere of the various forms of sport which he described are suggested in adequate general terms. Where he approaches detail, as in his description of unfavourable weather for hunting, the resemblance of his methods to those of Thomson is noticeable. Like Thomson, he was fond, as has been noticed, of oriental and of patriotic digressions. His tendency to moralising is slight when compared with Thomson’s and from quasi-religious rhapsody he was as entirely free as he was from Thomson’s sympathy with the victims of the chase. His poems are in no sense dull reading; but his blank verse, suave and regular, is somewhat monotonous, and is seldom broken by any variation of accent, such as that frequent employment of a trochee in the first foot of a line which gives variety of movement to the verse of The Seasons.