The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VII. Young, Collins and Lesser Poets of the Age of Johnson
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 15. Attractiveness and shortcomings of his Verse
To any one who has read much poetry, and has thought a little about it with due mixture of criticism and affection, some—relatively many—of these pieces have a strange attraction. The true and even profound notions as to poetical substance and form which are scattered about Shenstone’s prose seem to have exercised some prompting, but no restraining, influence on his verse. A seldom quoted, and not in the least hackneyed, piece, The Song of Valentine’s Day, illustrates this, perhaps, in a more striking fashion than any other. He appears, at first, to have caught that inestimable soar and sweep of the common measure which had seemed to be lost with the latest Carolines; and the charm of it, as it were, is in the distance throughout. But he never fully masters it. Some lines, beginning with the second—’T is said that under distant skies,Nor you the fact deny—are hopelessly prosaic. The fatal jargon of the time, “swain” and “grove” and the rest, pervades and mars the whole. The spell is never consummated; but the possibility is always there. Of the Ode to Memory, something the same may be said, and of others. His best known things, The Dying Kid, the Jemmy Dawson ballad and the four-parted Pastoral, are unequal, but only because they condescend nearer to the fashion. The three-footed anapaestics of the last are jingling enough, no doubt; and it is wonderful that Shenstone should not have anticipated the variations and ennoblings of the metre which, even then, though chiefly in light matter, had been sometimes hit upon, and which were perfected by Byron, Praed and Swinburne. But there is a favour and a prettiness about them that still appeal to all but very superior persons; and not merely they, but many of their companions, show that Shenstone was certainly a “called,” if he could not quite rise to be a “chosen,” poet.