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

VII. Young, Collins and Lesser Poets of the Age of Johnson

§ 8. Dyer’s Grongar Hill

The other poets to be mentioned in the present chapter are inferior to these two; but, with rare exception, each has something that would make it improper to batch or group him with others, as was done on a former occasion; while hardly one is so distinctly eminent that, in his case, chronological order need be disregarded as it has been in that of Collins. We shall, therefore, observe it, with the very slight further liberty (possibly no liberty at all) of mentioning John Dyer, who was certainly not born within the eighteenth century, but whose exact birth-year is unknown, before Green and Blair, who can be positively claimed for the seventeenth.

For Dyer, though his real claims rest upon one short piece only, and that not belonging to the very highest style of poetry, must be recognised as a poet, and as a very remarkable poet, from curiously different points of view. The Fleece and The Ruins of Rome are merely examples of the extraordinary mistakes as to subjects proper for poetry, and the ordinary infelicity in dealing with them, which have condemned eighteenth century verse as a whole to a lower place than it deserves. The Country Walk, not disagreeable in itself, is either a vastly inferior first draft, or a still more surprisingly unsuccessful replica, of Grongar Hill. But Grongar Hill itself is one of those poems which occupy a place of their own, humble though it may be, as compared with the great epics and tragedies, simple and of little variety, as compared with the garlands or paradises of the essentially lyrical poets, but secure, distinguished and, practically, unique. That even Johnson, though he thought it “not very accurately written,” allowed it to be “pleasing,” and felt sure that “when once read it would be read again,” is a striking testimony in its favour. For it deals almost wholly with “prospects,” to which Johnson was contemptuously indifferent; and its “inaccuracy” (which, in truth, is the highest accuracy) was to prove a very crowbar for loosening the foundations of the prosody that he thought accurate.

The poem is really a little wonder in subject and form alike. The devotees of “the subject” cannot fail, if they know the facts, to recognise in it the first definite return to that fixing of the eye on the object in nature which, though not so absent from Dryden as Wordsworth thought, had been growing rarer and rarer (save in such obscure work as Lady Winchilsea’s) for generation after generation, and which was to be the most powerful process in the revived poetry of the future. The student of form cannot fail to perceive in that inaccuracy which Johnson (for him) gently blamed something neither more nor less than a return to the peculiar form of the octosyllabic couplet which, after being developed by Shakespeare and Fletcher and the pastoral poets of the early seventeenth century, had been exquisitely employed by Milton in the twin masterpieces of his youth. The poem appeared, in 1726, in the Miscellany of that remarkable person Lewis. Even the first of The Seasons had but just been published; and, if there is a certain identity of spirit between this poem and Dyer’s, the expression is wholly different. Even those who are free from any half-partisan, half-ignorant contempt for the age of Pope and the age of Johnson, must own how strange and sweet, amid the ordinary concert of those ages, is the sound of

  • Who in the purple evening lie
  • On the mountain’s lonely van …
  • or
  • A little rule, a little sway,
  • A sunbeam on a winter’s day …
  • or
  • Sometimes swift, sometimes slow,
  • Wave succeeding wave, they go
  • A various journey to the deep,
  • Like human life, to endless sleep.
  • That Dyer was a painter as well as a poet goes, no doubt, for something; that, at least, he liked to think he had married a collateral descendant of, in his own phrase, “everybody’s Shakespere,” may go for a great deal.