Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 20. John Hall Stevenson; Crazy Tales

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

VIII. Southey

§ 20. John Hall Stevenson; Crazy Tales

The notorious John Hall Stevenson, Sterne’s Eugenius, master of “Crazy Castle” and author of Crazy Tales, had, beyond all doubt, greater intellectual ability than Williams; and, though eccentric in some ways, was neither open to the charge, nor entitled to plead the excuse, of insanity. He wrote a good deal of verse—much of it extremely slovenly in form, though, every now and then—as in the lines on Zachary Moore, the description of the Cleveland deserts at the back of his house and of the house itself and some others—showing a definite poetical power, which was far above Sir Charles. But the bulk of his work consists either of political squibs largely devoted to abuse of Bute (Fables for Grown Gentlemen, Makarony Tales, etc.) or of the “Crazy” compositions above referred to. The former, for a man of such well-authenticated wit as Stevenson, are singularly verbose, desultory and dull. If anyone has derived his ideas of what political satire ought to be, say, from Dryden in an earlier, and Canning in a later, age, he will be woefully disappointed with A Pastoral Cordial and A Pastoral Puke, which, between them, fill eighty or ninety mortal pages, and contain hardly a line that could cheer a friend or gall an enemy. A very few purely miscellaneous pieces like the lines to “the Pumproom Naiad,” Polly Lawrence of Bath, show, once more, that, if Stevenson had chosen to be good-natured and clean, he might have been a very pleasant poet. As for Crazy Tales, some of them are actual French fabliaux of the coarser kind translated or adapted, and the rest are imitations of the same style. It would be unfair to bring up La Fontaine against them; but anyone who knows, say, the nearly contemporary gauloiseries of Chamfort—himself neither the most amiable, nor the cleanest minded, nor the most poetical of men—will find English at a painful disadvantage in the prosaic brutality of too much of Stevenson’s work. He, sometimes, succeeds even here in being amusing; but, much more often, he only succeeds in proving that, if the use of proper words will not by itself produce wisdom, the use of improper ones will still less by itself produce wit.