Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 23. The Della Cruscans

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

VIII. Southey

§ 23. The Della Cruscans

For the nadir of the art, however—which, as if to justify divers sayings, was reached just before the close of the eighteenth century, and just before those ascents to the zenith which illustrated its actual end, and the early nineteenth—one must go beyond Darwin, beyond even Hayley, to Robert Merry and those about him—to the school commonly called the Della Cruscans, from the famous Florentine academy to which Merry actually belonged, and the title of which he took as signature. Darwin, as has been said, is a pattern of mistaken elaborateness, and Hayley one of well-intentioned nullity. But Darwin was not imbecile; and Hayley was not, or not very, pretentious. The school just referred to was preceded in its characteristics by some earlier work, such as that of Helen Maria Williams and Sir James Bland Burges (later Sir James Lamb). But, in itself, it united pretentiousness and imbecility after a fashion not easy to parallel elsewhere; and was, inadequately, rather than excessively, chastised in the satires of Gifford and Mathias. It does not appear that all its members were, personally, absolute fools. Merry himself is credited by Southey and others with a sort of irregular touch of genius: and “Anna Matilda”—Mrs. Cowley, the author of The Belle’s Stratagem—certainly had wits. But they, and still more their followers, “Laura,” “Arley,” “Benedict,” “Cesario,” “The Bard,” etc. (some of whom can be identified, while others, fortunately for themselves cannot) drank themselves drunk at the heady tap of German Sturm-und-Drang romanticism, blending it with French sentimentality and Italian trifling, so as to produce almost inconceivable balderdash. Even the widest reading of English verse could hardly enable anyone to collect from the accumulated poetry of the last three centuries an anthology of folly and bad taste surpassing the two volumes of The British Album, the crop of a very few years and the labour of some half-a-dozen or half-a-score pens.