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

VIII. Southey

§ 24. William Lisle Bowles

Of the last constituents of the group under present review, it is, fortunately, possible to treat Bowles and Sayers, both of them possessing, as has been said, some special connection with Southey, in a different fashion. Neither, so far as poetic inspiration goes, was even a second-class poet; but both exercise very great influence over poets greater than themselves, and, therefore, have made good their place in literary history. William Lisle Bowles, slightly the elder, and very much the more long-lived, of the two, has left (as in that life of many years he might easily do without neglecting his duties as a country clergyman) a very considerable amount of verse, which it is not necessary for anyone save the conscientious historian or the unwearied explorer of English poetry to read, but which can be read without any extraordinary difficulty or disgust. Bowles, indeed, never deserves the severer epithets of condemnation which have been applied in the last page or two. His theories of poetry (of which more presently) were sound and his practice was never offensively foolish, or in bad taste, or even dull. He lacks distinction and intensity. But he lives, in varying degrees of vitality, by two things only that he did, one at the very outset of his career, the other at a later stage of it. His first claim, and by far his highest, is to be found in Fourteen Sonnets (afterwards reinforced in number), which originally appeared in 1789, and which passed through nearly half-a-score of editions in hardly more than as many years. Grudging critics have observed that they were lucky in coming before the great outburst of 1798–1824, and in being contrasted with such rubbish as that which we have been reviewing. It would be uncritical as well as ungenerous not to add that, actually, they did much to start the movement that eclipsed them; and that, whatever their faults may be, these are merely negative—are, in fact, almost positive virtues—when compared with the defects of Darwin and Hayley and the Della Cruscans. Although Bowles was not the first to revive the sonnet, he was the first, for more than a century, to perceive its double fitness for introspection and for outlook; to combine description with sentiment in the new poetical way. It is no wonder that schoolboys like Coleridge and Southey, gluttons alike of general reading and of poetry, should have fastened on the book at once; no wonder that Coleridge, unable to afford more printed examples, should have copied his own again and again in manuscript for his friends. And it is one of the feathers in the cap of that historic estimate which has been sometimes decried that nothing else could enable the reader to see the real beauty of Bowles’s humble attempts, undazzled and unblinded by the splendour of his followers’ success. Tynemouth and Bamborough Castle, Hope and The Influence of Time on Grief are not very strong meat, not very “mantling wine”; but they are the first course, or the hors d’œuvre, of the abounding banquet which followed.

Bowles’s second appearance of importance was rather critical than poetical, or, perhaps, let us say, had more to do with the theory, than with the practice, of poetry. Editing Pope, he, not unnaturally, revived the old question of the value of Pope’s poetry: and a mildly furious controversy followed, in which classically-minded poets of the calibre of Byron and Campbell took part, which produced numerous pamphlets, rather fluttered Bowles’s Wiltshire dovecote, but developed in him the fighting power of birds much more formidable than doves. As usual, it was rather a case of the gold and silver shield; but Bowles’s general contention that, in poetry, the source of subject and decoration alike should be rather nature than art, and Byron’s incidental insistence (very inconsistently maintained) that execution is the great secret, were somewhat valuable by-products of a generally unprofitable dispute.