The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 3. The Pleasures of Hope

So far so good; but, unfortunately, no historical account of Campbell’s poetry can be arrested at this point. He did not write much verse in his fairly long life; not because he was prevented by untoward circumstances (for, though he had some hackwork to do, it was never oppressive or prohibitory), but, apparently, because he did not feel inclined to write much. But, at a rough guess, he wrote some six or seven thousand lines in all, and it is certain that the poems referred to above, even taking the bad or indifferent (which, in some, is the much larger) part with the good, do not amount to anything like six or seven hundred. The long, or comparatively long, Pleasures of Hope, which at once made his fame and his fortune, is much better (though Byron did not think so) than its companion and predecessor Memory, for, as has been said, Campbell was a poet and Rogers, save by chance-medley, was not. But, with less flatness, it has nearly as much artificiality; it scarcely ever gets beyond metred rhetoric; and this rhetoric itself, as in the tag

  • And Freedom shrieked when Kosciusko fell,
  • is not always first-rate. Freedom, whether she sits crowned upon the heights or, for the time, dies fighting on the field, has something else to do than to shriek. Of the other long poems, Gertrude of Wyoming, perhaps, is the clumsiest caricature of the Spenserian stanza ever achieved by a man of real poetic power; the comparison with Thomson which has sometimes been made of it is an insult to The Castle of Indolence; and it is even far below Beattie. As for Theodoric and The Pilgrim of Glencoe, they have, from the first, been carefully “confessed and avoided” by Campbell’s warmest admirers when these had any taste at all. But, it may be said, this long-poem practice was not his vein. The accidents of time and other things had, in the dead season of 1799, made The Pleasures of Hope a success, and he had to try to repeat it.

    But he did not by any means confine himself to these long poems; and it will have been noticed that, even in reference to the shorter ones and the best of them, it was necessary to speak in all but one instance with reservations. In his Specimens, Campbell showed himself, though rather a limited, not a bad, critic, and, though his disliketo the prevailing romantic school (which yet he followed in a sidelong and recalcitrant manner) made him take a questionable part in the Bowles-Pope controversy, he was not contemptible there. But, of self-criticism —at least of such self-criticism as prevents a man from publishing inferior work—he seems to have had little or nothing. It would be dangerous to take his asserted confession, at one moment, that The Pleasures of Hope was “trash,” as a serious utterance; besides, it is not exactly that. Yet, he could deliberately publish, as a version of a chorus in Medea, the following lines:

  • Hallowed Earth! with indignation
  • Mark! oh mark! the murderous deed—
  • Rediant eye of wide creation
  • Watch the accursed infanticide [ceed].
  • …..
  • In the vales of placid gladness
  • Let no rueful maniac range;
  • Chase afar the fiend of madness,
  • Wrench the dagger from Revenge [vange].
  • Which looks like an attempt to match Pope’s Song by a Person of Quality in the serious blood-and-thunder vein. Nor, if he is seldom quite so bad as this, does he avoid, in a very large number of cases, coming only too near to it.

    Cases of “the poet dying young” (all Campbell’s best work was done when he was a little past thirty) and the man surviving are, of course, common enough; and, in most of them, there is little or no need to seek for a special and philosophical explanation. In Campbell’s, we may, perhaps, find a particular one beyond the undoubted and obvious fact that the springs of his Helicon were neither frequent nor full; and that it required a special stamp of one breed of Pegasus to set them flowing. He probably suffered not a little from being, in a rather peculiar manner, recalcitrant to his time. He was younger than Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott and Southey, and, though he did not live to be a very old man, Tennyson’s Poems of 1842 and Browning’s Bells and Pomegranates, 1841, were published before his death. But he withstood the romantic grace, and yet he could not thoroughly rest and be content with the older classical dispensation. It has been said that Collins would probably have benefited unequivocally by the chance of writing at the time when Campbell actually did write. It is not too great a compliment to the author of Hohenlinden to say that there are not a few touches in him which remind us of Collins. But, if he did not exactly, in the language of his own country, “sin the mercies” that Collins did not receive, he made little use of them. And so he remains an interesting example, both in himself and to literary history, of the dangers of a transition period.