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

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 39. Reginald Heber

On the other hand, there are reasons for thinking that, if Reginald Heber, bishop of Calcutta, had devoted himself entirely to letters, he might have been a poet, if not exactly of first rank, at least very high in the second. He has no “rocket” piece like Wolfe’s Burial. But, though he died at forty-three, and, for the last twenty years of his life, laboured faithfully at clerical work (latterly of the most absorbing kind), he showed a range and variety of talent in verse which should have taken him far. The story is well known how, during a visit of Scott to Oxford, Heber added impromptu on a remark from Sir Walter the best lines of the rather famous Newdigate which he was about to recite. He added to hymnology some dozen of the best and best known attempts in that difficult art below its few masterpieces. He could write serio-comic verse in a fashion which suggests not imitation, but, in some cases, anticipation, of Moore, Praed and Barham at once. The Spenserians of his Morte d’Arthur need only to have been taken a little more seriously to be excellent; and the charming lines to his wife (If thou wert by my side, my love) in the late Indian days, unpretentious and homely as they are, remind one of the best side of the eighteenth century in that vein as shown in Lewis’s Winifreda.

For there was still a considerable eighteenth century touch in Heber; and the fact may conveniently introduce the few general remarks which have been promised to end this chapter. It is safe to say that all the poets here dealt with—major, minor, or minim, in their own division—display, not merely in a fanciful chronological classification but in real fact, the transition character which is very important to the historical student of literature, and very interesting to the reader of poetry who does not wilfully choose to shut his ears and eyes to it. Some, to use the old figure, are Januses of the backward face only; or with but a contorted and casual vision forwards. Hardly one can be said to look steadily ahead, though, in the group to which particular attention has been devoted (that of Hood, Darley, Beddoes and others), the forward velleity, however embarrassed and unknowing, is clear. Their struggle does not avail much, but it avails something. In yet others, new kinds of subject, and even of outward form, effect an alteration which their treatment hardly keeps up.

Another point connected with this general aspect and itself of some importance for the general study of literary history is this—that, despite individual tendencies to imitation, all these poets show a general air as of sheep without a shepherd. They have—except Rogers, Bloomfield and one or two more among the minors and Campbell as a kind of major in a half vain recalcitrance—lost the catchwords and guiding rules of eighteenth century poetry, and they have not fully discovered those of the nineteenth. Even their elder contemporaries, from Wordsworth downwards, were fully comprehended by few of them; Shelley and Keats only dawn upon the youngest and not fully even on them. Now, it has sometimes been asserted that the complete dominance of any poet, poets or style of poetry is a drawback to poetic progress; and particular applications have been suggested in the case of the long ascendency of Tennyson in the middle and later nineteenth century. A comparison of the range of lesser poetry, as we have surveyed it, between 1800 and 1835, with that which appeared between 1840 and 1880, is not very likely to bear out this suggestion.