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MRS. CHARLOTTE SMITH.

The Elegiac Sonnets of Mrs. Charlotte Smith were once very popular compositions. I lately returned to them with a pleasurable feeling, for as I had not read them since my boyhood, when they seemed productions of extraordinary beauty, I was curious to discover the nature of the change that years and more extensive reading had effected in my taste. It is sufficiently remarkable how the same reader will sometimes fluctuate, at intervals, in his literary fancies; but the fickleness of the public mind is still more surprising. How many once popular writers are now despised or forgotten, while some who were formerly neglected are regarded with idolatry! With respect to the particular case of Charlotte Smith, I confess that my individual opinion has corresponded to a considerable extent with the variation of the general judgment; and the verses that seemed very exquisite poetry to my boyish taste, make a very different impression upon me now. ran through numerous and large editions on their first appearance, and it is curious to trace, in various contemporary publications, the respect with which they were treated by some of the first critics of her time*. Cowper, who was assuredly no mean judge of poetical excellence, speaks of her “charming Sonnetst." It is true

Her poems, that he also thought the frigid Hayley a poet, but at one period his taste would have been called in question if he had esteemed him less. The “Triumphs of Temper” did not try the temper of our ancestors, but was really, for a considerable period, a very popular performance. But Cowper himself was one of those who commenced the grand revolution in our poetical literature which brought such writers as his friends Hayley and Mrs. Smith into comparative contempt, and who first taught us by precept and example that English verse was capable of great improvement, notwithstanding what was long considered the actual perfection of Pope. I do not mean to fall into the too common injustice of those who think it necessary, when they admire the greater freedom and variety of the present systems of versification, to deny all merit to poetry of a different order. I am not exclusive in my taste, and can read alternately such poets as Coleridge and Pope with a disposition to enjoy and appreciate their very opposite and peculiar excellencies both of style and matter. The dreaminess, the profound intensity, and the subtle and mystical harmonies of the one, need not render us insensible to the terseness, the wit and energy, and the less elaborate, though more precise music of the other. The great facility with which Pope's manner was imitated by his followers was one cause of the decline of his popularity ; for when it was found that every poetaster had got his tune by heart, the public grew sick of the repetition, and soon thought less respectfully of what at first was a marvel and a luxury. In this re-action of taste, the great poetical idol of his time is now as much depreciated as he was formerly over-rated; and it seems by many critics to be utterly forgotten, that Pope's chief excellence is by no means dependent on the mere sound of his couplets. His works not only teem with wit and wisdom, expressed with wonderful felicity and precision, but display some of those finer and more ethereal qualities that ought long ago to have settled the idle question of, whether he was a true poet or merely a clever writer

* The Gentleman's Magazine (of that day) gravely observed, that" it is trifling praise for Mrs. Smith's Sonnets to pronounce them superior to Shakspeare's and Milton's.”

+ Mathias, the author of the Pursuits of Literature, thus alludes to her in one of the notes to that work :-“ Mrs. Charlotte Smith has great poetical powers, and a pathos which commands attention.” Sir Egerton Brydges, in the second edition of his Censura Literaria, speaks of her poetry in the following terms :“There is so much unaffected elegance; so much harmony and pathos in it; the images are so soothing and so delightful; and the sentiments so touching, so consonant to the best movements of the heart, that no reader of pure taste can grow weary of perusing them.” In an article on Chalmers's English Poets (apparently by Southey) in the Quarterly Review, No. 23, it is observed that “ Charlotte Smith's descriptions, whether in prose or verse, have always the charm of well-selected truth."

in verse.

His Rape of the Lock, and several descriptive passages in the Windsor Forest, afford indisputable evidence that he possessed a fancy at once delicate and prolific, and that he could “ look on nature with a poet's eye." If Pope had lived in later times, he would probably have been a very different kind of poet, and have attended more to the culture and development of his imagination. It was formerly the fashion to regard poets as mere

men of wit about town,” but they are now expected to be at once fanciful and profound. People at last begin to make a distinction between verse and poetry, and cleverness and genius. Mere talent in a poem is no longer respected as it used to be, for there is now a general love of poetry for its own sake, and readers look less for smart and pointed passages of shrewd sense and satire, than for thoughts and words steeped in the hues of imagination. The consequence is that a much higher and more ethereal tone pervades the poetry of the day; and readers, accustomed to strains of loftier mood, turn with something like disgust from the verses that charmed them in their earlier years. The old common-places of poetry no longer deceive us, and the artificial expressions in which many writers of mere verse once enveloped their sickly sentimentalities, and thus passed upon the world for poets, are now utterly discarded; and if an author's style be not fresh and natural, he is not endured. Even Pope himself indulged too much in the use of epithets that were nothing more than sounding expletives, that became the more disgusting from their eternal repetition by his servile herd of imitators.

The lady, to whose Sonnets I must now return, deals very liberally in the old fashioned diction, and in that querulous egotism and fantastic melancholy which were common to all her contemporary Sonneteers. According to their notions, to be truly poetical it was necessary to be sad, and the whole world was to be informed of their affliction. Anna Seward is severely witty on Mrs. Smith's Sonnets. “ Never,” she says, “ were poetical whipt syllabubs in

black glasses so eagerly swallowed by the odd taste of the public." But Mrs. Smith was not, like too many of her contemporaries, a tuneful hypocrite; for she really was acquainted with grief, and had no little cause for those melodious tears," with which she gave herself to fame. She suffered severely from the failure of her husband's mercantile speculations, and the brutality and fraud of lawyers and guardians, who cheated her of a provision for her large family. Her domestic sorrows are very touchingly told in the prefaces to the different editions of her poems. Aware, therefore, that her melancholy is no poetic fiction, though often rather affectedly expressed, we can read her Sonnets without that sickening sensation which is excited by the false and ridiculous sensibilities of the Della Cruscan School. These little poems are not constructed on the Petrarchan model, and have no right to the title of sonnets, unless every poem in fourteen lines may be said to belong to that species of composition. But fourteen lines or three quatrains, and a concluding couplet, do not make a sonnet, if Petrarch and Dante in the Italian, and Milton and Wordsworth in our own language, are to be taken as authorities. In the metrical construction, and in the unity of design peculiar to the sonnet, these little compositions are all deficient. But if they are not legitimate Sonnets, several of them are very pretty and pleasing poems; for, though I once thought far more highly of them than I now do, I can still see something in them to admire. They have a feminine pathos, and a delicacy and tenderness of senti. ment, that ought to save them from oblivion. Though the liquid smoothness of the versification, and the languid elegance of the diction may not suit an ear accustomed to the vigour and variety of later poems, I can remember that they gratified me in my younger days, and they have still a kind of charm for me that I am almost ashamed to acknowledge. Perhaps early associations, a reference to the feminine qualities of the fair author's mind, and a sympathy for her distresses, make me willing to be pleased in

defiance of an increased experience and a maturer judgment. I have no doubt that it was a perusal of these Sonnets, (for such, as a matter of courtesy or convenience, they must be called,) that suggested those of Bowles, which are written in a similar strain of feeling, and perhaps with no great superiority in point of strength and originality. The versification, however, is rather more varied, and the metrical arrangement is, in some respects, a little closer to the Italian model. They have met with much the same fate. They as speedily ran through a number of editions, and were almost as speedily neglected. A great poet too, the author of Christabel, with whose own style they are so strikingly contrasted, has praised them with the same enthusiasm as did Cowper those of Charlotte Smith. Little dependence, it seems, is to be placed on the individual judgments of poets upon each other, whether favorable or adverse. Waller saw nothing in Milton, but an old blind school-master, who had written a dull poem remarkable for nothing but its length. Wordsworth and Coleridge think Gray's Elegy in a Country Church-yard a very meagre and common-place production; and Byron insinuated that Pope was a greater poet than Shakspeare, and spoke very contemptuously of Spenser. When doctors disagree, the general voice must decide upon disputed points, though even then we have no final judgment, for the public is often as fickle as a child. This is very perplexing to the poet, whose life is one dream of ambition. His only consolation is the hope that posterity will be more calm and constant; and that, when the varying winds of contemporary opinion shall have died away, his bark may float securely upon the smooth waters of immortality. It is melancholy, however, to reflect how many who have once enjoyed a flattering popularity, and who have looked forward with a proud confidence to such a consummation, have passed from the memories of men like summer clouds. Charlotte Smith, elegant and refined as she is, is rapidly sinking into oblivion, and in a very few years will be

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