The Eclectic Review, 7 ( Dec 1811 ), 1103-20


The Eclectic Review, 7 ( Dec 1811 ), 1103-20

[Review of] The Banks of the Wye, a Poem in Four Books

The Banks of the Wye, a Poem, in four Books. By Robert Bloomfield, Author of the Farmer's Boy. Foolscap 8vo, pp. 134. price 5s. Vernor and Co. and Longman and Co. 1811.

1.         THE name of Robert Bloomfield is probably known to all our readers, and many must be acquainted with his poetry. Eight years ago the Farmer's Boy was as much in fashion, as the Lady of the Lake is now. A century hence, we presume, they will both be equally known, though differently esteemed: - for we will not bring two works so intrinsically dissimilar into further comparison, nor by this conjecture, which cannot be confuted in our own time, would we pretend to place their opposite merits on a level. It has been the misfortune of the author of the Farmer's Boy, to be exalted above his deserts at the beginning of his career, and, according to the natural course of things in this perverse world, to be depreciated as much below them, in the sequel, by those, especially, who assume to be the keepers of the public conscience in matters of taste. His country muse resembled the country lass, whom he describes so charmingly in his Rural Tales;

'No meadow-flower rose fresher to the view,
'That met her morning footsteps in the dew;
'Where if a nodding stranger eyed her charms,
'The blush of innocence was up in arms;
'Love's random glances struck the unguarded mind,
'And Beauty's magic made him look behind.'

Thus the public fell in love with the simple Suffolk Muse at first sight: and turning to look after her when she was passed by, praised her gait, her shape, her countenance and air as quite enchanting and unrivalled. But meeting her frequently in the walks of Parnassus, and deeming her less fascinating at every interview, that public, whose affections are more inconstant than the clouds that change colour in every light, and form in every breeze, soon discerned her homeliness of feature, rusticity of accent, and inelegance of manners. Hence, though familiarity has not bred contempt, her modest charms have been long ago so much eclipsed by the dazzling pretensions of higher born and higher gifted rivals, that few comparatively now behold her with the partiality of Walter to Jane in his first love.

2.         But though the poem of the Farmer's Boy was almost borne down with the panegyrics that ushered it into the world, the good genius of the author weathered the gale; and so far it was a fortunate circumstance for him to have been trumpeted into notice by Mr. Capel Lofft, since he had worth enough to survive the praises of his patron, - praises so indiscreet and extravagant, that, unless he had possessed powers of rare excellence, (very different indeed in kind and degree from those absurdly ascribed to him,) he must have sunk under the ridicule of unmerited encomiums. A few words will serve to characterize those merits, which have rescued the name of the most humble poet, from the imprudence of the most ostentatious patron, of the age.

3.         In description, the poetry of Robert Bloomfield is peculiarly pleasing; because it presents images and pictures, both of living and inanimate nature, which every eye recognizes at first view, and which often occasion not only an emotion of delight at finding them in verse, but of surprise, that, although they were perfectly familiar to us, the originals themselves never touched us so exquisitely before as the poet's representation of them does now. Of this kind are the minute and lively notice of the insects in the grass, - the flight of the skylark, - the nocturnal thunder-storm, - the swine alarmed by wild ducks, - and many others; in which the simplest circumstances strike the mind with all the effect of novelty. In sentiment, we find little beyond common-place moralizing which, after all, is the most permanently affecting, when plainly and fervently enforced, as we frequently meet with it in the Farmer's Boy; - not to mention that ordinary feelings and reflections are the best, nay, the only proper ones, which the scenes and situations are calculated to excite in such actors or sufferers as are introduced by this writer. It is also the great excellence and advantage of Robert Bloomfield, that he always paints from his own eye, and writes from his own heart. His personages are all real, not imaginary: they are of the same class in life with himself; and have, if we may so express it, the same sensorium of knowledge and observation. Of most poets the very reverse must be said, - not in their disparagement, but as a matter of fact. They seldom pourtray their friends and companions, express their own unsophisticated feelings, or exhibit the scenery of their particular neighbourhood, as endeared to their remembrance from infancy to youth. Kings and heroes, men with whom they never conversed, except in books, - foreign lands and foreign manners, which they never saw, are the favourite themes of those who, in their reveries, create an ideal world, and people it with beings, which they can only conceive to have existed in fancied regions, under fabled circumstances. Truth, plain truth, - nature, undisfigured nature, are the perpetual objects of desire, pursuit, and admiration in Robert Bloomfield's poems.

'I would not for a world of gold
'That Nature's lovely face should tire,' —

is the honest exclamation of our rustic bard, in a beautiful little poem, intitled Love of the Country, and published in his volume of Wild Flowers: it might be the motto of all his works. – We need only add, that his versification is, on the whole, easy and agreeable, though less so in his lyrical stanzas than in the heroic couplets.

4.         In his Rural Tales, the author has happily succeeded in an attempt to render the loves and joys, the sports and manners, of English peasants, interesting. Before him we do not recollect any poet, who, by a serious, unaffected delineation of humble life, as it actually exists in our own country, had awakened a strong sympathy in persons more fortunately circumstanced towards the lowest class of the community. In Goldsmith's Deserted Village, much entertainment is afforded, and compassion excited, by the inimitable skill of the poet in displaying the characters, pastimes, and injuries of the inhabitants of his favourite Auburn: but still the reader condescends to be pleased, or to pity; - there is little of fellow-feeling in the case. Gay and others, who have pretended to celebrate rural swains and maidens, have always degraded them by a mixture of the ludicrous with the true, to give spirit to their delineations; thereby rendering what might have been natural and affecting, grotesque and amusing. Richard and Kate, Walter and Jane, and the Miller's Maid, therefore, are unique and original poems, which, by representing them as they really are, have rescued the English peasantry from unmerited reproach, and raised them to an equality with their Scottish neighbours, whose character, in verse at least, is associated with all that is romantic in love, or delightful in song.

5.         Of the volume before us we need not say much. The title will apprize the reader that its beauties must be principally descriptive. In sentiment and character little will be expected. Of the latter, indeed, there is almost nothing; but of the former there are occasionally pathetic and impressive passages, inspired by the views of the mountain-scenery, new to the eye of a Suffolk bard, and by the presence of magnificent ruins, the wreck of ages. Yet the chief deficiency of the poem is, not so much that its merits are nearly confined to description, but that the description itself is so local and particular, that readers who are unacquainted with the places named and spoken of as if present or well-known, will be dissatisfied with the unreal pictures of them which they can form in their own minds: while those who are familiar with the lovely and romantic borders of the Wye, may be still less pleased with slight and hasty sketches of rocks, ruins, fields and villages and hills, which the poet is enabled to catch, by mist or moonlight, in sunshine or shadow, as he glides among them in his boat, and admires them from the bosom of the stream. With these inevitable imperfections and disadvantages, the poem is not less entertaining in form and sprightly execution than might reasonably be required at the hands of the unassuming author, who has made it as good as the subject would let him. For what but diversified exhibitions of similar objects could be expected from the poetical log book of a fresh-water sailor, in a ten days voyage of pleasure, on a narrow river, whose banks presented a succesion of evanescent landscapes, - opening and receding, mingling and losing themselves in each other? — The following is a fair average specimen of the versification and plan of the work.

'On upland farm, and airy height,
Swept by the breeze, and cloth'd in light,
The reapers, early from their beds,
Perhaps were singing o'er our heads.
For, stranger, deem not that the eye
Could hence survey the eastern sky:
Or mark'd the streak'd horizon's bound,
Where first the rosy sun wheels round.
Deep in the gulf beneath were we,
Whence climb'd blue mists o'er rock and tree;
A mingling, undulating crowd,
That form'd the dense or fleecy cloud;
Slow from the darken'd stream upborne,
They caught the quick'ning gales of morn;
There bade their parent Wye good day,
And ting'd with purple sail'd away.'

'The air resign'd its hazy blue,
Just as Lundoga came in view;
Delightful village! one by one,
Its climbing dwellings caught the sun.
So bright the scene, the air so clear,
Young Joy and Love seem'd station'd here:
And each with floating banners cried,
"Stop, friend, you'll meet the slimy tide."

The salmon-fisher is thus admirably drawn out to the very eye of the reader, who forgets that he sees him only in verse, and not in reality, in lines which have no other merit than that of revealing the object so clearly, that their own faults are not perceived without scrutiny.
'Pure, temperate joys, and calm, were these;
We tost upon no Indian seas:
No savage chiefs, of various hue,
Came jabbering in the bark canoe
Our strength to dare, our course to turn;
Yet boats a South Sea chief would burn,
Sculk'd in the alder shade. Each bore,
Devoid of keel, or sail, or oar,
An upright fisherman, whose eye,
With Bramin-like solemnity,
Survey'd the surface either way,
And cleav'd it like a fly at play:
And crossways bore a balanc'd pole,
To drive the salmon from his hole;
Then heedful leapt, without parade,
On shore, as luck or fancy bade;
And o'er his back, in gallant trim,
Swung the light shell that carried him;
Then down again his burden threw,
And launch'd his whirling bowl anew;
Displaying, in his bow'ry station,
The infancy of navigation.' – pp. 34-6.

A harvest-day, as it appears to a traveller rapidly passing through the country, is briefly, but happily, depicted. Though every one that has journied for a few miles, at such a time, must have seen the circumstance noticed in the three last lines, who ever thought of it before? And yet it is the peculiarity of this general incident that gives life and motion to the whole scene. It makes that which before was only an object of perception, a subject of reflection; and in such strokes as these the unattainable art of the genuine poet of Nature is more fully discovered, than in the most ostentatious parade of wholesale description.

'Nor road-side cottage smoke was seen,
Or, rarely, on the village green:
No youths appear'd, in spring-tide dress,
In ardent play, or idleness.
Brown wav'd the harvest; dale and slope
Exulting bore a nation's hope:
Sheaves rose as far as sight could range,
And every mile was but a change
Of peasants lab'ring, lab'ring still,
And climbing many a distant hill.' – Book II. pp. 107-8.

6.         We shall be thought very superficial critics, if we do not point out some of the thousand faults, which every superficial reader will find in this volume. We say superficial reader, because those who will take the pains to be pleased will not be disappointed; they will find the faults diminishing, and the beauties multiplying, the more patiently these pages are examined. The author's humour is generally very poor; and the language of it too coarse even for his honesty of style of poetry. Yet we do not envy the fastidious delicacy of those who can be so disgusted with the bluntness of phrase, as not to feel, by instantaneous sympathy, the poet's rapture expressed in the following lines:

_________ 'Hang the dunce,
Who would not doff his cap at once
In ecstasy, when, bold and new,
Bursts on his sight a mountain-view' – p. 78.

7.         In the opening of the fourth book, after having told us, very prettily, how much he was affected while attending divine service, performed alternately in English and Welch, in the principality, our traveller, with unbecoming levity, demands:

'Ye, who religious maxim's teach,
What constitutes a sabbath's breach?
Is it, when joy the bosom fills,
To wander o'er the breezy hills?
Is it to trace around your home
The footsteps of Imperial Rome?
Then guilty, guilty let us plead,
Who, on the cheerful rested steed,
In thought absorb'd, explor'd with care
The wild lanes round the silent Gaer, &c. &c. – pp. 103-4.

Had this question been asked from any better motive than idle bravery, the author would not have mounted his horse till it had been answered to his satisfaction, lest he should ignorantly break God's commandment concerning the sabbath.

8.         We shall quote one more passage, wherein the poet, - tracing the Wye from its fountain, in a fairy voyage down its course, - displays more ingenuity of thought and liveliness of fancy than will be found in an equal compass in all his works.

'How placid, how divinely sweet,
The flow'r-grown brook, that, by our feet,
Winds on a summer's day: e'en where
Its name no classic honours share,
Its springs untrac'd, its courses unknown,
Seaward for ever rambling down!
Here, then, how sweet, pellucid, chaste;
'Twas this bright current bade us taste
The fulness of its joy. Glide still,
Enchantress of Plynlimmon hill,
Meandering Wye! Still let me dream,
In raptures, o'er thy infant stream;
For could th'immortal soul forego
Its cumbrous load of earthly woe,
And clothe itself in fairy guise,
Too small, too pure, for human eyes,
Blithe would we seek the utmost spring,
Where mountain-larks first try the wind;
There, at the crimson dawn of day,
Launch a scoop'd leaf, and sail away,
Stretch'd at our ease, or crouch below,
Or climb the green transparent prow,
Stooping where oft the blue bell sips
The passing stream, and shakes and dips;
And when the heifer came to drink,
Quick from the gale our bark would shrink,
And huddle down amidst the brawl
Of many a five-inch waterfall,
Till the expanse should fairly give
The bow'ring hazel room to live;
And, as each swelling junction came
To form a riv'let worth a name,
We'd dart beneath, or brush away
Long-beaded webs, what else might stay
Our silent course: in haste retreat,
Where whirlpools near the bullrush meet;
Wheel round the ox of monstrous size;
And count below his shadowy flies;
And sport amidst the throng; and when
We met the barks of giant men,
Avoid their oars, still undescried,
And mock their overbearing pride;
Then vanish by some magic spell,
And shout, "Delicious Wye, farewell."' Pp. 116-119.

In the fourth line of the above quotation the reader will observe "share" for "shares," in the third person singular of the verb. The same fault occurs twice at p. 26; where Coldwell rocks by it are made to reflect their own forms, and even to shake their shadows. Other grammatical inaccuracies appear, which, we hope, will be corrected in the next edition. Several songs, &c. are interspersed with the narrative, of very moderate merit, and with very indifferent effect. The volume is embellished with a few engravings.