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Edinburgh, ZJlh Nov. 1791
"YOU have much reason to blame me for neglecting till now to acknowledge the receipt of a most agreeable packet, containing The Whistle, a ballad; and The Lament; which reached me about six weeks ago in London, from whence I am just returned. Youi* letter was forwarded to me there from Edinburgh, where, as I observed by the date, it had lain for some days. This was an additional reason for me to have answered it immediately on receiving it; but the truth was, the bustle of business, engagements, and confusion of one kind or another, in which I found myself immersed all the time I was in London, absolutely put it out of my power. But to have done with apologies, let me now endeavour to prove myself in some degree deserving of the very flattering compliment you pay me, by giving you at least a frank and a candid, if it should not be a judicious criticism, on the poems you sent me.
The ballad of The Whistle is, in my opinion, truly excellent. The old tradition which you have taken up, is the best adapted for a Bacchanalian composition of any I have ever met with, and you have done it full justice. In the first place, the strokes of wit arise naturally from the subject, and are uncommonly happy. For example,
'The bands grew the tighter the more they were wet.'
'Cynthia hinted he'd see them next morn.'
* Though fete said a hero should perish in light,
So up rose bright Phoebus, and down fell the knight.'
In the next place, you are singularly happy in the discrimination of your heroes, and in giving each the sentiments and language suitable to his character. And lastly, you have much merit in the delicacy of the panegyric which you have contrived to throw on each of the dramatis persona;, perfectly appropriate to his character. The compliment to Sir Robert, the blunt soldier, is peculiarly fine. In short, this composition, in my opinion, does you great honour, and I see not a line or a word in it which I could wish to be altered.
As to The Lament, I suspect, from some expressions in your letter to me, that you are more doubtful with respect to the merits of this piece than of the other, and I own I think you have reason; for although it contains some beautiful stanzas, as the first, 'The wind blew hollow,' &c. the fifth, 'Ye scatter'd birds;' the thirteenth, 4 Awake thy last sad voice,' &c. Yet it appears to me faulty as a whole, and inferior to several of* those you have already published in the same strain. My principal objection lies against the plan of the piece. I think it was unnecessary and improper to put the lamentation in the mouth of a fictitious character, an aged bard—It had been much better to have lamented your patron in your own person, to have expressed your genuine feelings for his loss, and to have spoken the language of nature rather than that of fiction on the subject. Compare this with your poem of the same title in your printed volume, which begins, O thou pale Orb! and observe what it is that forms the charm of that composition. It is, that it speaks the language of truth and of nature. The change is, in my opinion, injudicious too in this respect, that an aged bard has much less need of a patron and protector than a young one. I have thus given you, with much freedom, my opinion of both the pieces. I should have made a very ill return to the compliment you paid me, if I had given you any other than my genuine sentiments.
It will give me great pleasure to hear from you when you find leisure, and I beg you will believe me ever, dear Sir, Yours, &c.
It is impossible, Madam, that the generous warmth and angelic purity of your youthful mind, can have any idea of that moral disease under which I unhappily must rank as the chief of sinners; I mean, a torpitude of the moral powers, that may be called, a lethargy of conscience.—In vain remorse rears her horrent crest, and rouses all her snakes: beneath the deadly fixed eye and laden hand of Indolence, their wildest
ire is charmed into the torpor of the bat, slumbering out the rigours of winter in the chink of a ruined wall. Nothing less, madam, could have made me so long neglect your obliging commands. Indeed I had one apology—the bagatelle was not worth presenting. Besides, so strongly am I interested in Miss D 's fate and welfare in the
serious business of life, amid its chances and changes; that to make her the subject of a silly ballad, is downright mockery of these ardent feelings; 'tis like an impertinent jest to a dying friend.
Gracious Heaven, why this disparity between our wishes and our powers? Why is the most generous wish to make others blest, impotent and ineffectual—as the idle breeze that crosses the pathless desert? In my walks of life I have met with a few people to whom how gladly would I have said—' Go, be happy! I know that your hearts have been wounded by the scorn of the proud, whom accident has placed above you—or worse still, in whose hands are, perhaps, placed many of the comforts of your life. But there! ascend that rock, Independence, and look justly down on their littleness of soul. Make the worthless tremble under your indignation, and the foolish sink before your contempt: and largely impart that happiness to others, which, I am certain, will give yourselves so much pleasure to bestow!'
Why, dear Madam, must I wake from this delightful reverie, and find it all a dream? Why, amid my generous enthusiasm, must I find myself poor and powerless, incapable of wiping one tear from the eye of pity, or of adding one comfort to the friend I love!—Out upon the world! say I, that its affairs are administered so ill! They talk of reform;—good Heaven! what a reform would I make among the sons, and even the daughters of men !—Down, immediately, should go fools from the high places where misbegotten chance has perked them up, and through life should they skulk, ever haunted by their native insignificance, as the body marches accompanied by its shadow.—As for a much more formidable class, the knaves, I am at a loss what to do with them: Had I a world, there should not be a knave
But the hand that could give, I would liberally fill; and I would pour delight on the heart that could kindly forgive, and generously love.
Still the inequalities of life are, among men, comparatively tolerable—but there is a delicacy, a tenderness, acompanying every view in which we can place lovely Woman, that are grated and shocked at the rude, capricious distinctions of fortune. Woman is the blood-royal of life: let there be slight degrees of precedency among them—but let them be All sacred.—Whether this last sentiment be right or wrong, I am not accountable; it is an original component feature of my mind.