The Critical Review, 1.4 ( April 1812 ), 375-79
[Review of] The Banks of the Wye, a Poem in Four Books
ART. IV—The Banks of the Wye, a Poem, in four Books. By Robert Bloomfield, Author of the Farmer's Boy. London, Vernor and Co. and others, 1811. 12mo. pp. 134. price 5s. Plates.
1. PERHAPS it may be said, observes Mr. Bloomfield, that because much of public approbation has fallen to my lot, it may be unwise to venture again. If Mr. B. writes chiefly for emolument, this objection must cease; if for reputation, we must unite ourselves to those who would impeach his wisdom on the present occasion. His poetical character, though widely blazoned by the trump of fame, is not of that very exalted nature to make experiment dangerous; there is nevertheless one consideration, which he should bear in mind; namely, that the public have a right, on hearing of a new poem from an author, who was a creature of their own, to expect a very visible improvement in those points, in which there were some deficiencies on a former occasion. To that public, and to those who introduced him to it, Mr. Bloomfield will be found wanting in due deference, should he be proved, now that he ventures upon a new poem—
'Priori credere famæ.'
2. A greater ease in composition is undoubtedly evident on the present occasion; but an increased intimacy with the machinery of poetry is another point, which might reasonably be expected. That Mr. B. does not in reality possess this, we are not prepared to assert; but that the present volume contains no symptoms of it, we are compelled to declare. The species of poem indeed before us, is such, as almost precludes the possibility of displaying any new lights in poetry, which the author may have acquired; but will not this very choice of style, and subject, be an argument to some minds, that the strength of that pinion, of which so much was prophesied, neither is nor will be able to rise nearer to the summit of Parnassus, than it did at its first essay? To no writers can the old Latin adage of 'non progredi est regredi' be applied with greater truth, than to those whose first popularity arose from the same combination of circumstances as those of the present author's; since those readers, who are disappointed in subsequent attempts, will begin to suspect that they augured too highly from the first. Having given this counsel to our author, which will, we trust, be received in the same spirit of justice, which has dictated it, we proceed to his poem. It is little else than a journal in easy rhyme of an excursion in South Wales, with occasional apostrophes to objects, which excited more than ordinary attention, and a few historical allusions, which were recalled to the memory of the places visited. The metre is that which Swift has recommended by his example for epistolary verse, a jingle of eight syllables, well adapted, by its natural carelessness, for a fable, a ballad, a burlesque, or a detail of common occurrences, but which has seldom proved equal to the task of conducting a reader through a poem of any length, where much description of scenery is attempted. Mr. Scott has indeed given an entirely new character and consequence to this verse; yet, notwithstanding the peculiar beauties in which he has clothed it, it has more than once been objected even against him. In Mr. Bloomfield's hands it has not the same merits, and wears much too great an air of familiarity with the reader, not unfrequently, as we shall see, degenerating into vulgarity.
3. In the summer of 1807, some of the author's friends, resident in Gloucestershire, proposed this excursion, and included him in their party. The little tour occupied a fortnight: As Mr. B. had never before seen romantic scenery, the effect produced on his mind was proportionably greater. The route pursued was by descending the Wye from Ross to Chepstow, from which latter place an excursion was made into other parts of Monmouthshire, and the neighbouring county of Wales. On these materials the present poem is formed, and we would, by no means, have our readers leave us with the idea, that we conceive it devoid of merit. Its descriptions are faithful, the versification easy and natural; the thoughts, though seldom very original, fairly dressed out, and the plan remarkably inartificial. That the poet should not have chosen a subject, the formation of which required more machinery, we have regretted; but having chosen the present one, we approve of the simplicity of design in its execution. We will quote the author's farewell to the scenery of Monmouthshire as a very favourable specimen of his work.
'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 untraced, its course unknown, 5 Sea-ward for ever rambling down! Here then how sweet, pellucid chaste; 'Twas this bright current bade us taste The fullness of its joy; glide still Enchantress of Plinlimmon hill; 10 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 15 Too small, too pure for human eyes, Blithe would we seek thy earliest spring, Where mountain larks first try the wing; There at the crimson dawn of day Launch a scoop'd leaf, and sail away, 20 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, 25 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 bowering hazel room to live; 30 And as each swelling junction came To form a riv'let worth a name, We'd dart beneath, or brush away Long beaded webs, that else might stay Our silent course; in haste retreat 35 Where whirlpools near the bull-rush 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 40 Avoid their oars, still undescried And mock their overbearing pride; Then vanish by some magic spell, And shout "delicious Wye farewell."
4. We do not think that we could have selected a more favourable passage; it shows the lively fancy, and ready imagination of Mr. B. to some advantage. Nor is the following a bad simile for the singular bridge at Chepstow:
'Where the strange bridge, light, trembling, high, Strides like a spider o'er the Wye.'
5. It is now time that we advert to the unpleasant part of our office, and justify the criticism, which we advanced, when we said, that the carelessness of the metre had betrayed the author into many vulgarities of language.
6. Harry of Monmouth was, we are told,
'Of France the terror, England's glory,
As Stratford's bard has told the story.'
'A tower of rock that seems to cry,
Go round about me, neighbour Wye.'
_________ 'hang the dunce
Who would not doff his cap at once,
In exstacy, when bold and new
Bursts on his sight an opening view.
'And there on springing turf all seated
Jove's guests were never half so treated, (qu. ill or well.)
Journies they had, and feastings many,
But never came to Abergany!
'Hail land of Cyder!— — P.
7. We are truly sorry that we could multiply these instances of bathos. In this conclusion of our article, we wish not to have our meaning mistaken, when we say, that we have felt some disapprobation, not only at the peculiar faults which we have noticed; but at opening a volume, which must rather depress than exalt the poetical character of its author. To the tourist on the Wye, it will be a pleasant companion; or to those, who recollect the scenes which are here delineated: to the lover of poetry, there are some things which will give pleasure; but to the observer of progressive genius, the work, as a whole, will bring a degree of disappointment. The 'Farmer's Boy' was a very extraordinary effort of unrefined genius; but like many other poems, it suffered unfairly from being praised too highly. There were however many, by whom its merits were justly appreciated. Bloomfield's minor poems, his tales, &c. are, we think, very unequal to his first poem. Rural scenery is beyond all doubt his strong hold. He has judged well, then, we may be told, in continuing to offer us a poetic landscape. To this we can only reply, that by so doing he certainly shields himself from the risk of much critical censure; but, at the same time, he does not even attempt to mount one step higher on the ladder of fame. Numerous are the subjects and kinds of poetry, which, although not professedly descriptive of scenery, admit of it in due proportions; and we wish that Mr. B. had made some experiment of this nature. The present volume will, we fear, lead to the conclusion, unless he speedily contradicts it, that his muse possesses no capacity for the higher flights of imagination. There are a few plates, which, with the exception of the frontispiece, are tolerably executed.