Article 17

ART. XVII. The Battles of Talavera. A Poem. 8vo. pp. 40. 1809. Gilbert and Hodges, Dublin. Murray, London. Ballantyne, Edinburgh.

[pp. 426-433] [original article in PDF format]

  1. THERE is no point in which our age differs more from those which preceded it, than in the apparent apathy of our poets and rhymers to the events which are passing over them. From the days [426] of Marlborough to those of Wolfe and Hawke, the tower and park guns were not more certain proclaimers of a victory, than the pens of contemporary bards. St. James's had then its odes, and Grub-street poured forth its ballads upon every fresh theme of national exultation. Some of these productions, being fortunately wedded to popular tunes, have warped themselves so closely with our character, that, to love liberty and roast beef is not more natural to an Englishman, than to beat time to 'Steady, boys, Steady,' and 'Rule Britannia.' Our modern authors are of a different cast; some of them roam back to distant and dark ages; others wander to remote countries, instead of seeking a theme in the exploits of a Nelson, an Abercromby, or a Wellesley; others amuse themselves with luscious sonnets to Bessies and Jessies; and all seem so little to regard the crisis in which we are placed, that we cannot help thinking they would keep fiddling their allegros and adagios, even if London were on fire, or Buonaparte landed at Dover.

  2. We are old-fashioned men, and are perhaps inclined to see, in the loss and decay of ancient customs, more than can reasonably be traced from them: to regard, in short, that as a mark of apathy and indifference to national safety and glory, which may only arise from a change in the manner of expressing popular feeling. Be that as it may, we think that the sullen silence observed by our present race of poets, upon all themes of immediate national concern, argues little confidence in their own powers, small trust in the liberal indulgence of the public to extemporaneous compositions, and, above all, a want of that warm interest in such themes as might well render them indifferent to both considerations. Lord Wellington, more fortunate than any contemporary English general, whether we regard the success or the scale of his achievements, has been also unusually distinguished by poetical commemoration; and as his exploits form an exception to the train of evil fortune which has generally attended our foreign expeditions, the hearts of those capable of celebrating them seem to have been peculiarly awakened and warmed at the recital. Probably many of our readers have seen the superb Indian warsong which celebrated his conquest over the Mahrattas: beginning

    'Shout, Britain, for the battle of Assay,
               For that was a day
               When we stood in our array,
               Like the lion turn'd to bay,
    And the battle-word was conquer or die!'

    We are now happy to find, that another bard has advanced with a contribution to adorn the most recent and most glorious wreath won by the same gallant general. The promptitude as well as the [427] patriotism of the tribute might claim indulgence as well as praise; but it is with pleasure we observe, that although this volunteer has rushed forward without waiting to arm himself in that panoply which is often, after all, found too slight to repel the assaults of modern criticism, neither his adventurous courage nor the goodness of his cause, is his sole or his principal merit.

  3. The battle of Talavera is written in that irregular Pindaric measure first applied to serious composition by Mr. Walter Scott, and it is doing no injustice to the ingenious author to say, that in many passages, we were, from the similarity of the stanza and of the subject, involuntarily reminded of the battle of Flodden, in the sixth book of Marmion. The feeling, however, went no farther than the perception of that kindred resemblance between those of the same family which is usually most striking at first sight, and becomes less remarkable, and at length invisible, as we increase in intimacy with those in whom it exists. In one respect the choice of the measure is more judicious on the part of the nameless bard, than on that of Mr. Scott. The latter had a long narrative to compose, and was necessarily forced upon passages in which the looseness and irregularity of his versification has an extravagant and slovenly appearance. It is where the tone of passion is low, that the reader demands a new interest from regularity of versification and beauty of selected diction. On the other hand, in passages of vivid, and especially of tumultuary and hurried description, the force of the poet's thought, and the intenseness of the feeling excited, ought to support his language. He may be then permitted to strip himself as to a combat, and to evince that 'brave neglect' of the forms of versification which express an imagination too much exalted, and a mind too much occupied by the subject itself, to regard punctiliously the arrangement of rhymes or the measurement of stanzas. In this point of view, few themes present themselves which can better authorize a daring flight, than that which has been selected by the author of Talavera.

  4. The poem opens with the following stanza, of which the first nine lines are an exquisite picture of repose, and the last somewhat more feebly and prosaically expressed.

    'Twas dark; from every mountain head
    The sunny smile of heaven had fled,
    And evening, over hill and dale
    Dropt, with the dew, her shadowy veil;
    In fabled Tajo's darkening tide
                Was quenched the golden ray;
    Silent, the silent stream beside,
    Three gallant people's hope and pride,
                Three gallant armies lay. [428]

    Welcome to them the clouds of night,
    That close a fierce and hurried fight—
    And wearied all, and none elate,
    With equal hope and doubt, they wait
                A fiercer, bloodier day.
    France, every nation's foe, is there,
    And Albion's sons her red cross bear,
    With Spain's young Liberty to share,
                The fortune of the fray.'

    The attack of the French is then described with all the peculiar circumstances of uncertainty and horror that aggravate the terrors of midnight conflict. The doubtful and suppressed sounds which announce to the defenders the approach of the assailants; the rush of the former to meet and anticipate the charge; the reflection on those who fall without witnesses to their valour; and all the 'wonders of that gloomy fight,' are successfully and artfully introduced to impress the dreadful scene upon the mind of the reader: the following lines have peculiar and picturesque merit.

    'Darkling they fight, and only know
    If chance has sped the fatal blow,
    Or, by the trodden corse below,
                Or by the dying groan:
    Furious they strike without a mark,
    Save now and then the sulphurous spark
    Illumes some visage grim and dark,
                That with the flash is gone!'
  5. In the succeeding stanzas, we have the repose after the action, and the preparation for the general battle of the next day. The anxiety of the British general is described, and a singular coincidence pointed out in the sixth stanza. We shall transcribe it, and 'let the stricken deer go weep.'

    'Oh heart of honour, soul of fire,
    Even at that moment fierce and dire,
                Thy agony of fame!
    When Britain's fortune dubious hung,
    And France tremendous swept along,
                In tides of blood and flame.
    Even while thy genius and thy arm
    Retrieved the day and turned the storm,
    Even at that moment, factious spite,
    And envious fraud essayed to blight
                The honours of thy name.'

    The share which is assigned to Lord Wellington in the conduct [429] of the fight, is precisely that which is really the lot of a commander in chief. Generals were painted in armour long after

    '——————the fashion of the fight
    Had laid gilt steel and twisted mail aside
    For modern foppery.'

    And from some similar concatenation of ideas—modern poets, for many a day after the 'eagle-glance' and commanding genius of a hero had been the attributes which decided the field, continued to describe him mowing down whole ranks with his sword, as if personal strength were as essential to his success as in the days of the Trojan war. This foolish fashion, which like every false and unnatural circumstance, tends obviously to destroy the probability of the scene, has been discarded by good taste ever since the publication of Addison's Campaign. The approach of the Gallic army is beautifully described.

    'And is it now a goodly sight,
                Or dreadful to behold,
    The pomp of that approaching fight,
    Waving ensigns, pennons light,
    And gleaming blades and bayonets bright,
                And eagles winged with gold;
    And warrior bands of many a hue,
    Scarlet and white and green and blue,
    Like rainbows o'er the morning dew,
                Their various lines unfold:
    While cymbal clang and trumpet strain,
                The knell of battle toll'd;
    And trampling squadrons beat the plain,
    'Till the clouds echoed back again,
    As if the thunder rolled.'
  6. Our bounds will not permit us to quote the opening of the battle, though it contains some passages of great merit. Realizing his narrative with an art, which has been thought almost irreconcilable with poetry, the author next undertakes to give us a distinct idea of those manœuvres and movements upon which the success of the day depended; and by clothing them with the striking circumstances which hide the otherwise technical and somewhat familiar detail of the Gazette, he has succeeded at once in preserving the form and leading circumstances, and 'all the current of the heady fight;' and, generally speaking, in presenting them to the fancy in a manner as poetical as they are clear to the understanding. In treading however upon a line so very narrow, he has sometimes glided into bombast on the one hand, or into flat, bald and vulgar expression upon the other. Although, for instance, the word [430] 'firelocks', be used technically, and somewhat pedantically, to express the men who bear them, we cannot permit a poet to speak with impunity of

    'Full fifty-thousand muskets bright
    Led by old warriors trained to fight.'

    Spears, we know, is used for spearmen; but this is a license sanctioned by antiquity, and not to be extended to modern implements of war. In other places, the ardour of the poet is expressed in language too turgid and inflated. But the following stanza may safely be quoted as avoiding, under very difficult circumstances, the extremes of simplicity and bombast; and describing the celebrated charge of the British cavalry with a spirit worthy of those whose gallantry was so memorable on that memorable day.

    'Three columns of the flower of France,
    With rapid step and firm, advance,
                At first thro' tangled ground,
    O'er fence and dell and deep ravine—
    At length they reach the level green,
    The midnight battle's murderous scene,
                The valley's eastern bound.
    There in a rapid line they form,
    Thence are just rushing to the storm,
                By hold Belluno led.
    When sudden thunders shake the vale,
    Day seems, as in eclipse to fail,
                The light of heaven is fled;
    A dusty whirlwind rides the sky,
    A living tempest rushes by
                With deafening clang and tread—
    "A charge, a charge," the British cry,
    "And Seymour at its head."'
  7. The miscarriage of this gallant body of cavalry amid the broken ground in which the French again formed their column, its causes and consequences, the main battle itself, and all its alternations of success, are described in the same glowing and vivid language; which we will venture to say is not that of one who writes with a view to his own distinction as a poet, but who feels that living fire glow within him which impels him to fling into verse his animated and enthusiastic feelings of exultation on contemplating such a subject as the battle of Talavera. The following description of a circumstance new to the terrors of battle, we shall insert, ere we take our leave of Talavera.

    'But shooting high and rolling far,
    What new and horrid face of war
                Now flushes on the sight? [431]
    'Tis France, as furious she retires,
    That wreaks in desolating fires,
                The vengeance of her flight.
    The flames the grassy vale o'er-run,
    Already parch'd by summer's sun;
    And sweeping turbid down the breeze
    In clouds the arid thickets seize,
    And climb the dry and withered trees
                In flashes long and bright.
    Oh! 'twas a scene sublime and dire,
    To see that billowy sea of fire,
    Rolling its fierce and flakey flood,
    O'er cultured field and tangled wood,
    And drowning in the flaming tide,
    Autumn's hope and summer's pride.
    From Talavera's wall and tower
                And from the mountain's height,
    Where they had stood for many an hour,
                To view the varying fight,
    Burghers and peasants in amaze
    Behold their groves and vineyards blaze!
    Trembling they view'd the bloody fray,
    But little thought, ere close of day
    That England's sigh and France's groan
    Should be re-echoed by their own!
    But ah! far other cries than these
    Are wafted on the dismal breeze—
    Groans, not the wounded's lingering groan—
    Shrieks, not the shriek of death alone—
    But groan and shriek and horrid yell
                Of terror, torture, and despair,
    Such as 'twould freeze the tongue to tell,
                And chill the heart to hear,
    When to the very field of fight,
    Dreadful alike in sound and sight,
                The conflagration spread,
    Involving in the fiery wave,
    The brave and reliques of the brave—
                The dying and the dead!

    We have shunned, in the present instance, the unpleasant task of pointing out, and dwelling upon individual inaccuracies. There are several hasty expressions, flat lines, and deficient rhymes, which prove to us little more than that the composition was a hurried one. These, in a poem of a different description, we should have thought it our duty to point out to the notice of the author. But, after all, it is the spirit of a poet that we consider as demanding our chief attention; and upon its ardour or rapidity must finally hinge our applause or condemnation. We care as little (comparatively, that is to say) for the minor arts of composition [432] and versification as Falstaff did for the thews, and sinews, and outward composition of his recruits. It is 'the heart, the heart,' that makes the poet as well as the soldier; and while we shall not withhold some applause even from the ordinary statuary who executes a common figure, our wreath must be reserved for the Prometheus who shall impregnate his statue with fire from heaven.