BOOK REVIEWS

VERDICTS  on the POETS

Extracts from a review in the New Monthly Belle Assemblée.
Verdicts by William C. Bennett (1852) was published under the pseudonym "Minos".  [For the context of this review see the main Literature Page.]

On Wordsworth

'Fanny.  What does Minos say about Wordsworth?
Mrs Smith. The verdict on him forcibly expresses what is the strong undercurrent of opinion about him. Somehow or other it has, of latter years, become a point of morals to admire Wordsworth unconditionally...[She then confesses that though Wordsworth undoubtedly was  'regenerator in literature' and wrote work which placed him in the 'highest rank' she and Fanny are amongst those who] nevertheless feel that side by side with those noble productions are effusions which to our poor judgment seem tame, trite, cold, and purposeless ...  '

"Minos" in this extract, which she reads to Fanny, validates their feelings. It is all the fault of those insensitive critics for praising the wrong things.

I know that with some 'tis their critical rule
To hold him who can't like all Wordsworth a fool.
Now here, for a moment, allow me to pause,
To speculate what was the principal cause,
Besides that already I've had to relate,
That kept men so long from believing him great,
That kept them from throning him straight on the height.
Where he sits on Parnassus in all the earth's sight,
Now at once its instructor, its pride, and delight:
Then I venture to say you'll not go far amiss,
if you hold that fools' praise was the prime cause of this.
You'll remember that those who the first show'd him love,
Rank'd his dulness [sic] and nonsense his beauty above ...

"Mrs Smith"'s conclusion on Wordsworth that 'when one can get at the truth [of current opinion] we should like his wheat well sifted from the chaff ' reminded me of the verse quoted by an irreverent tutor of mine many moons ago -

Two Voices are there
One is of the Deep
And one is of a garrulous old Sheep -
And, Wordsworth, both are thine.
Like the Verdict for Fanny, it liberated dutiful young students from feeling that they ought to admire everything a "Great Poet" wrote, though I always thought the choice of poem parodied was a curious one.

On Keats

From the selection of poets whom Bennett assessed, so justly in "Mrs Smith's" opinion, Keats is the one to whom she devotes most space. By this choice she is able yet again to attack influential critics as inadequate and even - in Jeffrey's case - hypocritical.

'Mrs. Smith. ...But here is a burst of enthusiasm about Keats with which I am sure you will sympathise:-
 [then follow almost two columns of quotation beginning:]

Young shade, whose white brows greenest laurels entwine,
In whose deep eyes the fires of fine genius shine,
Welcome, Keats, thou Olympus's favourite and mine!
Ah, well may men bless thee! again they behold
Homer's Gods ... '

The hymn of praise she quotes turns into a castigation of Keats' early critics who savaged his poetry in the Quarterly Review and initially ignored it in the Edinburgh Review, before Bennett returns to laud specific poems, including Lamia, The Pot of Basil, the Odes, and particularly Hyperion whose 'Titan-like strength' and 'grand primal gloom' is compared to that of Milton's Pandemonium.

Had he lived, who had boasted of loftier fame?
Had not Earth searched in vain for a much greater name
Than his that 'the Quarterly' held up to shame?
And this was the genius for bigots to shriek at!
For Giffords and such things to gibber and squeak at!
For a Jeffrey to see, after some year or two,
Had merit sufficient to suit his Review,
To be patted and petted with pretty half praise,
That was more meant the critic than poet to raise!

Fanny's final comment reinforces the readers' sense that the lesson here is: It is as important to be conscious of the fallibility of critics as it is to appreciate the power of great poetry.


'Fanny. The author, whoever he may be, does not at any rate seek to propitiate the great reviews.
Mrs Smith. He speaks the truth, and that propitiates a better power than even the great Quarterlies.'

On Byron

Here "Mrs Smith" is the essence of brevity.

'A considerable space is devoted to Byron, but how much that is descriptive of his works is summed up in these two lines -

Keep them out of your boys' hands and girls' heads, and then
Put them into their way when they're women and men. '

[I like that!]
A Note On William Cox Bennett
He was born in 1820, the son of a watchmaker, who died when he was only nine, forcing him to leave school and help his mother with the business. He was, however, enterprising and talented enough to gain a degree, become a journalist - as well as a poet- and take an active, reforming interest in local politics in Greenwich, London, where he helped secure Gladstone's election.
As a journalist he contributed to Charles Dickens's magazine Household Words - the copy of Verdicts he presented to Dickens is now in the British Library - and worked as a leader writer for a weekly paper and as art critic for the London Figaro.
Though his most famous poem "Baby May", about his own daughter, had popular appeal for its sentimental quality, his poetic output was quite varied.
Among his several books of songs and poems, is a parody of Tennyson’s “Maud”, Anti-Maud. By a Poet of the People (1855), and the critic Leonee Ormond notes the influence of Rosetti on some of Bennett's sonnets on works of art. His somewhat radical views were reflected in the publication of a number of his poems in Commonweal, the Socialist League's newspaper edited by William Morris. (I am indebted to Dr Elizabeth Carolyn Miller for this fact.) Bennett died in 1895.


FOOTNOTES

William Gifford was the first editor of the Tory Quarterly Review for which John Wilson Croker wrote the blistering attack on Endymion  (1818) which he claimed he had found impossible to read. Endymion was also belittled in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine.

Whilst Francis Jeffrey eventually reviewed Endymion and Keats' collection Lamia etc (1820) relatively favourably in the Whig Edinburgh Review this was not until 1820 - rather late in the day to offer patronage to a young poet who had suffered such a mauling at the hands of reviewers.


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 Published October 2007 Last updated April 8th 2008

©  Barbara Onslow 2007