[Review of the Poems, including the following commentary on The Father and Daughter.]
THE anxiety of a young writer, who yields, with trembling hands, the first production of his genius, to the survey of the world, unknown to him in all but this one fearful circumstance, that the praise, of which he is ambitious, and the neglect or scorn which he dreads, are dependent on its voice, whether of judgment or caprice, is a feeling that requires, for compensation, a large share of the fame, which it is probably never to receive; as, however great the multitude who have shared alike the misery of expectation, the happy recompense must belong only to a few. Yet, there is a feeling, perhaps more painful that this first anxiety, when the young writer of a work which has raised him to popularity, submits his powers a second time to criticism, of which he has already exhausted the indulgence, and which now expects to applaud, rather than to forgive. The favour excited by past excellence, is a favour which requires progression in its object; and though, in some, it may be the heedless partiality of friendship, is, in those higher minds that may be considered as representing posterity, more like the interest felt by an upright judge, which, though it allow him to delight in merited acquittal, never induces him to palliate guilt, but rather to consider delinquency as aggravated by the previous character of the culprit. There is, besides, an innocent selfishness, which modifies our opinions by an influence unperceived, and persuades us, that success is more difficult of attainment, because we have ourselves succeeded. It is not so much, however, in this imagined increase of difficulty, as in the actual increase of penalty, that the evil of reputation is felt by the fortunate. It is now no longer a simple, and almost unknown failure, which he has to dread. He has brought a multitude around him by his triumph; and a failure would now have all the disgrace of degradation. There has not been a single voice of applause, that would not add to his remembrance its whole weight of ignominy; and amid the variety of possible sentences, there is thus only one to which would have satisfied his humbler ambition, must now be accompanied with the mortifying ideas, of disappointment in his readers, and of inferiority in himself.
It was probably with feelings similar to those we have described, that Mrs Opie committed to the world her volume of poems. To a very large number of readers, “The Father and Daughter” had already made its appearance a promise of much delight. That it has completely satisfied the expectations which her novel had excited in us, we will not say. It would be, at best, an ambiguous compliment; and preferring therefore an opinion, which has no reference to the past, we are ready to admit, that her volume of poems has afforded us much pleasure, and that it would have obtained for its author a very considerable reputation, though her former work had been wholly unknown.
But, while we thus express our praise of Mrs Opie’s miscellany, we do not wish it to be considered as applicable to the whole, or even to the greater number, of the pieces of which it consists. These are of very various species of composition, and are perhaps still more different, in merit, than in subject. In the tender song of sentiment and pathos, there is uncommon elegance; but, in pieces of greater length, which require dignity, or even terseness of expression, and an easy development of thoughts, which rise complicated in the moment of fancy, without relieving, the sweetness of the simpler pictures. Mrs Opie’s mind is evidently more adapted to seize situation, than to combine incidents. It can represent, with powerful expression, the solitary portrait, in every attitude of gentler grief; but it cannot bring together a connected assemblage of figures, and represent each in its most striking situation, so as to give, as it were, to the glance of a moment, the events and feelings of many years. When a series of reflections is to be brought by her to our view, they must all be of the immediate relation, which allows them to be introduced at any part of the poem, or we shall probably see before us a multitude, rather than a group. She is therefore wholly unfit for that poetry, which endeavours to reason, while it pleases; and, powerful as she is in solitary pathos, we do not think that she is well fitted for bringing before us the connected griefs and characters of the drama. She has, indeed, written a novel; and it is one which excites a very high interest: But the merit of that novel does not consist in its action, nor in any varied exhibition of character. Agnes, in all the sad changes of her fortune, is still the same: and the action, if we except a very few situations of the highest excitement, is the common history of every seduction in romance. Indeed, we are almost tempted to believe, that the scene in the wood occurred first to the casual conception of the author, and that, in the design of fully displaying it, all the other events of the novel were afterwards imagined ….
We remember, that, in “The Father and Daughter,” we frequently regretted the intrusion of the writer of the tale, when were wholly occupied with the misfortunes of her heroine. Reflections of anticipation are always injurious to the interest excited, as they diminish curiosity; and reflection on the past are superfluous, and offensive to the reader’s vanity, if they state what may naturally be inferred from the circumstances of the tale, and call us away too coldly to reason, when the inference is forced. But, above all, reflection is unnatural, when introduced by a sufferer in the midst of distress. Dear thought! Blest thought! Sad thought! &c. are parentheses which we wish to see banished from poetry. Who pauses, in impassioned soliloquy, to determine the classification of his own feelings? ….