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Alas! is all this boasted ease
To lose each warm desire to please,
A sad vacuity of mind?
Oh, hasten back, then, heavenly Boy,
I suppose what will strike most readers with regard to these lines is that they are decidly fluent, and utterly commonplace. That, however, is not the light in which a critic of the last quarter of the eighteenth century would regard them. Amid the dead level of sing-song couplets, the milkand-water decency of Hayley, the chill and prolix classicism of Pye, the ineffable mediocrity of a thousand Pratts and Polwheles — the fluency of Merry passed, according to the critic's leanings, for fire or for fustian; and the phraseology, which afterwards became hackneyed, was then startling. Take, for instance, Horace Walpole's criticism of the new poetic departure. "It is refreshing to read natural easy poetry, full of sense and humor, in stead of that unmeaning, labored, painted style now in fashion of the Della Cruscas and Co., of which it is impossible ever to retain a couplet, no more than one could remember how a string of emeralds and rubies were placed in a necklace. Poetry has great merit if it is the vehicle and preservative of sense, but it is not to be taken in change for it." Poetry the vehicle and preservative of sense critical canon which would have made Walpole as blind to Della Crusca's merits, had he happened to possess any, as it made him keen-sighted for his defects.
that is the
It may, nevertheless, be doubted whether Della Crusca would have caused so great a stir in literature, had it not been for several collateral circumstances, of which the first and most important was the appearance in the World, some ten days later, of "Anna Matilda," with a poem entitled "To Della Crusca, the
Oh, seize again thy golden quill, And with its point my bosom thrill, With magic touch explore my heart, And bid the tear of passion start.
Thy golden quill Apollo gave,
Drenched first in bright Aonia's wave.
It fell from Cupid's burnished wing
Be worthy, then the sacred loan!
And aid thee with their blended fire;
And crown with Love thy wintry days!
The shuttlecock of correspondence, thus fairly started, was diligently tossed to and fro in the World by the two pseudonymous writers; Della Crusca "seized his quill" again and again, and his ideal passion for the invisible Anna Matilda gained in fervor of expression with every fortnight. It is obvious that here was just that element of mystery, of romance, which creates a furore and sets a fashion.
The lady who signed herself "Anna Matilda" was Mrs. Hannah Cowley, the wife of an absent East India captain, then in her forty-fifth year, and known to-day as the authoress of "The Belle's Strataem," a play which still, and deservedly, keeps the stage. Her biographer records the beginning of her literary career as follows: "In the year 1776, some years after her marriage, a sense of power for dramatic writing suddenly struck her whilst sitting with her husband at the theatre. So delighted with this?' said she to him; why, I could write as well Many will recollect the extraordinary suc myself.' She then wrote 'The Runaway.' cess with which it was brought out." Her habits of composition were not, perhaps, likely to result in poetry of much excellence. "Catching up her pen immediately as the thought struck her, she always proceeded with the utmost facility and celerity. Her pen and paper were so immediately out of sight again, that those around her could scarcely tell when it was she wrote. She was always much pleased with the description of Michael Angelo making the marble fly around him, as he was chiselling with the utmost swiftness, that he might shape, however roughly, his whole design in unity with one clear conception." Her preparatory note to her
collected "Anna Matilda" poems bears the Della Cruscan chorus in the columns out this account. "The beautiful lines of of the World and the Oracle. Bertie 'The Adieu and Recall to Love' struck Greathead as "Reuben" became Della her so forcibly that, without rising from Crusca's rival, on paper, in the affections the table at which she read, she answered of Anna Matilda; and Parsons, signing them. Della Crusca's elegant reply sur- himself "Benedict," in memory of a soprised her into another, and thus the cor- journ in the Benedictine convent of Valrespondence most unexpectedly became lombrosa, deluged with sonnets an im settled. Anna Matilda's share in it had aginary Melissa. Whether Mrs. Piozzi little to boast; but she has one claim of contributed anything beyond tea-party pat which she is proud, that of having been ronage, appears to be doubtful; but, as the first to point out the excellence of was only to be expected, London already Della Crusca; if there can be merit in possessed a score of indigenous rhyme discerning what is so very obvious." She sters, eager to pursue the triumph and further apologizes for one of her poems to partake the gale. One of the principal Della Crusca, on the ground that it was of these was Edward Jerningham, alias written while sitting for her portrait, the "The Bard," who is commemorated in painter interrupting her with Smile a Macaulay's neat sentence: "Lady Miller little," or "More to the right." Only that who kept a vase wherein fools were wont class of mind which grows incredulous to put verses, and Jerningham who wrote when informed that orators prepare their verses fit to be put into the vase of Lady speeches, will expect much from such Miller." His brother, Sir William, of methods of workmanship. Cossy Hall, in Norfolk, kept an album which rivalled in celebrity the vase of Bath Easton, and "The Bard" had been a determined poetaster for the last thirty years. He is described as "a mighty gentleman, who looks to be painted, and is all daintification in manner, speech, and dress, singing to his own accompaniment on the harp, whilst he looks the gentlest of all dying Corydons." Fashionable poets seldom suffer from lack of appreciation. Burke wrote of Jerningham's poem "The Shakespeare Gallery," "I have not for a long time seen anything so well finished. The author has caught new fire by approaching in his perihelion so near to the sun of our poetical system." I think we may be certain, after reading "The Shakespeare Gallery," that the patron of Crabbe did not read it.
Nevertheless, to Mrs. Cowley appears to belong the credit, or discredit, of giving to the Della Cruscan poetry a certain turn or development which did much to make it popular. A hint of this development may be seen in the description of the pen, which was "borne on the vapor of a sigh." It took final shape in such phrases as these:
Hushed be each ruder note! Soft silence spread
With ermine hand thy cobweb robe around.
Was it the shuttle of the Morn,
Or in the gaudy spheroids swell
Summer tints begemmed the scene,
The other members of the Florence coterie, who, as I have said, were now back in England, speedily began to swell
Another Della Cruscan songstress was Mrs. Robinson, alias "Laura Maria," known to the public as a former mistress of the Prince of Wales, and authoress of various novels. In rapidity of composi tion she emulated Mrs. Cowley. versing one evening with Mr. Richard Burke" (the Burke family appear to have been sometimes unfortunate in their poetical acquaintances) "respecting the facility with which modern poetry was composed, Mrs. Robinson repeated nearly the whole of those beautiful lines, 'To him who will understand them.' This improvisatore produced in her auditor not less surprise than admiration, when solemnly assured by its author that this was the first time of its being repeated. Mr. Burke entreated her to commit the poem to writing, a request which was readily complied
with; and Mrs. Robinson had afterwards | excellent ballad of "Wapping old Stairs," the gratification of finding this offspring which first appeared in the World for of her genius inserted in the Annual Reg- November 29th, 1787, and shines, a soliister, with a flattering encomium from the tary pearl, in the pages of "The British pen of the eloquent and ingenious editor." Album." She was one of Merry's most ardent admirers.
From Chaucer's gloom, till Merry's lucid days.
Her Della Cruscan poems were published under the signature of "Laura," and she was followed by Cesario, Carlos, Adelaide, Orlando, Arno, and fifty more whose identity can no longer be determined.
The Della Cruscan mania was at its height"bedridden old women and girls at their samplers began to rave," — when Gifford, in search of a quarry for a seasonable satire, came before the town with "The Baviad." Of this poem I shall say but little, as it is better known than the writings which it satirized. It contains passages of a certain coarse and rank vigor, not difficult of attainment by a student of Dryden and Juvenal. There is, in fact, a sort of Billingsgate raciness about "The Baviad;" and the notes, which are better written than the poem, contain much amusing matter. The im putation made against the Della Cruscan love-poetry of licentious warmth is, however, wholly absurd as absurd as the charge made by Mathias, the author of "The Pursuits of Literature," that Merry
A year after his first appearance in the World, Della Crusca printed his poems in a volume, and Anna Matilda speedily followed suit. But this was not enough for the reading public. They further greedily absorbed a collection of Della Cruscan verse, published as "The Poetry of the World," by Major Topham, the Proves a designer works without design, creator and editor of that paper, who, in a And fathoms Nature with a Gallic line; dedication to Sheridan, observes: "Of their merit, I am free to say I know no a notion which arose merely from the fact modern poems their superior. I am more that he identified himself with the Anarhappy that your opinion has confirmed chists of France, and wrote odes for the mine." It will be well to make allowance Revolution society, thereby acquiring the for changing literary fashions before we name, as Madame d'Arblay tells us, of make too sure that Sheridan is here" Liberty Merry," and no doubt also the misrepresented. "The Poetry of the World" afterwards ran through at least four editions as "The British Album." As we read the publisher's advertisement of this work, which still abounds on second-hand bookstalls — immorimur studiis lapsoque renascimur_ævo — we seem to be walking in the Bond Street of the prince regent. "Two beautiful volumes this day published, embellished with gen uine portraits of the real Della Crusca and Anna Matilda, engraved in a very superior manner from faithful pictures, under the title of The British Album,' being a new edition, revised and corrected by their respective authors, of the celebrated poems of Della Crusca, Anna Matilda, Arley, Laura, Benedict, and the elegant Cesario, the African Boy;' and others, signed The Bard, by Mr. Jerningham; General Conway's elegy on Miss C. Campbell; Marquis of Townshend's verses on Miss Gardiner; Lord Derby's lines on Miss Farren's portrait." It is unfortunate that the only pseudonym in the list which it is of much interest to decipher, should still remain a mystery. It is to "Arley" that we owe the admittedly
reputation for free-thinking then asso-
My song subsides, yet ere I close
Such is the immortality of poetic at in 1809. Mrs. Piozzi, as is well known, tachments
Forever wilt thou love and she be fair.
That the poet was shortly afterwards "married to another" is sufficient to explain the cessation of the correspondence, from which Gifford argues that the interview resulted in aversion. And he might further have reflected that when a poet is reduced to talk of "petrifying suns" his correspondence has been known to cease for lack of ideas.
outlived all her contemporaries, and wit nessed the popularity of a modern literature of which she had no very high opinion.
As for Della Crusca, he married, in 1791, Miss Brunton, an actress, whose sister became Countess of Craven, and who had played the heroine in his tragedy of "Lorenzo." His reply to the remon strances of his aunt on the mésalliance shall be quoted, to show that he had his lucid intervals. "She ought," he said, The satirized poets did their best to "to be proud that he had brought a woman retaliate on Gifford by abusive sonnets in of such virtue and talents into the family. the newspapers; and Mr. Jerningham Her virtue his marrying her proved; and wrote a feebly vituperative poem on Gif her talents would all be thrown away by ford and Mathias. The Della Cruscans taking her off the stage." Nevertheless, had, undeniably, the worst of the battle. he afterwards weakly yielded to his relaThe efficacy of Gifford's satire in putting tions, and withdrew her from the stage an end to the school is, however, more against her own inclination, thereby de than doubtful. It is true that it after-priving himself of a source of income with wards came to be considered, naturally enough, that he had given the Della Cruscans their death-blow. Scott, for instance, writing in 1827, observes that "The Baviad" "squabashed at one blow a set of coxcombs who might have humbugged the world long enough;" but that is not the evidence of contemporary witnesses. Seven years after the publication of "The Baviad," Mathias, in the preface to "The Pursuits of Literature," remarks that "even the Bavian drops from Mr. Gifford's pen have fallen off like oils from the plumage of the Florence and Cruscan geese. I am told that Mr. Greathead and Mr. Merry yet write and speak, and Mr. Jerningham (poor man!) still continues sillier than his sheep.'"
which, as a gambler and bon vivant, he could ill afford to dispense. He accordingly quitted England, and must have betaken himself to France, an adventure which befel him in Paris, in September, 1792, being thus amusingly given by Horace Walpole :
last, Mr. Merry, immortalized, not by his verses, In the midst of the massacre of Monday but by those of the Baviad, was mistaken for the Abbé Maury, and was going to be hoisted to the lanterne. He cried out that he was Merry, the poet: the ruffians, who probably had never read the scene in Shakespeare, yet replied, "Then we will hang you for your bad verses; " but he escaped better than Cinna, I don't know how, and his fright cost him but a few "gossamery tears," and I suppose he will This statement is in far better accord-be happy to re-cross the "silky ocean," and ance both with the facts and the probabil- of this happy country. shed dolorous nonsense in rhyme over the woes ities of the case. Satire, even first-rate satire, does not kill follies. They gradually die of inanition, or are crowded out by newer fashions. Laura Matilda's dirge in the "Rejected Addresses" is a standing monument of the vitality of Della Cruscanism more than twenty years after its supposed death-blow.
The career as stage-writers of Merry, Greathead, and Jerningham, their bad tragedies and bad farces, do not belong to my present subject. Of the subsequent history of one or two of them a word may, however, be said. Jerningham lived to publish, as late as 1812, two editions of a flaccid poem, called "The Old Bard's Farewell," after which he disappears from life and literature. Mrs. Cowley, perhaps the most interesting of the group, died in rural and religious retirement at Tiverton,
But England was not to see much more of Merry. English society was probably not so kind to the Radical husband of an actress as it had been to the bachelor of fashion. He withdrew, with his wife, to America, in 1796, and died, three years afterwards, of apoplexy, in his garden at Baltimore.
became as a red rag to the Giffords who played the part of the bull in the china shop. But it is not with this clumsy rage that posterity will regard our follies; nor is it useful, or desirable, that we should now so regard them. It is with a smile of amused anticipation, it is with a bland and philosophic interest, that the antiquarian of the future will turn to the pages of Punch or the libretto of "Patience," to read of the Anna Matildas who lately delighted to apparel themselves in what Bramston called "shape-disguising sacks" the Della Cruscas who took Postlethwaite for a great poet.
ARMINE T. KENT.
From Good Words.
the taste of some, too much inclined to admire and imitate defects, yet Merry's writings possess poetical merits; and the spirit of liberty and benevolence which breathes through them is ardent and sincere." The criticism may be incorrect, but it is worth noting, because it is the criticism of a contemporary. Had it not been for Coleridge's fervently expressed admiration for Bowles's sonnets, which so perplexes critics who do not judge literature from a historical point of view, the world would have continued to sneer at him, with Byron, as "simple Bowles," and to know him only by Byron's line. The fact is, literary history will never be intelligently written, till it is studied in the spirit of the naturalist, to whom the tares are as interesting as the wheat. We may, perhaps, give the Della Cruscans, with their desperate strainings after poetic fire and poetic diction, the credit of having done something to shake the THE quaint and ancient sea-town of supremacy of versified prose; of having Whitby is probably one of the most picforwarded, however feebly, the poetic turesque towns in England, and its picemancipation which Wordsworth and Cole- turesqueness is by no means its solitary ridge were to consummate. The false attraction. Not only the artist, but the extravagance of Della Crusca may have antiquary, the geologist, the historian, one cleared the way for the truthful extrava- and all find interest in the neighborhood gance of Keats. It is, I am aware, cus tomary to attribute the regeneration of English poetry to the French Revolution, which "shook up the sources of thought all over Europe," but the critics who use these glib catchwords are in no hurry to point out a concrete chain of logical connection between Paris mobs and sequestered poets. Plain judges will ever consider it a far cry from "The Rights of Man" to "Christabel." At all events, Dyer was right in deprecating the save agery of Gifford's satire. The question
Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? will apply to other schools and fashions besides that of the "elegant Cesario's," whom Leigh Hunt designated par excel lence as "the plague of the Butterflies." And here, I think, we touch upon the moral which I promised at the outset.
It is not very long since the country, to which Della Crusca ultimately betook himself, received to her shores the reputed prophet of æstheticism, whose career, in other respects, presented remarkable parallels with that of Robert Merry. Each made his poetical appearance in the columns of a newspaper called the World; each professed republican opinions; each wrote poems not remarkable for truth to nature or sobriety of diction; each represented a school; and the name of each
High Whitby's cloister'd pile,
from whence St. Hilda's abbess and "her