Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors][merged small]

“I

LOVE the memory of Vinny Bourne," said

Cowper in a letter to Newton in 1781, thirty-four years after Bourne's death. “ I think him," he went on, "a better Latin poet than Tibullus, Propertius, Ausonius, or any of the writers in his way, except Ovid, and not at all inferior to him.” Landor, in 1847, thought this criticism of Cowper's an unintelligent one ; he could not conceive how a poet so great as Cowper came to pass such a judgment. The truth is that Landor was a better scholar than Cowper, and was thinking more of Bourne's Latinity than of his choice of subjects or mode of treatment. Cowper was not, it appears, a very acute Latinist, and his renderings of Vincent Bourne's poems, as we shall see, proved that he cared little for the simple terseness of Bourne's elegiacs. What is remarkable in Cowper's criticism is his preference of Ovid to Propertius. Ovid must almost have thought in pentameters; he had from boyhood an incredible facility in verse ; Et quod tentabam dicere, versus erat,” he

says, in that interesting autobiographical poem about his boyhood and youth; “I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came."

Ovid was a perfect master of his craft ; he is one of the least amateurish of poets; he had the power of producing with luminous precision the exact effect that he intended, and as often as he intended. As a narrator he is perhaps without a rival; but his scope is limited, and his metrical scheme is, like Pope's, without variety. But if Ovid appears in his verse as a somewhat placid egotist, Propertius is full of unchastened fire and passion. His writing, like that of Catullus, bears the undefined stamp of something which can only be named genius. Bourne is more Ovidian perhaps than Propertian; and if his verses have not the easy and lucid movement of Ovid, this is amply compensated for by their originality of subject and treatment.

And we may now call into court a still better critic than either Cowper or Landor, the surefooted Charles Lamb, who in his innumerable appreciations of writers both in verse and prose, hardly ever makes a false step, save from some affectionate bias of the heart, hardly ever pronounces a judgment that has not been cordially endorsed by posterity. Writing to Wordsworth in 1815, he says, “Since I saw you, I have had a treat in the reading way, which comes not every day, the Latin poems of Vincent Bourne,

G

which were quite new to me. What a heart that man had, all laid out upon town schemes, a proper counterpoise to some people's rural extravaganzas! Why I mention him is that your • Power of Music' reminded me of his poem of • The Ballad-Singer in the Seven Dials.' Do you remember his epigram on the old woman who taught Newton the A B C, which, after all, he says, he hesitates not to call Newton's Principia ? I was lately fatiguing myself by going through a volume of fine words by Lord Thurlow ; excellent words; and if the heart could live by words alone, it could desire no better regales; but what an aching vacuum of matter 1 I don't stick at the madness of it, for that is only a consequence of shutting his eyes, and thinking he is in the age of the old Elizabeth poets. From thence I turned to Bourne. What a sweet, unpretending, pretty-mannered, matterful creature! Sucking from every flower, making a flower of everything, his diction all Latin and his thoughts all English, Bless him ! Latin wasn't good enough for him. Why was he not content with the language which Gay and Prior wrote in ?" And again, in one of the “Essays of Elia,"

," "A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis," he says: "Well fare the soul of unfastidious Vincent Bourne, most classical, and, at the same time, most English of the Latinists, who has treated of this human and quadrupedal

alliance, this dog-and-man friendship, in the sweetest of his poems, the 'Epitaphium ad Canem,' or 'Dog's Epitaph. Reader, peruse it ; and say if customary sights, which could call up such gentle poetry as this, were of a nature to do more harm or good to the moral sense of the passengers through the daily thoroughfares of a vast and busy metropolis." Here, of course, Lamb is really speaking of the spirit of the poems; his own Latinity, as shown by the Latin letters which he was fond of intermingling with his correspondence, was more copious than correct. Lamb, it is true, saw poetry in Bernard Barton, but that, as we have said, was an affair of the heart ; if he could write as he did of Vincent Bourne, we may be sure that his words are worth attention,

The biographical facts of Bourne's life are of the simplest. He was born in 1695, educated at Westminster and proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, of which he became a Fellow in 1720. His earliest published poetical effort seems to have been a copy of congratulatory verses addressed to Addison on his recovery from a severe illness in

1717. In 1721 he edited Carmina Comitialia, containing Tripos verses, satirical poems on local events, and miscellaneous poems.

From Cambridge he returned to Westminster as a master, and there he remained till his death in 1747. In 1734 he

was appointed, perhaps through the influence of the Duke of Newcastle, who had been a boy at Westminster with him, and to whom he dedicated the first edition of his poems, Housekeeper and Deputy Serjeant-at-Arms to the House of Commons.

As a teacher he seems to have been wholly without energy or practical power. He made no attempt to preserve discipline, and Cowper, who was in his form for a time, says that he remembers seeing the Duke of Richmond, then a boy at the school, set fire to his greasy locks and box his ears to put the conflagration out. He does not even appear to have stimulated, as absent-minded, unpractical teachers often do, the keener and more ardent minds among his pupils. “I lost more than I got by him," says Cowper, " for he made me as idle as himself.” Cowper also says that he was so inattentive to his pupils, and so utterly indifferent whether they brought him good or bad exercises, that "he seemed determined, as he was the best, so to be the last, Latin poet of the Westminster line." As to his good-nature, however, there appear to have been two opinions, as can be seen from a trenchant entry in Nichol's Literary Anecdotes.

(6 Vina cent Bourne was usher to the Fourth Form at Westminster, and remarkably fond of me. never heard much of the goodness of heart. T. F." He was noted, too, for extreme sloven

I

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »