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ART. XII. Alfred; an Epic Poem*, in Six Books. By Henry
James Pye. 4to. Pp. 260. il. 58. Boards. . Wright. 1801. The story of Alfred has been repeatedly attempted by Bri
tish bards ti yet, with all the interest which the subject inspires, it has never been adequately celebrated in verse. To trace the causes of this failure would be a curious inquiry ; except to those malignant readers who might question, in the first instance, the genius of all the writers who have undertaken the task. It occurs to us that the nature of the Epic Poem has been misunderstood on this occasion ; and that authors have deprived their compositions of much effect, by selecting à few striking passages from the history of the hero, without rendering them subservient to some general end, or moral precept. In the work before us, Alfred is made acquainted, by the prophecy of a Druid, with many of the splendid events which have concurred to render this nation rich and powerful: but little of this information bears any peculiar reference to the Saxon monarch, though his story would supply a clue to the most brilliant æra of our arms. Alfred was the first of our kings who conceived the plan of defending this country from foreign invasion by means of a fleet; and he may be considered as the Father of our Navy. His maritime campaigns, against Denmark would have been admissible, therefore, to a principal share of the Poet's attention; their relation to the events of the late war would have proved much more impressive, than the period which has been hitherto selected ; and our naval heroes might have been displayed to the view of Alfred, with an effect similar to that of the Vision in the sixth book of the Æneid.
After having conjectured what Mr. Pye might have done, we must now apply ourselves to consider what he has done. The poem opens with the appearance of Alfred at the Court of Gregor, king of Scotland; whither he is supposed to repair after the destruction of his troops at the battle of Ashdown, or White-Horse Hill, for the purpose of denanding succours. The exordium is not, in our judgment, peculiarly happy:
* The Public have lately been presented with a sort of Series of Epic poems; and if we had made our report of them chronologically, we should have given an account of Sir James Burges's performance intitled Richard the First, before we paid our respects to Mr. Pye's Muse : but an accident has delayed our remarks on Sir James's work. We hopes to introduce it into our next Number.
+ See particularly Mr. Cottle's recent publication, Rev, vol. Xxxv. N. S. p. i. Na
• While, with unequal verse, I venturous sing
The toils and perils of a patriot King ;
“ And make immortal, verse as mean as mine." It has been objected to the opening of the Paradise Lost, thas the name of the Power which Milton invokes is deferred too long: in this Poem, the same defect is more remarkable, because Mr. Pye calls on a personage merely allegorical. The first four lines are prosaic, yet rather obscure; and the 7th and 8th lines contain a very indifferent conceit, which has been sometimes seriously and sometimes ludicrously applied, on former occasions. The introduction of a borrowed line, of no remarkable merit, at the close of this passage, is also a blemish. We are aware that the example of Milton may again be produced here ; his verse,
“ Things unattempted yet in prose or rhime,” being a mere translation from the second stanza of the Orlando Furioso:
“ Cosa non detta in prosa mai, ne in rima :'' but in this instance the line is worthy of appropriation, and bespeaks the noble confidence of superior genius, both in the Italian author and in our great poet.
The entrance of Alfred, at the feast, will remind the classical reader of Ulysses at the court of Alcinous. A part of the Song of the Bards is well imitated from Mr. Macpherson's Ossiany
Now, mingling pity with the warlike lay,
Agitares · Agitated by the progress of the Song, Alfred declares himself; and the history of his misfortunes occupies the remainder of the book.
The Second Book contains the accession of the Scottish monarch to the alliance of Alfred, who departs with the succours commanded by Donald, Prince of Scotland. Alfred is shipwrecked, and obliged to take refuge in the Isle of Athelney. A pleasing simile occurs in the opening of this Book:
As when, in summer skies, the surges sleep,
And shouts of battle echo round the walls.! We must object, however, to the word lift,' in the second line : this heavy action is ill attributed to Zephyr: skims, or stirs, would have been preferable.-The epithet silken is also unbappy, because it rather degrades than elevates our ideas of the agent: we might as well say, the muslin or the cambric breeze. Pope has displayed much higher fancy in the Rape of the Lock, respecting such imaginary Beings, and has enriched our language with appropriate imagery.
Book III. consists chiefly of a vision in the Isle of Athelney, with a prophecy respecting the revolutions and future greatness of England. In this part of the Poem, we observe a line apparently borrowed from Johnson, perhaps inadvertently:
· Hide, blushing Albion, hide the impious strife :' in the character of Charles XII. in the Vanity of Human Wishes, Johnson says,
“ Hide, blushing Glory, hide Pultowa's day!” . An allusion to the late Battle of Copenhagen is here intro. duced with peculiar happiness and propriety :
“ Phantoms of glory, stay !_They feet along,
See o'er the ranks the crimson banners float!
His flagging pinion droops, and sweeps the ground.”
Book V. comprehends the battle of Eddington, with the episode of Ceolph and his daughter. We shall extract the prin. cipal part of Mr. Pye's description of the fight :
· Loud blows the clarion shrill !-with thundering sound
With horrid shock the infuriate hosts engage, : .
And Slaughter stalks around with fiend-like rage."
• He ceased, and as along the lucid rill,
And the closed eye a leaden slumber seals.'
The Sixth Book delineates the completion of Alfred's tri. umph, and concludes with another prophecy of the union and grandeur of the British Isles.
Such is the general outline of this poem, and such are the passages which have appeared to us most worthy of selection. The work will hold, if not a distinguished, certainly a respectable place in our literature. We cannot say, indeed,
“ Great are its faults, yet glorious is its fiamc." Its character is rather an exemption from gross errors than an attainment of excellence; and if Mr. Windham's celebrated phrase deserved to become an Anglicism, it might be called an instance of negative success in the Epic. After having said thus much, it would be vain to dissemble that we deem Mr. Pye's genius unequal to the arduous task which he has undertaken; and that, in our opinion, he wants the ANOUKTOV aup, without which correctness is of no avail in this department of poetry. His composition evinces the man of learning and taste, but these endowments do not con:stitute an epic poet.
We have remarked some defects of an inferior nature, in turning over this Poem ; ex. gr. 'words of kind accost ;'* which use of accost as a substantive is hardly warranted ;- nightfounder'd wanderer' is not very elegant, in a work of this nature ;-thigh is made to rhime to chivalry, and rives (an ugly word) to lives, the third person singular of the verb:
Torture no words can paint my bosom rives,
She lives, my prince ! my friend! Elsitha lives.'
* We shall not say, with Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek, “ Good Mrs. Mary Accost, I desire better acquaintance !" (Twelfth Night.) N4