Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. III. Addison to Blake
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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
 
Critical Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse
Thomas Parnell (1679–1718)
 
[Thomas Parnell was born in Dublin in 1679, and was buried at Chester on the 18th of October, 1718. His Poems were first collected after his death, by Pope.]  1
 
IN contemplating the Lampadephoria of poetical history we sometimes meet with a figure whose torch was well charged with the resin of genius and ready to be enflamed, but whom accidental circumstances removed from the line of light so long and so far that its destiny was never properly fulfilled. Such a figure is Parnell, who, having spent his youth as a thoroughly insignificant amateur in verse, was roused during the last five years of his life, under the influence of Pope, a much younger man than he, to strike a few magnificent chords on the lyre of a true poet. The last three pieces in the posthumous edition of Parnell’s poems show us what he might have been, had he lived in London instead of Ireland, had he been born in 1699 instead of 1679, and had he understood at once the imperative bent of his genius. But this sententious and sonorous writer, whose verse in its deeper harmonies surpasses even Pope’s in melody, fancied himself a satirist, a society-singer, and emulated in his false ambition the successes of Oldham and Prior. But while he was vainly attempting to subdue for himself a province in Acrostic-land, there lay unvisited a romantic island of poesy, which was his by birthright, and it was Pope who opened his eyes to this fact. We know little of Parnell’s life, but we may be sure, from internal evidence, that his last three poems were composed during the five years between the publication of Windsor Forest and his own death. Yet, though Pope awakened his genius within him, Parnell was not the disciple of Pope; within the narrow range of what he did well, there was no writer of his time who showed a greater originality.  2
  The Hermit may be considered as forming the apex and chef d’œuvre of Augustan poetry in England. It is more exactly in the French taste than any work that preceded it, and after it English poetry swiftly passed into the degeneracy of classicism. Parnell’s poem is the model of a moral conte; the movement is dignified and rapid, the action and reflection are balanced with exquisite skill, the surprise is admirably prepared, and the treatment never flags from beginning to end. The French complaint of the lack of style in our minor poetry might have been triumphantly confronted by the Dennises and Budgells of the infancy of our criticism, by a reference to Parnell’s masterpiece, which, if we are ready to grant that polish, elegance and symmetry are the main elements of poetry, could scarcely be surpassed in any language. But more of real inspiration attended the composition of his two remarkable odes, the Night-Piece and the Hymn to Contentment. In these he originated two distinct streams of poetical influence, for the former was no less certainly the precursor of the curious funereal school of Young, Blair and Porteus, than the latter was of Collins’ exquisite strain of lyrical writing. In both he shows himself the disciple of Milton, and wields the ringing octosyllabic measure as no one had done since Il Penseroso was published. The lines with which we open our selection from the Hymn to Contentment reach a higher range of melody, and strike a more subtle chord of fancy than perhaps any other verses of that age. Yet Parnell has been neglected from his own generation to ours, and it is doubtful whether his moral abstractions can ever hope to regain the popular ear.  3
 
 
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