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CONSTANCE DE CASTILE : A POEM, IN TEN CANTOS.
BY WILLIAM SOTHEBY, ESQ.
First American edition, 18mo. Boston, 1812.
I could not have been predicted from any one of Mr. Sotheby's former productions, that he would ever accomplish a work of very superior value, which should entitle him to a much higher place on the scale of poetic merit than he then held. There is so much evenness of execution, such a uniformity of desert in all his works, that we have no suspicion of any unexerted or undeveloped powers. We discern in them no brilliant flashes, that discover a temporary superiority to himself; no irregular sallies, that mark undisciplined ability; no towering eminences, that display an inviting prospect. His page is not crowded with thought like Crabbe's; nor does it sparkle with beauties like Scott's; nor is it exuberant with delightful ornament like Southey’s. His faults are of deficiency, rather than of excess. They are caused principally by the want of a powerful imagination, of strength of conception, and of spirit in execution. His expressions are smooth and flowing, though far from possessing the full toned sweetness of Campbell. But they are seldom original or pointed; nor are they so full of meaning, that the
* First published in the General Repository, for April, 1812. vol. i.
thought grows with the line, and no word can be dispensed with ; nor so delicate and forcible as to awaken vivid emotions, and impress us deeply with their sense. His vivacity is that of uniform temperament, rather than of excited feel. ings; which is not so estimable in poetry, as in character. There is no magic in his verse; nothing that makes us pause to admire, and captivates us unknowingly. Nevertheless, Mr. Sotheby has not been read without interest, nor praised without desert, by such as are pleased with descriptions that discover an amiable character, and a taste for nature's softer beauties. He is sometimes elegant; he has so much purity of taste that he is not likely to offend; and the morality of his poems in general, though nothing to distinguish the poet, must produce complacency in the man.
His first work was the translation of Wieland's Oberon, a poem, which, though beautiful, has been most extravagantly overrated. This translation was published in 1798. It has been deservedly praised for the harmony of its versification in a difficult measure ; but we are not disposed to give very high applause to the writer, who has made accessible and grateful to the English reader, a poem discovering a taste egregiously faulty, and whose boasted excellence of moral is more than counteracted by the seducing wantonness of many of its des criptions. In 1800 Mr. Sotheby published his version of the Georgics. He has here also displayed his command of lan guage; but he has in some instances deviated rather too far from the original to be credited as an entirely faithful translator. This production however, in which he places himself in competition with Addison, Dryden, Warton, and Pitt, has procured for its author no inconsiderable reputation. His next work of magnitude was Saul, a poem in blank verse, published in 1805. This is by no means equal to either of the others we have mentioned. We here find much harshness of versification, and many lines of false and inaccurate measure. Mr. Sotheby does not soar so high when he rises with the assistance only of a historical ground work, as when he is constantly supported by the vigor of a firmer wing. He used dangerous materials, as they were derived from sacred history, from which much deviation is not allowable; and it requires more spirit in the execution, and more richness of decoration, than are displayed in this poem, to render interesting a trite narrative. But it is a poem of mild character, from which many pleasant, and some fine passages may be selected. Mr. Sotheby has besides published a tour through Wales ; odes, sonnets, and other poems; a poetical epistle to Sir George Beaumont, on the encouragement of the British school of painting, which we believe has considerable merit; Oberon, a Mask, which is a dramatic abridgment of the poem; Orestes, a tragedy; Julian and Agnes; and the Siege of Cusco; so that he is an author of works rather numerous, and somewhat various. He alludes to several of these works in the following passage from Saul.
« Loved haunts ! that beard my song of other years :
Constance de Castile was first published in 1810; this we believe is Mr. Sotheby's last work. It is professedly founded upon history; the period of which is during the latter nalf of the fourteenth century. The subject appears to have been selected with reference to the connexion at present subsisting between England and Spain, as the incidents principally relate to the union of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, with Constance, the daughter of Pedro the cruel, king of Castile. In thus choosing his subject from history, Mr. Sotheby must either have intended to illustrate and commemorate its events ; or to save himself the expense of invention; or to increase the interest in fictitious circumstances by a mixture of reality. In the first case, no deviation from the correct narrative should be allowed ; in the others, we do not expect strict obedience to it. Mr. Sotheby was probably influenced by both of the latter motives. Not venturing to stand alone, and trust only to his own invention, he selected a story, which was likely to interest his countrymen at the present period, and perhaps he was at liberty to adhere to it or not, as he pleased. We shall not therefore condemn the deviations from it, presuming that his readers will not consider the poem as historical authority. Pedro, by the enormity of his vices and the tyranny of his government, had alienated his people, and induced his bastard brother, Henry count of Trastamara, to rebel. Henry, with the aid of Bertram du Guesclin, who, obtaining the consent of Charles the wise, king of France, collected and led to his assistance the vagabond banditti who infested France at that time, invaded Castile, was received by the people, and finally obtained possession of the kingdom.
At the commencement of the poem, Corunna, almost reduced by famine, was the only city which still resisted the victorious Henry.*
A year had elapsed since Pedro had left it, to seek assistance from Portugal, where he was treacherously detained. A stormy night is described ; a boat is faintly discerned from the watch-tower of Corunna, riding on the billows. It reaches the shore.
* See note A, following the Review,
“ Hark! as the swift keel ploughs the strand,
• Castile ! come forth! hail, hail thy King !
Pedro lands amid the congratulations of his adherents, and is received with joy by his daughter Constance.
But overcome with grief for his own misfortunes, and for the distresses and dangers of his friends, with rage against his enemies, and with the stern anguish of conscious guilt, he retires alone to the vault which contained the sepulchre of Maria de Padilla, well known in history as his mistress, or his privately married wife, who was so beloved by the king, that she was thought to be an enchantress, and who induced him to the murder of Blanche of Bourbon, his queen. He enters,
“Now-ghastly pale, now-fiery red,
As one by horror visited."
Here the half frantic king is disturbed by a terrific vision of his poisoned queen, and of a murdered knight. To free himself from the sight before him, he is about to kill himself; when he is interrupted by Constance, and Anselm the priest, who calm his emotion. The third canto has among its first stanzas the following description, which we extract as poetic.
“Bright in the heavens, one beauteous star