Although best known as a poet, William Lisle Bowles (bohlz) also published an edition of Alexander Pope, pamphlets of literary criticism regarding Pope (in a famous controversy with Lord Byron and others), sermons, antiquarian works, and an autobiographical fragment. A number of his letters are also extant (see Garland Greever’s edition of them), but he is more memorably preserved in the recollections of others, as Thomas Moore and Samuel Taylor Coleridge fondly described and preserved his eccentricities.
Few people today regard William Lisle Bowles as a major poet, and some would speak contemptuously of him, for all his enormous output. Sharply contrasting with a modern sophisticated dismissal of his work, however, was the immediate and forceful influence that Bowles exerted on the first generation of British Romantic poets, including William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, Charles Lamb, and above all Samuel Taylor Coleridge. For them he was the herald of a new sensibility, almost a Vergil to follow beyond the desiccated landscape of neoclassical detachment into a richer vale of fresh response and honest moralizing. Having been educated in part by the poets he inspired, modern readers find it hard to appreciate Bowles’s originality. Largely because he was transitional to better poets than himself, Bowles now appears to be of historical interest only. He is frequently omitted from modern anthologies altogether and appears in some literary histories only as a footnote to Coleridge.
Little, Geoffrey, and Elizabeth Hall. “Coleridge’s ’To the Rev. W. L. Bowles’: Another Version?” Review of English Studies: A Quarterly Journal of English Literature and the English Language 32 (May, 1981): 193-196. This fine assessment of Bowles’s poetry offers an illuminating overview of his poetic development.
May, Tim. “Coleridge’s Slave Trade Ode and Bowles’s ’The African.’” Notes and Queries 54, no. 4 (December, 2007): 504-510. May notes the influence that Bowles had on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s writing, and in particular how Bowles’s work influenced Coleridge’s Greek ode.
Modiano, Raimonda. “Coleridge and Wordsworth: The Ethics of Gift Exchange and Literary Ownership.” Wordsworth Circle 20 (Spring, 1989): 113-120. In this comprehensive essay, Modiano provides informative coverage of English literature from 1800 to 1899 and examines the views of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Bowles.
Rennes, Jacob Johan van. Bowles, Byron, and the Pope Controversy. New York: Haskell House, 1966. Bowles, who is referred to here as a “sonneteer of no mean deserts,” edited a volume of Alexander Pope’s works. In his edition, Bowles criticized Pope. This volume chronicles the correspondence that surrounded this controversy and provides useful background of Bowles and his contemporaries.
Vinson, James, ed. Great Writers of the English Language. 3 vols. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. The entry on Bowles, by Tony Bareham, calls him a second-rank poet, without much individuality. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that Bowles was carefully competent with an eye for details, and notes the popularity of Fourteen Sonnets, which restored dignity to a verse form that had been “neglected for the last two generations.”
Wu, Duncan. “Wordsworth’s Readings of Bowles.” Notes and Queries 36 (June, 1989): 166-167. A perceptive and thorough reading of Bowles’s poetry makes this essay worth consulting. Central to an appreciation and understanding of Bowles’s imagination.