William Lisle Bowles Critical Essays


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

William Lisle Bowles was, with Thomas Warton and Charlotte Smith, among those who in the late eighteenth century sought to revive the sonnet form. His own sonnets are particularly noteworthy for their responsiveness to landscape. Their diction was influential, though less original than one might think, as some investigation of late eighteenth century descriptive poetry and the picturesque travel effusions of William Gilpin (1724-1804) confirm. If Bowles borrowed from other writers, however, greater writers borrowed from him. Thus, “To the River Wensbeck” is echoed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in “Kubla Khan” and “Dejection: An Ode” (line 96). Similarly, Bowles’s sonnet “To the River Itchin” influenced Coleridge’s “To the River Otter,” and his poem “On Leaving Winchester School” probably inspired two similar poems, “Sonnet: On Quitting School for College” and “Absence. Farewell Ode on Quitting School for Jesus College, Cambridge,” by the better poet. Though ostensibly dated 1788, Coleridge’s “Sonnet: To the Autumnal Moon” is almost surely an imitation of Bowles, just as Coleridge’s “Anthem for the Children of Christ’s Hospital” is an adaptation of Bowles’s “Verses on the Philanthropic Society.” Coleridge’s sonnet “Pain” should also be compared with Bowles’s sonnet XI, “At Ostend,” to which it is indebted. Coleridge was indebted to Bowles not only for imagery, phrases, and subjects, but for attitudes as well. Thus, Bowles’s early poems are topographical and melancholic, with time his major theme. He then moved toward more outgoing, humanitarian utterances and eventually to public manifestos full of noble sentiments but of no other lasting interest.

In Bowles’s later sonnets, written after 1789 (when John Milton’s influence on him became more evident), the diction is less stilted and of some historical importance. Sonnets XXIII to XXVII, for example, probably influenced William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” which specifically echoes XXVII (“On Revisiting...

(The entire section is 847 words.)