William Lisle Bowles 1762-1850
English poet and critic.
William Lisle Bowles was an English clergyman, poet, and literary critic whose work spanned the transition period between the eighteenth century's age of sensibility and the Romanticism of the nineteenth century. Considered the father of modern poetry by some scholars, Bowles is better known for his influence on Wordsworth and Coleridge than for his own writing. Although his sonnets were considered new and innovative at the time of their publication, they were soon outdated, and Bowles's reputation as a pioneer was quickly eclipsed by the fame of his early admirers.
Born in King's Sutton in 1762, Bowles was the son and grandson of clergymen and the eldest of seven children. From his father, William Thomas Bowles, he inherited a love of nature, while his mother, Bridget Grey Bowles inspired in him a love of music, particularly sacred music. Although the family's means were limited, Bowles's father was determined to provide a good education for his son and sent him to Winchester in 1776 where he remained until 1781. He was a good student and attracted the attention of the headmaster, Dr. Joseph Warton, who had developed a reputation as an educator of young poets. Warton was also a critic who introduced Bowles to the great ancient and modern poets, and encouraged his protégé's delight in the natural world. Attracted by the opportunity of studying with Warton's brother Thomas, Bowles then matriculated to Trinity College, Oxford, where he won a prize for Latin verse. Thomas Warton was a poet and senior fellow at Trinity; his sonnets apparently influenced Bowles to try his own hand at the form some years later. He received his A.B. in 1786, and although his attendance at Oxford was somewhat intermittent during the next few years, he eventually received his A.M. in 1792. He took orders and began searching for an appointment to a suitable parish.
Around the time he was leaving Oxford he fell in love with the niece of Sir Samuel Romilly, but the match proved impossible, apparently because of Bowles's limited financial means. To console himself, he set out on a tour of Scotland, Belgium, the Rhine, and Switzerland, and the picturesque landscapes he observed on his travels provided the inspiration for his first book of sonnets, published after his return to England, in 1789. Bowles fell in love a second time, but his intended—Harriet Wake, the granddaughter of an Archbishop—died before they married. In 1797 Bowles married his former fiancée's sister Magdalen, and they lived together until her death in 1844.
In the early years of his marriage, Bowles encountered some difficulty securing a suitable position as a clergyman. Finally, in 1804, he was given an appointment to Bremhill, a parish he served with great devotion for the next forty years. In addition to his parish duties, he was involved in the affairs of the county and engaged in numerous scholarly pursuits including the study of antiquities and the writing of biography, criticism, and poetry. Because of his various interests he was well known outside the confines of his small country parsonage. He received other clerical appointments, including one as Canon-Residentiary of Salisbury in 1828, an appointment which obliged him to be away from Bremhill for three months of every year. He died in 1850 at the age of 88 and was buried in Salisbury Cathedral.
Bowles's best known work is his first publication, Fourteen Sonnets, Written Chiefly on Picturesque Spots During a Journey (1789), produced during the period of grieving following his broken engagement. Expectations for the book's success were slim; the publisher was convinced he would never recoup the cost of printing the first one hundred copies. However, within six months all the copies had been sold and the printer acknowledged that he could have sold five times that number. The book was revised and reprinted several times and by 1805, it was in its ninth edition. In the sonnets, Bowles seemed to break with the earlier poetic tradition to concentrate on observations of natural beauty and the emotions inspired by those observations—an innovation that excited the young Coleridge and other Romantic figures. His river sonnets, such as “To the River Tweed” and “To the River Itchin,” were especially popular, the latter said to have inspired an imitation by Coleridge.
In addition to sonnets, Bowles wrote numerous shorter poems during the period 1789 to 1809. Among the most successful were Monody Written at Matlock (1791), Coombe Ellen (1798), and St. Michael's Mount (1798). He also produced several long poems in blank verse such as The Spirit of Discovery (1804), consisting of more than 2,000 lines celebrating the achievements of discoverers from Noah to Captain Cook. The poem's epic proportions and unintended imitation of Milton's style prompted Lord Byron to parody it in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). Bowles's other long poems were The Missionary (1813), which featured exotic characters and was set in the Andes Mountains of South America; The Grave of the Last Saxon (1822), an epic set in England during the Norman Conquest; Days Departed, Or, Banwell Hill (1828), a local poem reflecting Bowles's antiquarian interests; and St. John in Patmos (1832), on the revelations of St. John the Divine. Over the years the tone of these ambitious longer poems grew increasingly didactic, the landscape descriptions that were so successful in Bowles's early work now providing a springboard for moralizing analogies.
In 1806, Bowles edited and published Alexander Pope's works in ten volumes; in it, he criticized Pope's morals as well as his poetry, reviving a scholarly dispute about Pope's proper place in the poetic hierarchy. Over the next several years Bowles was attacked, most notably by Byron, for disparaging Pope, and in response to these attacks, Bowles issued Invariable Principles of Poetry (1819) in which he outlined his critical perspective. An attack on Bowles's principles followed in the Quarterly Review, which led to a series of articles, letters, and pamphlets by Pope's defenders and detractors, particularly Byron and Bowles, which lasted until 1825 when Bowles published A Final Appeal to the Literary Public, Relative to Pope.
In 1835 Bowles issued Scenes and Shadows of Days Departed, With Selections from Poems, Illustrative of a Long Journey through Life, From the Earliest Recollections to Age, in which he discussed the various influences on his early work and explained his choice of the sonnet form, stating that fourteen lines best suited his idea of “unity of sentiment.”
Bowles's work was well received when first published. He seemed, in fact, the first poet to abandon eighteenth-century poetic conventions in favor of something new, particularly in terms of subject matter. His first collection of sonnets sold well, and some of his earliest customers were to become major figures in the Romantic period; Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, and particularly Samuel Taylor Coleridge, were all admirers of Bowles in their youth. Wordsworth claimed, in what has become a well-known anecdote, that he purchased a copy of Fourteen Sonnets, started reading, and was so taken by it that he sat down in a niche on the London Bridge to read it through while his brother grew impatient waiting for him. Coleridge called Bowles “exquisite” and claimed he was “the first who combined natural thoughts with natural diction; the first who reconciled the heart with the head.” In his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge described his enthusiasm for Bowles's sonnets: “As my school finances did not permit me to purchase copies, I made, within less than a year and a half, more than forty transcriptions, as the best presents I could offer to those who had in any way won my regard.” Many critics believe that Bowles's sonnet “To the River Itchin” was the direct inspiration for Coleridge's “To the River Otter,” although others, among them A. Harris Fairbanks, claim that Bowles's mentor, Thomas Warton, provided the source for both sonnets with his own “To the River Lodon.”
As Coleridge matured as a critic, Bowles seemed to decline as a poet, and Coleridge's opinion of Bowles cooled considerably. In 1802, he wrote to William Sotheby: “The truth is, Bowles has indeed the sensibility of a poet, but he has not the passion of a great poet.” Coleridge was also disturbed by the didactic nature of Bowles's later works, particularly the longer poems in blank verse, complaining of Bowles's “trick of moralizing everything.” Since then, debate has raged among literary scholars as to the extent of Bowles's influence on Coleridge and other Romantic poets. Some critics suggest that Coleridge's debt to Bowles is slight; others claim that Bowles's role as a pioneer was considerable. Paul Bauschatz, for example, insists that Bowles's influence on Romantic poetry was not limited to subject matter but encompassed new forms of rhetoric and diction as well. Bowles is often credited with revitalizing the sonnet form and J. B. Bamborough claims for him a considerable role in popularizing river sonnets in particular.
Most critics agree, though, that while Bowles may have suggested a new direction for poetry, it was up to his disciples to bring it to fruition. As Bamborough states: “In 1789, he was a pioneer; by 1800—half a century before he died—he was outdated.” Even the sympathetic George Gilfillan, who called him “the father of modern poetry,” acknowledged his limitations. In the twentieth century, his reputation rests almost entirely on the influence he had on the more famous poets who followed him. According to A. J. A. Waldock: “His claim on our interest is that he once interested some other people—Coleridge above all.” M. A. Abrams concurs, questioning the basis of that interest in the first place: “Why Coleridge should have been moved to idolatry by so slender, if genuine a talent as that of Bowles has been an enigma of literary history.”
Regarding Bowles as a critic, again his work was more influential than excellent—particularly in the Pope controversy. According to Greeves, he had “a large share in bringing about the reaction against Pope, and in formulating the literary ideals of his generation.” But his criticism was considered inferior to that of his mentor Joseph Warton, whose low assessment of Pope undoubtedly inspired Bowles to renew the controversy.