A Prospect of Manchester and its Neighbourhood, from Chamber, upon the Rising Grounds, Adjacent to the Great Northern Road: A Poem/Preface
THE view of the country which has been the occasion of the present composition, is one which may be caught from any of the first range of hills adjacent to the great northern road. If an imaginary line be drawn upon the map from the mouth of the Mersey, and another from the mouth of the Ribble, meeting each other a few miles behind Manchester, they will include within them the the view here alluded to.
This plain, upon which are placed so many flourishing towns, is bounded to the left, by the hills of Cheshire and Derbyshire; more distantly, the high hills of Wales may be observed. To the right, the hills of Lancashire confine the prospect, stretching up into Cumberland and Westmoreland. The front of the view opens to the West in one continued flat, extending down to the sea. And the back ground is made up, by the black and barren mountains of Yorkshire.
Had the writer visited the country only occasionally, he might, perhaps, have stopped to admire the appearance of so noble a landscape; so completely circumscribed, except to the westward, that it can be compared to nothing, so much as an immense amphitheatre. But, riding over the high ground so constantly, at all times and seasons, it has led him frequently to wonder, that whilst numberless obscure spots have furnished subjects for descriptive poetry, so rich, populous, beautiful, and variegated a plain as that in which Manchester is placed, should have escaped observation.
The grandeur of this view consists in the magnitude of the plain, and the completeness of the hilly barrier encompassing it. The beauties consist rather in objects of art than of nature; for, whenever a country becomes populous, nature is always compelled to give way to the convenience or the caprice of man. Travellers contemplating this prospect, are struck with the number of large towns and villages brought into view at one time, and from one point. Manchester, Stockport, Ashton-under-line, Oldham, Bolton, Bury, and Middleton, with innumerable small villages, may be observed within a few minutes ride. The great roads may be traced by the various inflections of the houses upon the flat; long portions of canal frequently break upon the eye; clumps of trees, and young plantations point out the seats of of the nobility and gentry; a few patches of brown moss-land relieve; and the whole forms a scene, rich and magnificent, rarely equalled, perhaps no where excelled.
The situation of the moss-land, plainly shews whet has long since been the nature of almost all the low ground, and if additional proofs of this were wanting, they might be furnished by an inspection of the remains of the Roman road at Street, which is not inferior in preservation, to any remaining in the kingdom. It exists in the form of an elevated mound, more than two yards above the general level, a circumstance which could only have been rendered necessary, by want of stability in the bottom.
Amidst such a prospect as this, the partial eye of a native discovers many beauties, that would be lost to a casual observer, sufficient to influence the imagination. As particular spots attract attention, they recall to memory numerous private occurrences, sufficiently calculated to arouse emotions of the heart, favourable to the flow of numbers, and to the melody of verse.
When we consider how many have favoured the world with descriptive poems, and how few have succeeded in producing any thing, worthy the patience of the reader, it may be thought sufficient to intimidate any one, from giving a production of this kind to the press. The difficulty which has been found, of giving interest to a poem purely descriptive, has induced many to introduce scenery, through the medium of a tale. This species of composition, which of late has very much prevailed, marks rather a degeneracy of taste, than otherwise, since it substitutes a story for the ebullitions of the fancy, and the warm painting of the poet. There do but exist three poems of this kind of our language, which are still sought after by the general reader; and these are, "Cooper's Hill," by Sir John Denham; Pope's "Windsor Forest;" and Dyer's "Grongar Hill." This may indeed be thought an arrogant assertion, but it is one, which I think, an examination of the various descriptive poems will sufficiently bear out. I here allude to those poems, purely descriptive of a prospect placed before the poet's eyes: our language contains many fine descriptive poems, where the scenery lived only in the imagination of the author; and this is a very considerable distinction of descriptive poetry.
There are few things in which men differ more, than in their opinions upon poetry: the taste of individuals is confined, and like the genius, it is frequently shewn most strongly, upon particular subjects. A rapid succession of ideas in the mind, and a power of delivering these ideas unimpaired, in words, seems necessary to constitute a poet; and the mind of the poet is as much shewn in painting or sculpture, as in that art, to which the term has been more particularly applied. Poetry has been defined, the art of painting ideas and objects to another, through the medium of language: and it has at one time been thought necessary to constitute poetry, that the words should be formed into an artificial arrangement, termed verse; but of late, the works of Fenelon in France, and the publication of Ossian in England, have more particularly shewn that this was not necessary: since in these compositions, though the trammels of rhyme and measure have been thrown aside, yet the vigour of the poetry is not diminished in the least.
The poet presents a sketch, which is filled up by the imagination of the reader; and it is necessary to give in language, so correct a description, as to place the object in the mind's eye. To do this, the description should be concise yet natural, the most prominent parts of an object being brought forward: if the modesty of nature be overstepped, the reader becomes displeased, because he is under the necessity of exerting his powers too much, in following a series of forced conceptions. The fewer words are used in bringing forward an image, it is commonly depicted with more vigour and energy; a good poet presents his imagery in few words, whilst the versifier runs out in a tedious and minute description. Poetry should present the general outline, and leave the more minute touches to be filled up by the imagination of the reader: it is this very act of completing the image of the author, which forms one great source of pleasure; hence it is, that a reader of poetry should possess a quick imagination, or many beauties of a composition will necessarily escape him. When a writer delineates vigorously, he is followed with delight; the poetic ardour becomes infectious, and the reader finds himself
"Catching the thought,
And giving to airy nothing,
A local habitation and a name."
But the contrary of this takes place, when a description is spun out: the mind becomes fatigued, and we confess the dulness of the author, in our inability to follow him. "In vitium ducit culpæ fuga, si caret arte."
If we examine the works of the painter or the sculptor, we shall be as much struck with the poetry of their conceptions, as if we read the warm fictions of the assistance given by the Gods to men, in the Iliad. Painting and sculpture differ however from poetry in this; in these, the poetic thought is conveyed tp the mind, through the medium of the eye; there is no void, no space left for the imagination to fill up, and hence the intellectual satisfaction consists in contemplating the perfection of the imitation: in the one instance, we are voluntary agents in the production of the effect; in the other, the impressions we receive are involuntary.
What has been remarked by Condillac, in his work "Sur l'Origine des Connoissances Humaines," may be applied, with great propriety, to poetical compositions—"that long periods should be avoided, because they fatigue; digressions, because they divert the mind from the subject; too frequent divisions, because they embarrass; and repetitions, because they tire." If these particulars are not attended to, the simplicity and unity of the subject are destroyed; two properties which are as necessary as imagination to the beauty of the piece.
The point from whence the landscape has been contemplated, is the terrace and gardens at Chamber; a spot sufficiently retired, and delightfully situated, whilst it is elevated enough, to command a noble and extensive view of the country. It is not upon this prospect, we can digress on the ruined abbey, or the mouldering castle: the country is nearly barren of antiquities, the whole being a structure of yesterday, and arising out of the commercial prosperity of Great Britain. We have here no Arcadia, in which to place shepherds with their pipes; for the country is to be looked upon as completely a manufacturing, and not as a pastoral. Descriptive poetry may, in some measure, be considered an account of the sensations of the writer, produced by a view of the country; and it is necessary to pass by many objects, least a sameness should pervade the whole: it would have been easy to have introduced a description of many more seats, had not this been thought a sufficient reason for declining to do so.
It has been so common to make trifling apologies for things of this kind, that it has become almost a custom; but it appears so unmanly to deprecate criticism by the acknowledgment of trivial errors, that if the writer were asked, what lead him to write, and more what lead him to print, he would answer, that he did the one for his amusement, and the other because he saw no impropriety in it.
N. B. When this poem was in the press, the writer received the unfortunate and afflicting intelligence of the death of the intelligent and amiable gentleman to whom he had dedicated.