Garden at Selborne
To Samuel Barker
[With a copy of ‘The Invitation To Selborne.’]
Selborne, Nov. 3, 1774.
When I sat down to write to you in verse, my whole design was to show you how easy a thing it might be with a little care for a nephew to excell his uncle in the business of versification ; but as you have so fully answered that intent by your excellent lines, you must for the future excuse my replying in the same way, and make some allowance for the difference of ages.
However, at any time when you find your muse propitious, I shall always rejoice to see a copy of your performance, and shall be ready to commend, and what is more rare and more sincere, even to object and criticise when there is occasion.
A little turn for English poetry is no doubt a pretty accomplishment for a young gentlemen, and will not only enable him to read and relish our best poets, but will, like dancing to the body, have an happy influence even upon his prose compositions. Our best poets have been our best prose writers ; of assertion Dryden and Pope are notorious instances. It would be in vain to think of saying much here on the art of versification ; instead of the narrow limits of a letter, such a subject would require a large volume. However, I must say in a few words that the way to excel is to copy only from our best writers. The great grace of poetry consists in a perpetual variation of your cadences : if possible no two lines following ought to have their pause at the same feet.
Another beauty should not be passed over ; and that is throwing the sense and power into the third line, which adds a dignity and freedom to your expressions. Dryden introduced this practice, and carried it to great perfection ; but his successor, Pope, by his over exactness, corrected away that noble liberty, and almost reduced every sentence within the narrow bounds of a couplet. Alliteration, or the art of introducing words beginning with the same letter in the same or following line, has also a fine effect when managed with discretion. Dryden and Pope practised this art with wonderful success. As, for example, where you say “the polished needle,” the epithet “burnished” would be better for the reason above. But then you must avoid affectation in this case, and let the alliteration slide in, as it were, without design ; and this secret will make your lines bold and nervous. There are also in poetry allusions, similes and a thousand nameless graces, the efficacy of which nothing can make you sensible of but the careful reading of our best poets, and a nice and judicious application of their beauties. I need not add that you should be careful to seem not to take any pains about your rhimes ; they should fall in, as it were, of themselves. Our old poets laboured as much formerly to lug in two rhiming words as a butcher does to drag an ox to be slaughtered ; but Pope has set such a pattern of ease in that way, that few composers now are faulty in the business of rhiming . . .
Stream at Selborne
NOTE: I think this charming letter of Gilbert White (of Selborne) to his nephew Samuel Barker speaks for itself. This Samuel Barker was the grandson of the noted 18th century English Hebraist Samuel Barker, about whom see HERE for more.
One of three known images of Gilbert White.