THE SUBJECT of the Fleece, sir, cannot be made poetical. How can a man write poetically of serges and druggets? So, in his way of prompt finality, pronounced Johnson the dictator. Yet Akenside, whose poetical aims were sufficiently remote from the common, had declared that he would regulate his opinion of the reigning taste by the fate of Dyers Fleece; if that were ill received he should not think it any longer reasonable to expect fame from excellence. Gray ventured to brave the elegant disdain of Horace Walpole by affirming that Mr. Dyer has more of poetry in his imagination than almost any of our number. And one in our own century, of loftier genius than Gray, looking back from his Westmoreland solitudes to his humbler brother poet among the Cambrian hills, has left his protest against the injustice of hasty Fame in her neglect of Dyer:
Yet pure and powerful minds, hearts meek and still,
A grateful few shall love thy modest Lay,
Long as the shepherds bleating flock shall stray
Oer naked Snowdons wide aerial waste,
Long as the thrush shall pipe on Grongar Hill.
The power of hills was not on Johnson; Fleet Street, with its roar, had more music for his ear than the piping of a thrush or the tender clamour of the mother-ewes.
Grongar Hill, and The Country Walk, appeared in Poetical Miscellanies of the year 1726, the same year that saw the publication of Thomsons Winter. It was the year in which Pope was imagining his goddess of Dulness, as she surveyed through fog her long succession of Grub Street children. From remote Scotland and from Southern Wales came a gift to English poetry which neither Grub Street nor Twickenham could bestow. While Pope, a paladin in ruffles and periwig, was doing to death by exquisite rapier-thrusts the swarming hosts of Dulness, his own position was threatened unawares. That poetry of external nature which was to alienate for a season the general heart from such poetry as his, was already inaugurated by the youthful singers of Winter and of Grongar Hill.
Dyer had been for a time pupil to the painter Richardson, and master and pupil may have laid down their brushes now and again to con over some passage of Milton, whom they both knew well and honoured. In Dyers love of landscape there is something of the painters feeling; he loves a wide prospect, diversified by stream and wood, backed by blue aërial steeps solemnly vast; the effect is heightened if the landscape include the ragged walls of some crumbling castle, or some peasants smoky nest leaning against its gnarled tree. There remains but to add a human figure or twoan old man white-bearded, in weed ragged and brown, leaning on his spade in the little garden, or a fisher in the willow shade,
Who with the angle in his hand
Swings the nibbling fry to land.
The poetry of ruins was not reserved for the romantic second half of the century. It is Dyer who describes
The spacious plain
Of Sarum, spread like oceans boundless round,
Where solitary Stonehenge grey with moss,
Ruin of ages, nods.
And Johnson could not withhold his admiration from some lines conceived among Romes dilapidating edifices.
The Pilgrim oft
At dead of night, mid his oraison hears
Aghast the voice of time, disparting towers,
Tumbling all precipitate down dashd,
Rattling around loud thundering to the moon.
But Dyer, as even these lines show, is not a painter who would constrain words to be the medium of his art; he is a poet. He has a heart that listens, an eye that loves; his landscape is full of living change, of tender incident, of the melody of breeze and bird and stream. Here under glossy-rinded beeches the burrowing rabbit turns the dust; here the new-dropped lamb,
Tottering with weakness by his mothers side
Feels the fresh world about him;
here the husbandman returning at eve to his little smiling cottage warm embowered, meets his rosy children at the door,
Prattling their welcomes, and his honest wife,
With good brown cake and bacon slice, intent
To cheer his hunger after labour hard.
Dyer loves solitary musing on some gentle hillside, and sometimes moralises amiably on the gains of a private life remote from men;
Grass and flowers Quiet treads.
But it is one of his distinctions that he never really opposed nature and human society, as poets of Rousseaus part of the century were wont to oppose them; and he not only pays homage to trade in the way of easy platitudes, but really receives thrills of poetic excitement from the life of man in commerce, its force, its vividness, its picturesqueness, its variety. Tis art and toil, he exclaims, give nature value. Could he choose his lot it would be on some healthful waste, far from a Lords loathd neighbourhood; yet he would not be neighbourless, for he loves his toiling fellow-men, and if the soil were coarse and sterile, it should be so only till forced to flourish and subdued by me.
The farmer still collecting his scattered sheaves under the full-orbed harvest moon, the strong-armed rustic plunging in the flood an unshorn ewe, the carter on the dusty road beside his nodding wain, the maiden at her humming wheel, delight Dyers imagination no more than do the Sheffield smiths near the glaring mass clattering their heavy hammers down by turns, the builder, trowel in hand, at whose spell Manchester rises and spreads like Carthage before the eyes of Æneas, the keen-eyed factor inspecting his bales, the bending porter on the wharf where masts crowd thick. The poets ancestors, as he is pleased to record in verse, were weavers, who, flying from the rage of superstition, brought the loom to
that soft tract
Of Cambria, deep-embayed, Dimetian land,
By green hills fenced, by oceans murmur lulld.
From them he obtained a goodly heritagehis love of freedom and his love of industry. He honoured traffic, the friend to wedded love; he honoured England for her independence and her mighty toil; America, for her vast possibilities of well-being. He pleaded against the horrors of the slave trade. He courted the favour of no lord. And, in an age of city poets, he found his inspiration on the hillside and by the stream.