Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay


BOWLES, WILLIAM LISLE (1762–1850), English poet and critic, was born at King’s Sutton, Northamptonshire, of which his father was vicar, on the 24th of September 1762. At the age of fourteen he entered Winchester school, the head-master at the time being Dr Joseph Warton. In 1781 he left as captain of the school, and proceeded to Trinity College, Oxford, where he had gained a scholarship. Two years later he won the chancellor’s prize for Latin verse. In 1789 he published, in a small quarto volume, Fourteen Sonnets, which met with considerable favour at the time, and were hailed with delight by Coleridge and his young contemporaries. The Sonnets even in form were a revival, a return to the older and purer poetic style, and by their grace of expression, melodious versification, tender tone of feeling and vivid appreciation of the life and beauty of nature, stood out in strong contrast to the elaborated commonplaces which at that time formed the bulk of English poetry. After taking his degree at Oxford he entered the Church, and was appointed in 1792 to the vicarage of Chicklade in Wiltshire. In 1797 he received the vicarage of Dumbleton in Gloucestershire, and in 1804 was presented to the vicarage of Bremhill in Wiltshire. In the same year he was collated by Bishop Douglas to a prebendal stall in the cathedral of Salisbury. In 1818 he was made chaplain to the prince regent, and in 1828 he was elected residentiary canon of Salisbury. He died at Salisbury on the 7th of April 1850, aged 88.

The longer poems published by Bowles are not of a very high standard, though all are distinguished by purity of imagination, cultured and graceful diction, and great tenderness of feeling. The most extensive were The Spirit of Discovery (1804), which was mercilessly ridiculed by Byron; The Missionary of the Andes (1815); The Grave of the Last Saxon (1822); and St John in Patmos (1833). Bowles is perhaps more celebrated as a critic of poetry than as a poet. In 1806 he published an edition of Pope’s works with notes and an essay on the poetical character of Pope. In this essay he laid down certain canons as to poetic imagery which, subject to some modification, have been since recognized as true and valuable, but which were received at the time with strong opposition by all admirers of Pope and his style. The Pope and Bowles controversy brought into sharp contrast the opposing views of poetry, which may be roughly described as the natural and the artificial. Bowles maintained that images drawn from nature are poetically finer than those drawn from art; and that in the highest kinds of poetry the themes or passions handled should be of the general or elemental kind, and not the transient manners of any society. These positions were vigorously assailed by Byron, Campbell, Roscoe and others of less note, while for a time Bowles was almost solitary. Hazlitt and the Blackwood critics, however, came to his assistance, and on the whole Bowles had reason to congratulate himself on having established certain principles which might serve as the basis of a true method of poetical criticism, and of having inaugurated, both by precept and by example, a new era in English poetry. Among other prose works from his prolific pen was a Life of Bishop Ken (2 vols., 1830–1831).

His Poetical Works were collected in 1855, with a memoir by G. Gilfillan.

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