This volume of poetry, selected by Diana Barsham, is very much a taster of Hayley’s work, as he was a prolific writer. Extending to 96 pages, it comprises extracts from Hayley’s major poems, together with several illustrations in colour - including two by Romney (one of Hayley, one of Edward Gibbon – to whom Hayley addressed his Essay on History (1780), and two by William Blake.
William Hayley’s work is little known. Omitted entirely from the many editions of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and also, more sadly, from Roger Lonsdale’s Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse (a volume of c. 900 pages that includes work by 250 writers), Hayley merits attention from all who seek to understand the role of poetry in society. As the quotation from Dante that Hayley used as an epigraph to his most popular poem, The Triumphs of Temper (1781), puts it:
‘Bring to poetry an unfettered mind, and be willing to learn
from the wisdom and good sense contained in its verses’.
In pursuit of that ‘wisdom and good sense’, the selection printed here includes the entire Canto III of Triumphs together with extracts from Essay on Painting (1778), the entire Epistle to a Friend . . . John Thornton (1780), five passages from Essay on History (1780), four passages from Essay on Epic Poetry (1782), the Ode to Wright of Derby (1783), and thirteen other poems – including several epitaphs, the ballad ‘Little Tom the Sailor Boy’ (with Blake’s black/white engravings), and a poem and letter of consolation written to Emma, Lady Hamilton, at the time of the death of Nelson.
Hayley’s network of influence was considerable, as demonstrated both by the roll-call of visitors to Eartham and by the dedicatees of his poems – George Romney, Edward Gibbon, Elizabeth Carter, William Mason, John Flaxman, for instance – and it must have been no surprise to his contemporaries that he was offered, but declined, the Poet Laureateship in 1790.
In the preface to The Triumph of Music (1804), Hayley wrote of his literary ambition - for his verse to be ‘medicinal’ to the minds of his readers (Johnson, quoting Milton, defining the term as ‘having physical virtue’], i.e. cleansing the mind of cant, of spurious thought, and helping the reader, as another poet was to write, to: ‘See life steadily and see it whole’.
It is hoped this selection of Hayley’s work will enable the reader to agree.