Title page.So, there they are: Bowles’s 21 sonnets. Not much cop, if we're honest. Literary critics, when they treat Bowles at all, tend to do so as historically significant, in a small way, rather than on the grounds of his intrinsic merit as a poet. Here’s R S White:
Sonnet 1 'Bereave me not of these delightful dreams'
Sonnet 2 'Languid, and sad, and slow from day to day'
Sonnet 3 Written at Tinemouth, Northumberland, After a Tempestuous Voyage
Sonnet 4 Written at Bamborough Castle
Sonnet 5 To the River Wensbeck
Sonnet 6 To The River Tweed
Sonnet 7 Evening! as slow thy placid shades descend
Sonnet 8 On Leaving A Village in Scotland
Sonnet 9 To The River Itchin, Near Winton
Sonnet 10 'O Poverty! though from thy haggard eye'
Sonnet 11 On Dover Cliffs, July 20th, 1787
Sonnet 12 On Landing at Ostend, July 21, 1787
Sonnet 13 Written at Ostend, July 22th 1787
Sonnet 14 On the Ryne
Sonnet 15 Written at a Convent
Sonnet 16 July 18th, 1787
Sonnet 17 In a Storm
Sonnet 18 On a Distant View of England
Sonnet 19 On Netley Abbey
Sonnet 20 'O Harmony! thou tendrest nurse of pain'
Sonnet 21 To the River Cherwell
Bowles’ immediate stimulus [in writing the sonnets] was the experience of being jilted by two fiancées, but his response was more Romantic than Petrarchan, since in poetry he found a soothing emotional connection to nature that distracted him from his amatory grief, rather than dwelling on feelings of unrequited love. He strives to express in verse his real feelings rather than relying on Petrarchan conventions. Descriptions of scenery and buildings, rivers and ruins are foregrounded, to the extent that the sequence becomes like a travelogue, encompassing sights from Scotland and the north of England, Oxford and Dover, and abroad from Ostend and the Rhine. … Bowles, even when writing initially as an anguished young man, adopts the stance of one looking back in time to former distress. Retrospection becomes as much a strategy to measure time and to lament lost youth, as to trace an unhappy love affair. [R. S. White, ‘The Sonnet from Milton to the Romantics’, in A D Cousins and Peter Howarth (eds), The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet (Cambridge 2011), 181]White goes on to note Coleridge and Wordsworth’s high opinion of the poems, and adds that ‘one of Bowles’ sonnets is called ‘Associations’, and the Hartleian word sums up his treatment of the way scenery stimulates, creates, or recreates past emotion.’  But this doesn’t get us any closer to explaining what Coleridge found so beguiling in the works.
Beguiling he certainly found them. Coleridge’s early passion for Bowles’s sonnets is recorded in the first chapter of the Biographia Literaria, where he records his school-friend T F Middleton giving him the volume—this must have been the 21-sonnet second edition, not the 14-sonnet first, since Coleridge remembers that the sonnets were ‘twenty in number, and just then published in a quarto pamphlet’. He was at that point too poor to buy additional copies, and so copied out select sonnets (‘more than forty transcriptions’) to give to friends. A later reprint (from 1796) was given by Coleridge as a gift to Stella Thirlwell, with the following inscription:
Dear Mrs Thirlwell. I entreat your acceptance of this Volume, which has given me more pleasure, and done my heart more good, than all the other books, I ever read, excepting my Bible. Whether you approve or condemn my poetical taste, this Book will at least serve to remind you of your unseen, yet not the less sincere,Wordsworth was similarly struck: 'When Bowles's Sonnets first appeared ... - I bought them in a walk through London with my dear brother, who was afterwards drowned at sea. I read them as we went along, and to the great annoyance of my brother, I stopped in a niche of London Bridge to finish the pamphlet' [Mary Moorman, William Wordsworth: a Biography (2 vols: Oxford 1969-70), 1:125] Whalley notes that ‘Coleridge sent Bowles a copy of his Poems (1797) and in September of that year went to Bremhill to seek his criticism.’ Various letters of that period from Coleridge to Bowles survive, indicative of genuine warmth of friendship.
Friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Sunday Morning, December the eighteenth 1796. [This is quoted from George Whalley (ed) Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Marginalia I, Abbt to Byfield (Princeton Univ. Press 1980), 717]
Even though Bowles accepted the manuscript of Osorio and persuaded Sheridan to write to Coleridge to discuss the possibility of staging the play, the visit was not a success … For Coleridge the spell was broken in 1802. “I well remember,” he told Sotheby, in one of his brilliant early letters on the nature of poetry, “that Southey observed to me, that you, I & himself had all done ourselves harm by suffering our admiration of Bowles to bubble up too often on the surface of our Poems.’ [Collected Letters 2:855; cf 864]Whalley concludes that from 1802 to 1816 ‘Coleridge cultivated Bowles’ acquaintance’ and ‘received much kindness and encouragement from him’; but that ‘Bowles’ involvement in Tory church politics in 1817-18 because a cause of serious tension between them.’ Nonetheless, in 1821 Bowles gave Coleridge a copy of his latest pamphlet, Two Letters to the Right Honourable Lord Byron, of which more below.
Bowles wrote a good deal of other stuff, some of which Coleridge read; including poems elegiac, religious and descriptive. He also published a quantity of prose, and produced an edition of Pope. Several of his contemporaries, including individuals not well-disposed to him, mocked this latter. They did so on various grounds, but at the root of it was that Bowles’ own proto-Romantic fondness for a picturesque, Sublime poetry of Affect was at odds with Pope’s whole aesthetic. Campbell was one such, and Bowles published a sort of poetic manifesto addressed to Campbell: The invariable Principles of Poetry, in a Letter addressed to Thomas Campbell, Esq. occasioned by some Critical Observations in his Specimens of British Poets, particularly relating to the Poetical Character of Pope (1819). This in turn ignited a literary spat, between Bowles on the one hand, and a group of friends who considered themselves ‘defenders’ of the genius of Pope (against the sniping of so petty a writer as Bowles) on the other. In 1820 the Quarterly reviewed Bowles’s pamphlet:
It is with pain we have so long witnessed the attacks on the moral and poetical character of this great poet [i.e. Pope] … the Rev. Mr. Bowles, possesses the contest à l’outrance, with the appearance, though assuredly not with the reality, of personal hostility. It had been more honourable in this gentleman, with his known prejudices against the class of poetry in which Pope will always remain unrivalled, to have declined the office of editor, than to attempt to spread among new generations of readers the most unfavourable and the most unjust impressions of the POET, and of the MAN. We confidently hope, that the world has not yet reached that point of degradation, where to depreciate excellence in art, and to vilify one whose virtues were of no ordinary cast, shall be considered as a matter too unimportant to investigate, or too light to reprehend gravely. … Many years after, Johnson interrogating this critic, inquired, ‘If Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?’ To circumscribe poetry, he added, by a definition ‘will only shew the narrowness of the definer.’ Yet such a definer arose in the Rev. W. L. Bowles, who has distinguished himself in this idle controversy by his ‘Observations on the Poetic Character of Pope;' and his recent pamphlet on ‘The Invariable Principles of Poetry,’ in reply to Mr. Campbell's masterly vindication of Pope. Mr. Bowles has adopted a system which terminates in an exclusion of a great poet from the highest order of poets. [‘Spence’s Anecdotes of Books and Men', Quarterly Review (1820), 407-08]The notional occasion for this essay was an newly discovered and published account of one of Pope’s contemporaries, Joseph Spence (Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters of Books and Men, collected from the Conversation of Mr. Pope, and other eminent Persons of his Time. By the Rev. Joseph Spence. Now first published from the original Papers, with Notes and a Life of the Author by Samuel Weller Singer 1820). Some of the anecdotes Spence related did not throw a very flattering light on Pope. This is how the Quarterly put it: '
This ‘Mr. Bowles, a sort of sentimental critic’ jibe evidently stung. Bowles quickly published a pamphlet of his own rebutting the review: A reply to an 'Unsentimental sort of critic', the reviewer of 'Spence's Anecdotes’ in the Quarterly Review for October 1820 (1820). This begins:
The first impression which the criticism on "Spence's Anecdotes," in the Quarterly Review for October, excited in my mind was regret that such an article, so false in its charges, so flippant in its style, so destitute of argument, and so abhorrent from the liberal feelings of an educated gentleman, should have been admitted in so respectable a publication. … Though this criticism is ostensibly on Spence's Anecdotes of Pope, as the last editor of the works of that illustrious Poet receives his full share of notice, and as the observations which are particularly directed to him in that character, appear neither fair nor well supported, I, as "one of the Family," shall endeavour to make some reply: and before I have done, I have little doubt but that I shall convince every dispassionate reader how ill this critic has performed his task. I hope I shall be excused, if, in, repelling sneers and sarcasms, I use a somewhat coarser manner in reply, than is either consonant to the habits or dispositions of our Family.Bowles thought he knew who the author of the anonymous Quarterly piece was. (‘[I have] reasons which induce me to believe that this critic in the Quarterly Review is no less a personage than a certain Mr. Octavius Gilchrist; who, if I am not mistaken, is the same critic who figured, also, in the same Review last month upon certain productions of a “Poet of nature." If so, his praise or blame may be held in equal contempt.’] Gilchrist published his own pamphlet: A letter to the Rev. William Lisle Bowles, in answer to a pamphlet recently published under the title of "A Reply to an 'Unsentimental sort of critic', the reviewer of 'Spence's Anecdotes’ in the Quarterly Review for October 1820”. By Octavius Gilchrist (1820), which was boisterously, and sometimes amusingly, rude.
I am not without hopes of exciting by this letter that affected contempt in which writers who are driven to extremities have been, time out of mind, in the habit of indulging, and to which writers of Mr. Bowles's calibre are so prone to have recourse. The difficulty of pleasing the gentleman,—for so, he assures us, he is,—a trifling literary anecdote will suffice to prove. No very long time has elapsed since, in one of our periodical miscellanies, an ingenious writer fancied a pilgrimage of the living poets to the fountain of Aganippe, and in proportion as each was imbued with poetical inspiration, the pilgrim was supposed to quaff at the sacred spring. I write altogether from memory,—but, as I recollect, Byron was represented as drinking out of an ample goblet; Southey, Scott, and Words worth in, I know not what, proportion: at length came the sonneteer, Mr. W. Lisle Bowles, who was described as repeatedly dipping his little cockle-shell into the fons sacra, and retreating therefrom self-satisfied and smiling. Ingenious and unoffending as was this apologue, scarcely had the printer's devil washed his inky fingers, before Mr. Lisle Bowles presented a remonstrance against the writer and his cockleshell, and triumphantly referred to the sixth or eighth edition of his sonnets for his well-earned and unbought popularity. Can there remain any hope of contenting so sensitive a plant! But I have a more serious duty than that of conciliating Mr. Bowles.It goes on in this tone (‘Having in the very threshold of " the Reply" employed more offensive language and contemptuous epithets, than can be found in the thirty four pages of the article on Spence in the Quarterly, there is something ludicrously absurd in commencing your pamphlet with "regret that an attack so coarse, and arguments so abhorrent &c.”’).
By now everybody was pitching in, including Byron himself. Bowles put out a second, expanded edition of his pamphlet: Observations on the Poetical Character of Pope, further elucidating the invariable Principles of Poetry, &c.; with a Sequel, in reply to Octavius Gilchrist (1821). Byron put out a quarto pamphlet attacked Bowles’s position, Letter to John Murray, Esq. on the Rev. W. L. Bowles's Strictures on the Life and Writings of Pope. By the Right Hon. Lord Byron. (1821).
In reply Bowles published a (rather respectfully-toned) reply, which ran to not two but three editions: Letters to Lord Byron on a Question of Poetical Criticism: 3d Edition, with Corrections. To which are now first added the Letter to Mr. Campbell, as far as regards Poetical Criticism; and the Answer to the Writer in the Quarterly Review, as far as they relate to the same subject: together with an Answer to some Objections, and further Illustrations (1822). It was the first of these that Bowles gave to Coleridge.
Gilchrist put out A Second letter to the Rev. William Lisle Bowles, in answer to his Second Reply to the Reviewer of Spence's Anecdotes in the Quarterly Review for October, 1820 (1820) and A Third Letter to the Rev. William Lisle Bowles concerning Pope's Moral Character: including some Observations on that Person's Demeanour towards his Opponents, during the recent Controversy on that Subject (1821).
Bowles’s 190-page-long A Final Appeal followed in 1825. Full title: A Final Appeal to the Literary Public relative to Pope, in reply to certain Observations of Mr. Roscoe, in his Edition of that Poet's Works. To which are added some Remarks on Lord Byron's Conversations, as far as they relate to the same Subject, and the Author. In Letters to a Literary Friend.
Now, all this post-dates Coleridge's writing of the Biographia; but it does, I think, provide one quite important context to that work. At the heart of the spat was a disagreement about whether great poetry must be written direct from Nature (Bowles's argument), or whether it could be written from 'art'. And this was a debate, indeed a disagreement, that predated the Quarterly row; the Pope edition -- which is where it begins -- came out in 1806, for instance. By namechecking Bowles so generously right at the start of the Biographia, Coleridge was amongst other things positioning his own biographical aesthetics on the Bowles/Wordsworth, rather than the Pope/Byron side of the debate. What the side entails is here summarised by Bowles, quoting his own earlier writing:
"All images drawn from what is Beautiful or Sublime in the Works of Nature, are more beautiful and sublime than images drawn from art, and are therefore more poetical. In like manner, those Passions of the Human Heart which belong to nature in general, are, per se, more adapted to the Higher Species of poetry, than those which are derived from incidental and transient manners". The reader will instantly perceive, that these propositions are connected and consecutive; and to prevent the possibility of their being understood otherwise, I added, as illustrations, the following; instances, equally connected and consecutive. "A description of a forest is more poetical than a cultivated garden; and the passions which are portrayed in the Epistle Of Eloisa, render such a poem more poetical, (whatever might be the difference of merit in point of composition) intrinsically more poetical than a poem founded on the characters, incidents, and modes of artificial life, for instance, The Rape of the Lock." ... For, I beg you to observe, Sir, that, in my first proposition, I do not say that Works Of ART are in no instance poetical; but only that what is sublime or beautiful in works of nature "is More so!" The very expression "more so" is a proof that poetry belongs, though not in the same degree, to both. I must also beg you to remark, that, having laid down this position, I observe, in the very next sentence, (lest it should be misunderstood as it now is, and was by a writer in the Edinburgh Review,) substantially as follows,—that the general and loftier passions of human nature are more poetical than artificial manners; the one being eternal, the other local and transitory. [Bowles, The Invariable Principles, 8-9]There's a lot in this pamphlet that returns in the Biographia, actually.