1870 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Basse

John Payne Collier, introduction to Basse, Pastorals and other Works (1870) i-iv.



As long since as 1761 Thomas Warton, in his Life and Literary Remains of Dr. Ralph Bathurst, printed the commendatory poem (which precedes the Pastorals in this volume) as the production of that distinguished divine. Hence it was known that the manuscript, here put in print for the first time, was in existence; but, as far as we are aware, it has not been heard of for the last 108 years, until it was recently obtained by F. W. Cosens, Esq., of Clapham Park, who, in the generous and liberal spirit which becomes a lover of our early and admirable literature, has allowed it to be printed.

It is the production of a "servant of the Muses" who began writing in 1612, and who was perhaps living at the Restoration, William Basse; and, unless we are altogether mistaken in our estimate, it will entitle him to a high place, not indeed in the first class of our great original poets, but among those of second-rate importance, who, by following the steps of more exalted predecessors, have left behind them specimens of versification which, from their grace and facility, if not from their strength and genius, will ever be ranked among the ornaments of our language.

There was an elder William Basse, or Bas, who published two productions in 1602, one called Sword and Buckler, and the other Three Pastoral Elegies of Anander, Anetor, and Murinella; but the younger William Basse, who may have been his son, has hitherto only been known as the writer of a poem on the death of Prince Henry, dated 1613; a collection of manuscript miscellanies, under the title of Polyhymnia; some lines in the Annalia Dubrensia, 1636; a song in Walton's Angler, 1653 (the same date as the volume in the hands of the reader); and two other songs separately printed, one called "Master Basse his Careere," and the other "Tom of Bedlam." What we now print is superior to anything hitherto imputed either to the father, or to the son. As the productions are in the hands of the reader, it will only be necessary to say of them, that they were carefully prepared for the press during the Protectorate, though never printed, and that they form three separate portions:—

1. A series of nine Pastorals, in avowed imitation of Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar; of course not equal to the original, in force, beauty, or pungency, but even more varied in versification, and upon topics not touched by the author of the Fairy Queen, who never acknowledged his earliest production.

2. A mythological fancy, if we may so term it, of a very distinct character, and in exceedingly attractive verse, founded upon the notion that Jupiter, having accidentally, and unintentionally, elevated a woman to the heavens, was afterwards obliged to banish her to the moon (where she is still seen) in consequence of the disputes and jealousies she created in the "celestial family."

3. A local poem of great merit, but making considerable demands upon the imagination of the reader, on the death, and intended funeral, of a walnut-tree near the residence of Lord Wenman at Thame Park, Oxfordshire; who, from first to last, had been the kind friend and patron of Basse. In this poem the author supposes the nut-trees in various parts of the kingdom to shake off the clinging clay in which they grew, and to travel on their rugged roots to the burial of the old Walnut-tree of Boreshall, which is ultimately converted into a pew, for a distinguished lady, in the parish church.

As to the age of the different poems, it is not easy to settle that point satisfactorily. The manuscript bears date in 1653, when it was unquestionably intended to have had the poems printed and published; but it will be found that certain passages in each of the three portions into which the volume (a small folio) is divided must have been added at various periods. The piece which we most value, both for fancy and originality (to say nothing of the smoothness and finish of the stanzas), entitled "The Woman in the Moon," was actually dedicated, in the first instance, to Prince Henry, so that it must have been in existence before November 1612, when he died. The Pastorals, too, in celebration of nine virtues, are evidently old, and may have been composed, at least in part, while Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar was popular as a separate publication; but the piece last written was, in all likelihood, the third: those who are acquainted with the vicinity of Thame may be able to detect local and temporary allusions, which will assist in ascertaining its date.

We may add a sincere expression of thankfulness to the present owner of the manuscript for the great pleasure we have had, even in correcting the press, while restoring to light poems of such undoubted excellence. The title they bear is precisely that which, we apprehend, was given to them by Basse, when, in advanced years, he amused himself by superintending the labours of the scribe who copied his works for publication. Possibly, death, or the disorder of the times (as Warton suggested) prevented the accomplishment of the intentions of the author. Basse will in future stand, upon his own merits, among the distinguished poets of our nation.

Our title-page is an exact copy of the original manuscript, which is most clearly and carefully written, the Pastorals in an ordinary English hand, and the rest in Italian. The whole is legible; but the paper has in many places been injured by damp. Round the title-page is a coloured wreath of laurel; and before the first Pastoral is a coarse drawing of two shepherds, in imitation of the woodcuts that accompany, we cannot say illustrate, Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar in all the early impressions.