1787 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Daniel

Henry Headley, in Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry (1787) 1:xlii-liv.



Samuel Daniel. The dialogue between Ulysses and the Syren, from one of this gentleman's plays, which Dr. Percy has given us, will give the reader no very exalted opinion of the author's abilities; the same specimen is quoted in the Muses' Library, though not singly: it is neat and unaffected. But Daniel has a right to the merit of still higher excellence. Though very rarely sublime, he has skill in the pathetic, and his pages are disgraced with neither pedantry or conceit. We find, both in his poetry and prose, such a legitimate and rational flow of language as approaches nearer the style of the 18th than the 16th century, and of which we may safely assert, that it will never become obsolete. He certainly was the Atticus of his day. It seems to have been his error to have entertained too great a diffidence of his own abilities. Constantly contented with the sedate propriety of good sense, which he no sooner attains than he seems to rest satisfied, though his resources, had he but made the effort, would have carried him much farther. In thus escaping censure, he is not always entitled to praise. From not endeavouring to be great, he sometimes misses of being respectable. The constitution of his mind seems often to have failed him in the sultry and exhausting regions of the Muses; for, though generally neat, easy, and perspicuous, he too frequently grows slack, languid, and enervated. In perusing his long historical poem we grow sleepy at the dead ebb of his narrative, notwithstanding being occasionally relieved with some touches of the pathetic. Unfortunate in the choice of his subject, he seems fearful of supplying its defects by digressional embellishment; instead of fixing upon one of a more fanciful cast, which the natural coolness of his judgement would necessarily have corrected, he has cooped himself up within the limited and narrow pale of dry events; instead of casting his eye on the general history of human nature, and giving his genius a range over immeasurable fields, he has confined himself to an abstract diary of Fortune; instead of presenting us with pictures of Truth from the effects of the Passions, he has versified the truth of action only; he has sufficiently, therefore, shewn the historian, but by no means the poet. For to use a sentiment of Sir Wm. Davenant's, "Truth narrative and past is the idol of historians (who worship a dead thing), and truth operative, and by its effects continually alive,is the mistress of poets, who hath not her existence in matter but in reason." Daniel has often the softness of Rowe without his effeminacy. In his Complaint of Cleopatra he has caught Ovid's manner very happily, as he has no obscurities either of style or language, neither pedantry nor affection, all of which have concurred in banishing from use the works of his contemporaries. The oblivion he has met with is peculiarly undeserved; he has shared their fate, though innocent of their faults. Daniel enjoyed the friendship and the praises of the most eminent men of his age. Drayton thus speaks of him:

Amongst these, Samuel Daniel, whom if I
May speak of, but to censure do deny,
Only have heard some wise-men him rehearse,
To bee too much historian in verse.
His rhimes were smooth, his meeters well did close
But yet his manner better fitted prose.
Of Poets and Posy.

Edmund Bolton and Gabriel Harvey, the former a professed critic, and the latter the friend of Spenser, and a promoter of the literature of his country, both mention Daniel with respect, as a polisher and a purifier of the English language. W. Browne calls him "well-languag'd Daniel" B. II. Song2. — Spenser has left Daniel's character. See Colin Clout's come Home again, Vol. IV. p. 276, Hugh. ed. — Ben Jonson, in his conversation with Drummond, has observed, that through the Civil Wars there is not a single battle. The remark is shrewd, but not true. He likewise adds, which is still more exceptionable, that Daniel is no poet. There seems to be some envy in this. Daniel has himself hinted, that he outlived his reputation:

—but years hath done this wrong,
To make me write too much, and live too long.
Dedicat. of Philotas.

He was born at Taunton in Somersetshire, was a commoner of Magdalen-hall, Oxon; became gentleman extraordinary; and afterwards groom of the privy-chamber to the Queen Anne, James the First's consort. He succeeded Spenser (who died about 1598) as Poet Laureate. He died at Beckingham in Somersetshire in 1619, and was honoured with a monument in the church at the sole expence of the justly celebrated Anne Countess of Pembroke, to whom he had been tutor, and to whose poetry and patronage he pays many flattering and grateful compliments in the dedication to the tragedy of Cleopatra. We are told by Dr. Percy, that the same, lady, in a full length of herself at Appleby Castle in Cumberland, has a small portrait of Daniel inserted. I cannot conclude this sketch without submitting to my reader the following lines from his dedication to the tragedy of Philotas, as they seem to contain some not inconsiderable portion of prophetic truth:

And know, sweet Prince, when you shall come to know,
That 'tis not in the power of kings to raise
A spirit for verse, that is not born thereto,
Nor are they born in every prince's days:
For lat Eliza's reign gave birth to more
Than all the kings of England did before.
And it may be, the genius of that time
Would leave to her the glory in that kind,
And that the utmost powers of English rhime
Should be within her peaceful reign confin'd;
For since that time, our songs could never thrive,
But lain as forlorn; though in the prime
Of this new raising season, we did strive
To bring the best we could unto the time.
To the Prince