1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Alexander Gill

David Masson, in Life of John Milton (1859-94; 1965) 1:78-83.



The worth of the school [St. Paul's], however, depended necessarily on the character and qualifications of the two masters for the time being. These, at the time with which we are concerned, were the above-mentioned Lincolnshire man and Oxford graduate, Mr. Alexander Gill, the head-master, and his son, Mr. Alexander Gill the younger, then acting as sub-master or usher.

Old Mr. Gill, as ho now began to be called, partly to distinguish him from his son, and partly because he was verging on his fifty-seventh year, fully maintained the ancient credit of the school. According to Wood, he was "esteemed by most persons to be a learned man, a noted Latinist, critic, and divine, and also to have such an excellent way of training up youth that none in his time went beyond him: whence 'twas that many noted persons in Church and State did esteem it the greatest of their happiness that they had been educated under him." Having looked over all that remains of the old gentleman in literary form to verify or disprove this judgment, — to wit, three works published by him at intervals during his life, — I can safely say that the praise does not seem overstated. The first of these works, indeed, hardly affords materials for an opinion of Gill as a pedagogue. It is a tract or treatise, originally published by him in 1601, seven years before his appointment to St. Paul's School, and written in 1597, when he was living as a teacher at Norwich. The tract is entitled A Treatise concerning the Trinity of Persons in Unitie of the Deitie, and is in the form of a metaphysical remonstrance with one Thomas Mannering, an Anabaptist of Norwich, who "denied that Jesus is very God of very God," and said that he was "but man only, yet endued with the infinite power of God." — Far more interesting, in connexion with Gill's qualifications as a teacher, is his next work, the first edition of which was published in 1619, or just before the time with which we have to do. It is entitled Logonomia Anglica, and is dedicated to King James. Part of the work is taken up with an argument on that new-old subject, the reform of the English Alphabet on the principle of bringing the spelling of English words into greater consistency with their sounds; and those who are interested in this subject will find some very sensible matter upon it in Gill's book. By adding to the English Alphabet the two Anglo-Saxon signs for the two sounds of "th," and another Anglo-Saxon sign or two, and by farther using points over the vowels to indicate their various sounds, he contrives an Alphabet somewhat like those of our modern phonetic reformers, but less liable to objection from the point of view of Etymology; and he illustrates this Alphabet by spelling all the English words and passages in his book according to it. But Spelling-Reform is by no means the main purpose of the book. It is, in fact, what we should now call a systematic grammar of the English tongue, written in Latin. Accordingly, it is only in the first part that he propounds his spelling-reform; and the parts on Etymology, Syntax, and Prosody possess quite a separate value. If Gill was only half as interesting in his school-room as he is in his book, he must have been an effective and even delightful teacher. For example, as an appendix to Syntax in general, he has a chapter on what he calls Syntaxis Schematistica, in which he trenches on what is usually considered a part of Rhetoric, and enumerates and explains the so-called tropes and figures of speech, — Metaphor, Metonymy, Allegory, Irony, Climax, &c. This part of the book is studded with examples from the English poets, and above all from Spenser, showing a really fine taste in the selection. Take, as a specimen, the exposition of the Metaphor. I translate from Gill's Latin in the text, and alter his phonetic spelling in the examples.

"Translation or metaphor is a word taken in one sense from another like it.

But now weak age had dimm'd his candle-light.
—Faerie Queene.
He, thereto meeting, said.
—Ibid.;

where 'meeting' is used for 'answering.'

I shall you well reward to show the place

In which that wicked wight his days doth wear.—Ibid.

'Wear' for 'consume.'

Nor let it weary you to hear from our Juvenal, George Withers, one of those metaphors in which he abounds when he lays aside the asperity of his satire:—

Fair by nature being born,
Borrowed beauty she doth scorn;
He that kisseth her need fear
No unwholesome varnish there;
For from thence he only sips
The pure nectar of her lips,
And with these at once he closes—
Melting rubies, cherries, roses.

From this root are all Allegories and Comparisons, and also most Paraemiae and Aenigmata. For an allegory is nothing else than a continued metaphor. In this our Lucan, Samuel Daniel, is frequent. Thus, Delia, Sonnet 31:—

Raising my hopes on hills of high desire
Thinking to scale the heaven of her heart,
My slender muse presumed too high a part;
Her thunder of disdain caused me retire,
And threw me down, &c.

So, Faerie Queene—

Huge sea of sorrow and tempestuous grief,
Wherein my feeble hark is tossed long,
Far from the hoped haven of relief,
Why do thy cruel billows beat so strong
And thy moist mountains each on other throng,
Threatening to swallow up my fearful life?
O do thy cruel wrath and spiteful wrong
At length allay, and stint thy stormy strife,
Which in these troubled bowels reigns and rageth rife.

For else my feeble vessel, crazed and crackt,
Cannot endure, &c.

But, indeed, the whole of Spenser's poem is an allegory in which he evolves an ethical meaning in fables. Thus, the Allegory handles the whole matter on hand obscurely by metaphor, the Paraemia and Aenigma do so much more obscurely; while the Comparison or Simile does it more transparently, because it first unfolds the metaphor, and then confronts it with the thing. Thus, Faerie Queene, I. c. 2:—

As, when two rams, stirred with ambitious pride,
Fight for the rule of the fair fleeced flock,
Their horned fronts so fierce on either side
Do meet that, with the terror of the shock
Astonied, both stand senseless as a block,
Forgetful of the hanging victory
So stood these twain unmoved as a rock, &c."

The subsequent part of the work, on English Prosody, is, in like manner, illustrated by well-chosen examples; and, among other things, Gill discusses in it the compatibility of classical metres with the genius of the English tongue. The following passage, in which he refers to the supposed influence of Chaucer, exhibits what was apparently another crotchet of his, superadded to his crotchet of spelling-reform: viz., the duty of preserving the Old English purity of our tongue against intruding Latinisms and Gallicisms. After maintaining that even after the Danish and Norman invasions the Saxon-English tongue of our island remained pure, he proceeds (I again translate from his Latin) thus:—

"At length, about the year 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer, of unlucky omen, made his poetry famous by the use in it of French and Latin words. Hence has come down this new mange in our speaking and writing.... O harsh lips! I now hear all around me such words as 'common,' 'vices,' 'envy,' 'malice'; even 'virtue,' 'study,' 'justice,' 'pity,' 'mercy,' 'compassion,' 'profit,' 'commodity,' 'colour,' 'grace,' 'favour,' 'acceptance.' But whither, pray, in all the world have you banished those words which our forefathers used for these newfangled ones? Are our words to be exiled like our citizens? Is the new barbaric invasion to extirpate the English tongue? O ye Englishmen, on you, I say: I call, in whose veins that blood flows, retain, retain what yet remains of our native speech, and, whatever vestiges of our forefathers are yet to be seen, on these plant your footsteps."

This passage, in a work of 1619, is certainly curious; and there are other interesting curiosities in Gill's Logonomia Anglica. It came to a second edition in 1621, just after Milton had become familiar with St. Paul's School and the face of its philological head-master. — But, while working mainly in Philology, Mr. Gill had not abandoned his Metaphysics. In 1635, some fifteen years after the time at which we are now arrived, he brought out his last and largest work, called Sacred Philosophie of the Holy Scriptures. It was a kind of detailed demonstration, against Turks, Jews, Infidels, Heretics, and all gainsayers whatsoever, of the successive articles of the Apostles' Creed, on the principles of pure reason; and there was appended to it a reprint of his Treatise concerning the Trinity, the first of his published writings.

It is not to be supposed but that in those days, when the idea of severing the secular from the religious in schools had not yet been heard of, Mr. Gill's pupils would now and then have a touch of his Metaphysics as well as of his Philology. They were lucky, it seems, if they had not also a touch of something else. "Dr. Gill, the father," says Aubrey in one of his MSS., "was a very ingeniose person, as may appear by his writings: notwithstanding, he had his moods and humours, as particularly his whipping fits. Often Dr. G. whipped Duncombe, who was afterwards a colonel of dragoons at Edgehill fight." Duncombe may have been his greatest dunce.

Young Gill, the usher or sur-master, was by no means so steady a man as his father. Born in London about 1597, he had been educated at St. Paul's School; he had gone thence, on one of the Mercers' Exhibitions, to Trinity College, Oxford; and, after completing his course there, and taking his degree and orders, he had come back to town about 1619, and dropped conveniently into the place of his father's assistant. For a time, either before or after this, he assisted the famous Farnabie in his school. There must have been, from the first, an element of bluster and recklessness in this junior Gill, annoying and troublesome to his father. The proofs will appear hereafter. Meanwhile his literary reputation was considerably above the common. As early as 1612, immediately after his going to college, he had published a Latin threnody on the death of Prince Henry, one of the scores and scores of effusions of the kind called forth by that event; and, during his course at Oxford, he had written other things of the same sort, both in Latin and in Greek, some of which were also printed. The special character which he bore among the boys of St. Paul's School, when, at the age of twenty-two or thereabouts, he became his father's assistant, was that of a splendid maker of Greek and Latin verses; and his powers in that craft seem to have been pretty amply proclaimed by himself on every opportunity.

Such were the two men to whose lot it fell to be Milton's schoolmasters. He was under their care, as I calculate, at least four years, — from 1620, when he had passed his eleventh year, to the winter or spring of 1624-5, when he had passed his sixteenth.