1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Lane

David Masson, in Life of John Milton (1859-94; 1965) 1:56-58.



If there was not a printer and publisher among the acquaintances of the elder Milton, there was certainly one author. This was John Lane, utterly unknown to English readers now, but to whom Milton's nephew Phillips, who afterwards knew him, assigns a niche in his Theatrum Poetarum, published in 1675. He there describes Lane as "a fine old Queen Elizabeth gentleman," living within his own remembrance, "whose several poems, had they not had the ill fate to remain unpublished, when much better meriting than many that are in print, might possibly have gained him a name not much inferior, if not equal, to Drayton and others of the next rank to Spenser." Phillips must have strained his conscience a little to write this. The old gentleman's poetry remains in manuscript to this day, and will probably do so as long as the world lasts. Besides a Poetical Vision and an Alarm to Poets, not now to be recovered, he wrote a continuation of The Squieres Tale in Chaucer, thus finishing that "story of Cambuscan bold" which, as Milton afterwards noted, had been left "half-told" by the great original. There are manuscript copies of this performance in the British Museum and the Ashmolean at Oxford. Another still more laborious attempt of Lane's, of which there is also a fair manuscript copy in the Museum, dated 1621, was a continuation of Lydgate's metrical romance of Guy, Earl of Warwick, in twenty-six cantos. Besides these, there remains, as evidence of his perseverance, a long manuscript poem in the British Museum, dated 1621, and entitled Triton's Trumpet to the Twelve Months, husbanded and moralized. In it there is a distinct allusion to the scrivener Milton, in his capacity as a musical composer. Here it is, specimen enough of all Lane's poetry!—

At this full point the Lady Music's hand
Opened the casements where her pupils stand;
To whom lifting that sign which kept the time
Loud organs, sackbuts, viols chime
Lutes, citherns, virginals, harpsichords, ....
And every instrument of melody
Which mote or ought exhibit harmony, ....
Accenting, airing, curbing, ordering
Those sweet sweet parts Meltonus did compose,
As wonder's self amazed was at the close,
Which in a counterpoint maintaining hielo
'Gan all sum up thus: — Alleluiah Deo.

More interesting still, Lane's preserved manuscript of his Guy of Warwick furnishes us with a specimen of the musician's powers in returning the compliment. This manuscript had evidently been prepared for the press; and on the back of the title-page is a sonnet headed "Johannes Melton, Londinensis civis, amico suo viatico in poesis laudem," i.e. "John Milton, citizen of London, to his wayfaring friend, in praise of his poetry." The sonnet is so bad that Lane might have written it himself; but, bad or good, as it is a sonnet by Milton's father, the world has a right to see it. Here, therefore, it is:—

If virtue this be not, what is? Tell quick!
For childhood, manhood, old age, thou dost write
Love, war, and lusts quelled by arm heroic,
Instanced in Guy of Warwick, knighthood's light:
Heralds' records and each sound antiquary
For Guy's true being, life, death, eke hast sought,
To satisfy those which proevaricari;
Manuscript, chronicle, if might be bought;
Coventry's, Winton's Warwick's monuments,
Trophies, traditions delivered of Guy,
With care, cost, pain, as sweetly thou presents,
To exemplify the flower of chivalry:
From cradle to the saddle and the bier,
For Christian imitation, all are here.

In excuse for the quality of this sonnet, we may hope it was the scrivener's first and last. It seems to have been written about or not long after 1617, as Lane's manuscript, to which it is prefixed, bears an imprimatur of that date from the licencer; and it was evidently intended to appear as a commendatory sonnet to the poem when it should be printed. We may fancy, therefore, the horror of Humphrey Lownes if the scrivener, in his anxiety to see his friend's laborious performance actually printed, ever went so far as to invite him and Lane to his house together, that they might arrange as publisher and author. For the child, all the same, there might be a fascination in the sight of the only real author within the circle of his father's acquaintance; and he may have had all his life a recollection of this "fine old Queen Elizabeth gentleman," the first poet he had known.