1905 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Francis Kynaston

George Saintsbury, "Introduction to Sir Francis Kynaston" in Minor Poets of the Caroline Period (1905-21) 2:64-68.



The author of the poems that follow — poems never yet reprinted in modern times and in their original edition among the very rarest of the things here collected — must have been an interesting person, and rather typical of the restless and eccentric flickers of genius or talent in which the great torch of Elizabethan poetry sank. Even in his University career, though it was not so very unusual then for a man to be a member of both Universities, there is something a little out of the common. He is probably known to many students of English literature who have never read, perhaps to some who have never heard of, Leoline and Sydanis, as having embarked on the ultra-eccentric enterprise of translating Troilus into Latin rhyme-royal, a venture in which he at least showed that he had thoroughly saturated himself with the rhythm

Si non sit amor, Di! quid est quod sentio?
Et si sit amor, quidnam est vel quale?
Si bonus est, malorum unde inventio?
Si malus est, portentum non est tale,
Quum omnis cruciatus et letale
Vulnus sit gratum: misera quam conditio!
Quanto plus bibo, tanto magis sitio.

Dr. Skeat "prefers the English" (not in the case of this stanza, it is true, for, he only quotes the opening one) and welcome; but why not like both? There is a great charm, and also a not small lesson, in the way in which Latin, not too classically treated, adapts itself to modern measures: and for my part I wish that Kynaston, instead of stopping at the second book, had come not only to the surrender of Cressid but the lament of Troilus.

In the very same year — 1635 — with this, he had embarked on a still more ambitious, and a much more costly enterprise by starting, in his own house in Bedford Street, Covent Garden, a private but chartered Academy or Museum Minervae, in which he and certain of his friends were Professors, which aimed at scientific as well as literary study, which was actually visited by the two young princes (afterwards Charles and James the Second) and their sister Mary (afterwards Princess of Orange); and which seems to have continued in some sort of working order till he died, at a time when England began to trouble itself with worse things than Academies. This institution — so odd-looking now, so normal in its abnormality at the time between Bacon and Cowley, between the institution of the French Academy and of the English Royal Society — Kynaston seems to have taken very seriously, assuring the elder Universities (with one of which v. sup. he was at the moment officially connected) that no offensive rivalry was intended.

His English poems were not published till 1642, the year of his death, though the Imprimatur at the end of Cynthiades is dated a year earlier. Ellis gave two of these shorter things, both beautiful, in his Specimens, but with no critical remarks either upon them or upon the romance. The Retrospective Reviewer does not seem to have taken the trouble even to glance at Leoline or the Cynthia poems, dismissing the former with "which Peck commends": and Sir Egerton Brydges in the Censura Literaria, justly calling Ellis's excerpts "exquisite," adding another, and giving an account of Leoline, supplies hardly any criticism, and never seems to have thought of adding, to his reprints of Hall and Stanley, Kynaston, whose poetical attraction is perhaps above that of the first and scarcely inferior to that of the second. Singer, at least in his more pudibund moods such as that in which he edited Marmion, would hardly have been likely even to attempt Leoline and Sydanis. So that this President of the Museum of Minerva and past master (despite his disclaimers in the overture) in the arts of her lovelier sister, has been left for us, almost unmeddled with.

There is, in fact, a certain amount of what is called "loose" and "free" handling in this Heroic Poem: and the looseness and freedom are not quite atoned for by the passionate beauty (not to say of Venus and Adonis) of such poems as Britain's Ida: though it is clear from the Cynthia pieces that Kynaston could have achieved this had he chosen. The defect, however, is not without its compensating interest. Of its very nature the kind lent itself to burlesque, as the Italians had seen and shown: and though Leoline and Sydanis is serious in the main, it is quite obvious that Kynaston has sometimes dropped, and only fair to him to conclude that he has dropped purposely into passages at least of that mock-heroic which has always indulged itself in a certain "breadth" of treatment. And after all there is no hanging matter in his licences of fancy and language.

On the other hand, there is in Leoline and Sydanis much matter not for hanging but for crowning: while the Cynthiades are full of the special nectar of the period. The longer poem is said vaguely to be "founded on the legendary history of Wales and Ireland" [Erinland in the poem], a point on which my extremely limited knowledge of the matter prevents me from giving any information or opinion. It is at any rate certain that any one, tolerably acquainted with romances, could have written it without knowing one item of the legendary history either of Ireland or Wales.

The lovers, he the son of a king, she the daughter of a duke, are united at the very beginning — an exceptional, but not so very exceptional start — and defrauded of their union by a wicked French marquis (whose offensive name shows true English animus). Sydanis, who is falsely thought to have murdered her husband, escapes to Ireland, and is established, disguised as a boy (here the favourite seventeenth century touch imitated from Viola through Bellario comes in), as page to the Princess Mellefant under the name of Amanthis. Leoline also comes to Ireland and falls in love (thinking Sydanis dead) with Mellefant. He conducts his wooing through Amanthis, who turns it to her own advantage, and substitutes herself for the Princess. He discovers his mistake after a sufficient amount of confusion and knightly adventure: and all ends happily.

The grave and precise may be shocked at the freedom of treatment above referred to: and another class of critics may be as much or more offended by the oscillation between the serious and the comic, and the occasional flatness and bathos to which it partly leads. But Kynaston tells his story by no means ill: and for all the affectation of nonchalance and something more which appears here, and in the Preface of Cynthia (a nonchalance which reminds us of Suckling, and which was to degenerate into something much worse in the next generation), shows that he is the same as the Cynthia-poet after all. I have barred myself citation: but if the reader will turn to the pages where Amanthis fears she has overreached herself, I am much mistaken if he will not find there some real passion, and what is more, some real delicacy. Indeed she — or rather Sydanis — is quite a nice girl — much too good for Leoline: and her proceeding, though in line with that of Helena in All's Well that Ends Well, seems to me to escape, almost if not altogether, the taint which hangs upon that of Shakespeare's only disagreeable heroine.

Kynaston's diction is, like his general "faire," a little mixed: but on the whole it is Spenserian with a fresh dose of Chaucerisms, suiting his selection of the rhyme-royal as his stanza. He does not manage this consummately as a rule, but he manages it fairly: and though he never quite gets out of it its unrivalled powers of "plangency," or its full comic (at least burlesque) force, he makes of it a fluent and easy medium.

If, however, it were not for the Cynthiades, Kynaston would be chiefly interesting as a contributor, rather good than bad, to that corpus of "Heroic" poetry of which we spoke in the general introduction, and for his Chaucerism. But "Cynthia" is here regent of a choir which, with a few ugly exceptions, is worthy even of her name. An excellent judge, and one than whom none is less tainted with any drop of the blood of Philistia, expressed to me a slight fear that the length and solidity of the two poems which opened our first volume and made up some two-thirds of its substance, would appear to the general reader what in his lighter moods that reader himself calls "stodgy." I fear I have again dared this result by opening the present with another "long" though a short-long poem. But most of its constituents will more than make up for this: and Kynaston, I think, does not ill deserve — considering his merit and his long occultation — to lead the way in this respect. He has, almost to the full, that intense poignancy, that ever-repeated pang of peculiar pleasure, which these poets give to the true lover of poetry, and which is hardly given by any others. And it is curious how in his masterpieces — those given (one imperfectly) by Ellis, that added by Sir Egerton, and others — his favourite and most successful method of exhibiting this pang is that of expostulation, of negative imploring and deprecation, of as it were enumerating the blessings and the delights which his mistress can give, and spicing the enumeration with fear that she will not give them.

Do not conceal thy radiant eyes,
The star-light of serenest skies,

and so forth, he cries in this poem—

April is past: then do not shed,
Nor do not waste in vain
Upon the mother's earthy bed
Thy tears of silver rain.

in another. Or hear him in a third entreat

Dear Cynthia, thou that bearest the name
Of the pale queen of Night,

not to change as her namesake changes. To me at least this shadow of anxiety, this nervous realization of the exquisite possibilities and the envious probability that may frustrate them, has an extraordinary charm. It is of course in itself fanciful, metaphysical, conceited, decadent, what you will: but it is intensely and essentially poetic. It is, in fact, only another form of that famous Renaissance mixture of the yew and the roses of Love and Death, which is the secret of Donne, and of many another singer: but it wears this mixed wreath with a sufficient difference. "Morbid" if you like: "false wit" if you like: "insincere" if you like: "ornament without substance" if you like: many other opprobrious epithets and phrases may be thrown at it. But they will all wither very soon: and the poetry at which they are flung will abide, and be ready to administer the sting of beauty, the "faradization" of the imaginative-voluptuous, the "vis superba formae" in this particular variety, to the fit recipient, whensoever he presents himself.