1787 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Browne of Tavistock

Henry Headley, in Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry (1787) xxxv-vi.



William Browne. The basest metals are frequently, in the ore, the most beautiful, and catch the eye the soonest. The Italian writers were his models; and he was either too young or too injudicious to resist the contagion of forced allusions and conceits, and the rest of that trash which an incorrect age not only endured but practiced and approved. His descriptions are sometimes puerile, and at other times over-wrought; one while lost in a profusion of colours, and at another bald and spiritless: yet he seems to have been a great admirer, and no inattentive observer, of the charms of Nature, as his works about in minute rural imagery, though indiscriminately selected. From the verses prefixed to his book he should seem to have written very early in life. Had it been otherwise, and chaste and wholesome models been thrown in his way, much might have been expected from his natural powers. The praise he has received from Selden, Davies, Jonson, and Drayton, and the notice he obtained from Milton, are real honours and almost counterbalance oblivion; at least, they prove he did not deserve it. Tho' memoirs of his life are imperfect; he appears to have been born at Tavystock, in Devonshire; to have spent some Time both at Exeter College, Oxon, and the Middle Temple; afterwards he became a retainer to the house of Pembroke. The passage that Winstanley quotes as a specimen is injurious to his merits, and by no means characteristic of Browne; it even blemished the unsatisfactory narratives of that miserable biographer. The following testimony Drayton has left of him:

Then the two Beaumonts and my Browne arose,
My dear companions, whom I freely chose
My bosom friends; and, in their several ways,
Rightly born poets— "Of Poets and Poesy."

The verses prefixed to Massinger's Duke of Milan, singed W. B. I cannot agree with Mr. Reed in supposing to mean William Browne. I will conclude this article with a poetical picture which Browne has left us of himself: it is in his usual fantastic manner:

Among the rest, a shepheard (though but young,
Yet harked to his pipe) with all the skill
His few years could, began to fit his quill.
By Tavie's speedy streame he fed his flocke,
Where when he sat to sporte him on a rocke,
The water-nymphs would often come unto him,
And for a dance with many gay gifts woo him,
Now posies of this flowre, and then of that,
Now with fine shels, then with a rushy hat,
With corall or red stones brought from the deepe
To make him bracelets or to marke his sheepe.
Willie he hight, who by the ocean's queene
More cheer'd to sing then such young lads had beene,
Tooke his best-framed pipe and thus gan move
His voyce of Walla Tavy's fairest love.
Song 3, Book 2.