WILLIAM BROWNE, an ingenious English poet, was the son of Thomas Browne of Tavistock in Devonshire, gent. who, according to Prince, in his Worthies of Devon, was most probably a descendant from the knightly family of Browne of Brownes-Ilash in the parish of Langtree near Great Torrington in Devonshire. His son was born in 1590, and became a student of Exeter college, Oxford, about the beginning of the reign of James I. After making a great progress in classical and polite literature, he removed to the Inner Temple, where his attention to the study of the law was frequently interrupted by his devotion to the muses. In his twenty-third year (1613) he published, in folio, the first part of his Britannia's Pastorals, which, according to the custom of the time, was ushered into the world with so many poetical eulogies, that he appears to have secured, at a very early age, the friendship and favour of the most celebrated of his contemporaries, among whom we find the names of Selden and Drayton. To these he afterwards added Davies of Hereford, Ben Jonson, and others. That he wrote some of these pastorals before he had attained his twentieth year, has been conjectured from a passage in Book I. Song V.; but there is sufficient internal evidence, independent of these lines, that much of them was the offspring of a juvenile fancy. In the following year, he published in 8vo, The Shepherd's Pipe, in seven eclogues. In the fourth of these he laments the death of his friend Mr. Thomas Manwood, under the name of Philarete, the precursor, as some critics assert, of Milton's Lycidas.
In 1616, he published the second part of his Britannia's Pastorals, recommended as before, by his poetical friends, whose praises he repaid with liberality in the body of the work. The two parts were reprinted in 8vo in 1625, and procured him, as is too frequently the case, more fame than profit. About a year before this, he appears to have taken leave of the muses, and returned to Exeter college, in the capacity of tutor to Robert Dormer, earl of Caernarvon, a nobleman who fell at the battle of Newbury in 1643, while fighting gallantly for his king, at the head of a regiment of horse, and of whom lord Clarendon has given us a character drawn with his usual discrimination and fidelity. While guiding the studies of this nobleman, Browne was created master of arts, with this honourable notice in the public register, "Vir omni humana literature et bonarum artium cognitione instructus."
After leaving the university with lord Caernarvon, he found a liberal patron in William earl of Pembroke, of whom likewise we have a most elaborate character in Clarendon, some part of which reflects honour on our poet. — "He was a great lover of his country, and of the religion and justice, which he believed could only support it: and his friendships were only with men of those principles. And as his conversation was most with men of the most pregnant parts and understanding; so towards any such, who needed support, or encouragement, though unknown, if fairly recommended to him, he was very liberal." This nobleman, who had a respect for Browne probably founded on the circumstances intimated in the above character, took him into his family, and employed him in such a manner, according to Wood, that he was enabled to purchase an estate. Little more, however, is known of his history, nor is the exact time of his death ascertained. Wood finds that one of both his names, of Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, died in the winter of 1645, but knows not whether this be the same. He hints at his person in these words, "as he had a little body, so a great mind;" a high character from this biographer who had no indulgence for poetical failings.
Browne has experienced the fate of many of his contemporaries whose fame died with them, and whose writings have been left to be revived, under many disadvantages, by an age of refined taste and curiosity. The civil wars which raged about the time of his death, and whose consequences continued to operate for many years after, diverted the public mind from the concerns of poetry. The lives of the poets were forgotten, and their works perished through neglect or wantonness. We have no edition of Browne's poems from 1625 to 1772, when Mr. Thomas Davies, the bookseller, was assisted by some of his learned friends in publishing them, in three small volumes. The advertisement, prefixed to the first volume, informs us that the gentlemen of the king's library procured the use of the first edition of Britannia's Pastorals, which had several manuscript notes on the margin, written by the rev. William Thomson, one of the few scholars of his time who studied the antiquities of English poetry. Mr. Thomas Warton contributed his copy of the Shepherd's Pipe, which was at that time so scarce that no other could be procured. Mr. Price, the librarian of the Bodleian library, sent a correct copy of the Elegy upon the death of Henry prince of Wales, from a manuscript in that repository; and Dr. Farmer furnished a transcript of the Inner Temple Mask from the library of Emanuel college, which had never before been printed. With such helps, a correct edition might have been expected, but the truth is, that the few editions of ancient poets, (Suckling, Marvell, Carew, &c.) which Davies undertook to print, are extremely deficient in correctness. Of this assertion, which the comparison of a few pages with any of the originals will amply confirm, we have a very striking instance in the present work, in which two entire pages of the Book I. of Britannia's Pastorals were omitted.
His works exhibit abundant specimens of true inspiration; and had his judgment been equal to his powers of invention, or had he yielded less to the bad taste of his age, or occasionally met with a critic instead of a flatterer, he would have been entitled to a much higher rank in the class of genuine poets. His Pastorals form a vast storehouse of rural imagery and description, and in personifying the passions and affections, he exhibits pictures that are not only faithful, but striking, just to nature and to feeling, and frequently heightened by original touches of the pathetic and sublime, and by many of those wild graces which true genius only can exhibit. It is not improbable that he studied Spenser, as well as the Italian poets. To the latter he owes something of elegance and something of extravagance. From the former he appears to have caught the idea of a story like the Faery Queene, although it wants regularity of plan; and he follows his great model in a profusion of allegorical description and romantic landscape.
His versification, which is so generally harmonious, that where he fails it may be imputed to carelessness, is at the same time so various as to relax the imagination with specimens of every kind, and he seems to pass from the one to the other with an ease that we do not often find among the writers of lengthened poems. Those, however, who are in search of faulty rhimes, of foolish conceits, of vulgar ideas, and of degrading imagery, will not lose their pains. He was, among other qualities, a man of humour, and his humour is often exceedingly extravagant. So mixed, indeed, is his style, and so whimsical his flights, that we are sometimes reminded of Swift in all his grossness, and sometimes of Milton in the plenitude of his inspiration. Mr. Warton has remarked that the morning landscape of the L'Allegro is an assemblage of the same objects which Browne had before collected in his Britannia's Pastorals, B. IV. Song IV. beginning, "By this had chanticlere," &c.
It has already been noticed that Philarete was the precursor of Lycidas, but what Mr. Warton asserts of Comus deserves some consideration. After copying the exquisite Ode which Circe, in the Inner Temple Mask, sings as a charm to drive away sleep from Ulysses, Mr. Warton adds, "In praise of this song, it will be sufficient to say that it reminds us of some favourite touches in Milton's Comus, to which it perhaps gave birth. Indeed, one cannot help observing here in general, although the observation more properly belongs to another place, that a masque thus recently exhibited on the story of Circe, which there is reason to think had acquired some popularity, suggested to Milton the hint of a masque on the story of Comus. It would be superfluous to point out minutely the absolute similarity of the two characters; they both deal in incantations conducted by the same mode of operation, and producing effects exactly parallel."
Without offering any objection to these remarks, it may still be necessary to remind the reader of a circumstance to which this excellent critic has not adverted, namely, that the Inner Temple Mask appears to have been exhibited about the year 1620, when Milton was a boy of only twelve years old, and remained in manuscript until Dr. Farmer procured a copy for the edition of 1772; and that Milton produced his Comus at the age of twenty-six. It remains, therefore, for some future conjecturer to determine on the probability of Milton's having seen Browne's manuscript in the interim.
Prince informs us, that "as he had honoured his country with his sweet and elegant Pastorals, so it was expected, and he also entreated, a little farther to grace it by his drawing out the line of his poetic ancestors, beginning in Joseph Iscanus, and ending in himself: a nobler design, if it had been effected." Josephus Iscanus was Joseph of Exeter, who flourished in the thirteenth century, and wrote two epic poems in Latin heroics. Had Browne begun much later, he would have conferred a very high obligation on posterity. Collections of poetry are of very ancient date, but very little is known with certainty of the lives of English poets, and that little must now be recovered with great difficulty.
It yet remains to be noticed that some poems of Browne are supposed to exist in manuscript. Mr. Nichols thinks that Warburton the herald had some which were sold with the rest of his library, about the year 1759, or 1760. Mr. Park, also, in a supplementary note to the Biographia Britannica, brings proof that George Withers had some share in composing the Shepherd's Pipe. They were contemporaries, and nearly of the same age.