WILLIAM BROWNE was born at Tavistock, in Devonshire, in 1590, and, there is reason to suppose, began very early to cultivate his poetical talents; for in the first book of his Britannias Pastorals, which were published in folio, in 1613, when in his twenty-third year, he speaks of himself, "as weake in yeares as skill," which leads to the supposition that his earlier pastorals were written before he had attained the age of twenty. Indeed, all his poetry appears to have been written previous to his thirtieth year. In 1614, he printed in octavo, The Shepherd's Pipe, in seven eclogues; in 1616, the second part of his Britannias Pastorals was given to the public, and in 1620, his Inner Temple Mask is supposed to have been first exhibited.
Browne enjoyed a large share of popularity during his life-time; numerous commendatory poems are prefixed to the first edition of his pastorals; and, in a copy of the second impression of 1625, in the possession of Mr. Beloe, and which seems to have been a presentation copy to Exeter College, Oxford, of which Browne was a member and Master of Arts, there are thirteen adulatory addresses to the poet, from different students of this society, and in the handwriting of each. Among his earliest eulogists are found the great characters Selden, Drayton, and Jonson, by whom he was highly respected both as a poet and as a man; and as a still more imperishable honour, we must not forget to mention, that he was a favourite with our divine Milton.
Until lately, however, he has been under little obligation to subsequent times; nearly one hundred and fifty years elapsed before a third edition of his poems employed the press; this came out in 1772, under the auspices of Mr. Thomas Davies, and, with the exception of some extracts in Hayward's British Muse, this long interval passed without any attempt to revive his fame, by any judicious specimens of his genius. A more propitious era followed the republication of Davies; in 1787, Mr. Headley obliged us with some striking proofs of, and some excellent remarks on, his beauties; in 1792, his whole works were incorporated in the edition of the poets, by Dr. Anderson; in 1801, Mr. Ellis gave further extension to his fame by additional examples, and in 1810 his productions again became a component part of a body of English poetry in the very elaborate and comprehensive edition of the English poets, by Mr. Chalmers.
Still it appears to us, that sufficient justice has not, since the era of Milton, been paid to his talents; for, though it be true, as Mr. Headley has observed, that puerilities, forced allusions, and conceits, have frequently debased his materials; yet are these amply atoned for by some of the highest excellencies of his art; by an imagination ardent and fertile, and sometimes sublime; by a vivid personification of passion; by a minute and truly faithful delineation of rural scenery; by a peculiar vein of tenderness which runs through the whole of his pastorals, and by a versification uncommonly varied and melodious. With these are combined a species of romantic extravagancy which sometimes heightens, but more frequently degrades, the effect of his pictures. Had he exhibited greater judgment in the selection of his imagery, and greater simplicity in his style, his claim on posterity would have been valid, had been general and undisputed. Browne is conjectured by Wood to have died in the winter of 1645.