1905 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Chalkhill

George Saintsbury, "Introduction to John Chalkhill" in Minor Poets of the Caroline Period (1905-21) 2:369-72.



The authorship of Thealma and Clearchus used to be regarded — and perhaps some people may be allowed to see reasons for regarding it still — as one of the minor puzzles of English Literature. As all readers of Walton's Angler know, the revered Izaak included therein (A.D. 1653) two pieces of verse (which for completeness' sake are given here at the end of Thealma) attributing them (later?) to a certain "Jo. Chalkhill." The second of these he says he learnt many years since, and was obliged to patch of his own invention. Thirty years later again, being then a man of ninety, he issued Thealma and Clearchus with the same attribution, and the notable addition that "Jo. Chalkhill" was "an acquaintant and friend" of Edmund Spenser. But nobody knew anything about this Jo. Chalkhill: and Singer, in the reprint which has been used for setting up this our text, went so far as to suggest that Walton may have written it himself. In 1860, however, a Mr. Merryweather discovered that a certain John Chalkhill had been coroner of Middlesex "towards the end of Elizabeth's reign," which would suit well enough with the Spenser friendship. And it appears further that Walton's wife's stepmother was a Martha Chalkhill, daughter of John, which again fits, chronologically, well enough, and explains the access which the Angler, alone of men, seems to have had to the coroner's relics, if coroner there was. Nor, though the limits of literary make-believe need not be drawn with any too Puritanical strictness, is Walton at all the man whom, without any evidence, we should suspect of a deliberate and volunteered lie. Nor yet, once more, can we readily pay him the compliment of believing that he had poetry enough for Thealma and Clearchus.

The difficulty, however, is not, from the point of view of criticism, wholly or even to any great extent removed by these discoveries and considerations. A man who could be spoken of as a friend and acquaintant of Spenser (ob. 1599) could hardly be in his very first youth at the end of the sixteenth century; a man who was coroner for so important and businessful a county as Middlesex would be still less likely to be a mere boy. Nor, in the third place, would any man be likely to write Thealma and Clearchus at a very advanced period of life, leaving no other poetical remains except a couple of occasional songs. Therefore, if all the tales are to be taken as true, we must suppose that Thealma itself was not composed much after the beginning of the seventeenth century. And the D.N.B. has as a matter of fact corrected its original rash "fl. 1678" to "fl. 1600."

Now if Thealma and Clearchus was written about 1600, it will follow almost inevitably that to it and to its author must be assigned the post of leading in respect of the breathless, enjambed, overlapping decasyllabic couplet. There are passages in the poem which, from this point of view, look as if they might have been written forty or fifty years later by Marmion, or even by Chamberlayne. It is quite true — the present writer has done what he could in his humble way to insist on the fact in divers places and at sundry times — that the common notion of the strict separation of the couplets is a mistake — that you find both "stop" and "overlap" in Chaucer, and that the true Elizabethan poets, especially Drayton, develop the form in both kinds with great industry and freedom. But, save as an exception, it will be difficult to find in any non-dramatic poet before Browne and Wither, in any dramatic poet before the third decade or thereabouts of the century, such constant breathlessness, such unbridled overlapping, as you find here. Moreover, the Caroline (and the rather late than early Caroline) volubleness of form is accompanied by a nonchalant disorder of matter which is also by no means strictly Elizabethan. I do not know any Elizabethan poem — plays are not here in question — which comes anywhere near Chalkhill (if Chalkhill it be) and Chamberlayne in bland indifference to clarity of plot and narration. They do not say "The Devil take all order!" that would be far too violent and energetic a proceeding for them. They blandly ignore Order altogether, with its troublesome companions, Verisimilitude and Concatenation. No Aristotelian of the straitest sect can hold more stoutly and devoutly than I do to the Aristotelian "probable-impossible." But such incidents as the opening one, where Anaxus cannot or will not recognize his sister, and is converted not by herself but by a portrait which she produces, and which any counterfeit could have easily stolen or counterfeited, take no benefit from this licence at all. They are merely, at least to those who trouble themselves about such things, what the French, who laugh at and misspell our "shocking," themselves call "choquant." So, towards the end, the imbroglio of Alexis-Anaxus-Thealma-Florimel-Clarinda is embroiled deeper in the same tactless way. Of course the piece is unfinished — indeed one may say that to finish it anyhow would have tasked any one out of a lunatic asylum. But if you, take any account of plot at all, again it is surely a first principle in poetry itself, as well as in drama, not to entangle things clumsily and uselessly.

It will be observed that I have more than once coupled Chalkhill with Chamberlayne: and it was not done without a purpose. The resemblance between the two is indeed so striking that, if I were a Biblical critic, I should at once declare confidently that either Chamberlayne wrote Thealma and Clearchus or Chalkhill wrote Pharonnida. And what is more, I could bring biblical-critical arguments, external as well as internal, of the purest water to support the contention. But I should not believe a word of them, and on the principles of literary criticism I am bound merely to leave the thing as the enigma that it really is. Yet it is strictly literary to say that the resemblances are extraordinary, and luckily they extend to the merits of the piece as well as to its defects. The enormous length which has hidden the beauties of Pharonnida from so many fainthearts cannot be urged here. Walton's pathetic and characteristic colophon appeals to me (I would willingly have a Thealma of the length of Pharonnida, and a Pharonnida at what I am given to understand is the length of Viah Nameh), but it cannot be expected to appeal to modern readers as a body. If, however, they have any fancy for poetry at all — I sometimes wonder what the results of a strict poetical census would be — they ought to be able to get through these few thousand lines. And I shall be surprised if, with the same proviso, they can get through them without enjoying them.

Here also, however, it may be desirable — may be even necessary — to repeat the apparently superfluous warning that neither this poet nor any other must be asked for anything more than, or anything other than, he can give. If people come to Chalkhill expecting the [Greek characters] of Dryden, the pungency of Pope, the majesty of Milton, &c. — if they will not be content with the Chalkhillity of Chalkhill — it cannot be helped. Perhaps they are not to blame: but certainly those are not to be blamed either who are prepared to test and accept this poetic variety also at its worth, and add it to the treasure-house which English poetry has for them. It is perhaps, as Thackeray was fond of saying, "ordinaire" only; but a fresh and pleasant tap with a flavour and little bouquet of its own. A certain quality of engagingness which it has, may have been one of the things which made Singer think that it might be very Walton. It is Spenserian; but without the Spenserian height. It never soars: but always floats along on an easy wing. The minor blemishes, which are somewhat numerous, hardly require excuse, because of the obvious absence of revision: the major involution, want of verisimilitude and character, breathlessness, and so forth are the fault of the "heroic" kind, and not to be visited too heavily on the individual example. And it has abundant compensations. Hardly an English poet has given the difficult, artificial, and generally questionable "pastoral" tone better than Chalkhill. Even his probable contemporaries and certain fellow-disciples, Wither and Browne, though at their best they are better poets, do not beat him here: and he entirely avoids the dissonant and discordant admixtures that his master Spenser and his other contemporary Milton allow themselves. That inoffensive, not in the least pert or meretricious, but fascinating, prettiness, which is so characteristic of our group, abounds in him; he is master now and then of phrases and passages which transcend the merely pretty; and he exhibits the Battle of the Couplets — the enjambed and serpentine on the one hand, the sententious and tightly girt on the other — in a new and interesting manner. Add that Thealma and Clearchus is very rare in the original and has become one of the most expensive of Singer's reprints (on the general principle which tends to absorb into collections any book that has a connexion with a greater) and the justifications of this new appearance will be fairly sufficient.

I have added the two lyrics from the Angler itself, though part of one — an uncertain part — is admittedly not Chalkhill's, for completeness' sake. They resemble the larger piece in being obvious harvests of a quiet lyre and mind, nor are they untuneful. So I hope the reader, to vary Walton's words, will not be sorry to have them, even if he may possess them, as most should, in their original context.