1905 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Bosworth

George Saintsbury, "Introduction to William Bosworth" in Minor Poets of the Caroline Period (1905-21) 2:523-35.



Of William Bosworth or Boxworth (taking which form he was Boxworth "of that ilk" — a village about seven miles from Cambridge to the left of the Huntingdon Road) next to nothing appears to be known except what is furnished by the posthumous edition of his poems, a very rare book, which is here reproduced. According to a portrait (absent in my copy, which belonged to Park, the editor of Heliconia, &c., but present in others) itself was engraved in the year 1637 and aet. 30 of the subject, who died, it seems, a year before the book was published. As the poems are said to have been written at the age of nineteen, this, with the dating of the portrait, would bring them back to the first or second year of Charles the First, while the author when he died would have been something over forty. The particulars are not voluminous, but only accidental discovery of documents is likely to extend them much.

The attribution of poems — more especially posthumous poems — to an extremely early period of the poet's life, is not an uncommon thing, and was perhaps more than usually common in the seventeenth century. But there is no reason for questioning it in the case of the present pieces. Though they are certainly better than most boys of nineteen could write, there is about them no such startling excellence or originality as would make one suppose that an earlier Chatterton or Keats was, not lost but, miraculously struck dumb in the case of Bosworth. On the other hand their general characteristics are distinctly those of the first or really "Elizabethan" half of the great so-called Elizabethan period — not those of the second. One of these will strike every expert at once; it is the prevalence of the figure of epanaphora, or repetition of identical verse-beginnings, which is extravagant in Gascoigne, somewhat excessive even in Sackville, and by no means eschewed by Spenser himself. There is at least a fair allowance of other forms of the earlier word-play: but much less of the later thought-play which succeeded it. Indeed, Bosworth is perhaps the least "metaphysical" of our crew, except Hannay: and as the Galwegian has (not at all to my displeasure) found favour in the eyes of some who could not stomach Benlowes or even Chamberlayne, let us hope that the Cantabrigian will have equal luck.

Besides epanaphora, the "turn of words" its near neighbour — as, close to the beginning:

Down by which brook there sat a little lad,
A little lad—

which the pure Elizabethans also greatly affected, and which came back after the Restoration, but which is less distinctly "First-Caroline," appears in Bosworth, to the special delectation of "R. C." On the other hand his nomenclature, instead of being more or less purely classical or Italian, inclines to the odd rococo forms which have been noted as "Heroic." Indeed "Delithason" outstrips even these, and reminds one of the strange name-coinage of Blake. The couplet-versification is rather stopped on the Spenser-Drayton model than overlapped: although, as is usually the case with that model, it allows itself overlapping. The occasional stanzas are managed with skill, and the song "See'st not, my love, with what a grace" has a most pleasing cadence. It should not have escaped anthologists.

Nor is Bosworth at all ill provided with word-ammunition to load his verse-ordnance withal, though it must be confessed that his syntax and composition are sometimes quite bewildering. On the whole he gives us, with a not unsatisfactory variation, a fresh moral on the text which can hardly be too often enforced here, because it is in fact the justification of all these re-issues. That people should write poetry in their youth, and leave off writing it in their maturer years, is nothing uncommon at any time; even I, who had rather that twenty bad or indifferent poems saw the light, than that one good one should miss it, am disposed to regard this as one of Nature's most benevolent laws. It has affected even real poets, who have suffered no let or stress of untoward circumstance: and there have been some other real poets whom it might have affected with advantage, not to mention those who by want of pence or peace have been forced to be disobedient to the Heavenly Vision. But here is a man who writes a considerable amount of more than tolerable verse before he is twenty, who lives to more than double that age, who occupies the situation of life most suitable for the purpose, beset by neither poverty nor riches, neither harassing vocation nor tempting avocations, and who apparently, in all but a full quarter of a century, — in the very years of man's life which have given us most of the best poetry in the world — writes nothing more, and does not even take the trouble to publish what he has written.

Once more, poetry must be very much in the air, and very careless of the mere individual on whom she lists to light, to produce or permit such phenomena as this.