1772 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Browne of Tavistock

Thomas Davies, Memoir in Works of William Browne (1772) 1:vii-x.



WILLIAM BROWNE, descended of a good family, was born at Tavistock, in Devonshire, in the year 1590; his father, according to PRINCE, in his Worthies of Devon, being probably of the Knightly family of Browne, of Browne's-Ilash, in the parish of Langtree, near Great-Torrington.

After he had passed through the Grammar-school, he was sent to Exeter College in the University of Oxford, about the beginning of the reign of James the first, where he became a great proficient in Classical learning, and in the Belles Lettres was scarcely equalled; from hence, however, before he had taken any academical degree, he removed to the Inner-Temple, London, where he more particularly devoted himself to the Muses.

In the beginning of the year 1624, he returned again to Exeter College, and became tutor to Robert Dormer, who was afterwards earl of Carnarvon, and who lost his life at Newbury Fight, on the 20th of September 1643. On the 25th of March, 1624, our author received permission to be actually created a Master of Arts, altho' the degree was not conferred upon him till the November following. He is stiled in the public register of the University, a man well skilled in all kinds of polite literature and useful arts; "Vir omni humana literatura et bonarum artium cognitione instructus."

After he had left College with his pupil, he was gladly received into the family of William Earl of Pembroke, who had a great respect for him; and here, according to the Author of the Athenae Oxonieses, he made his fortune so well that he purchased an estate; he also adds, that he had a great mind in a little body; but with regard to the time of his death, he is very doubtful, for all that he says of the matter is, that "in his searches he finds that one William Browne of Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, died in the year 1645; but that he cannot tell whether he was the same with our poet."

His poetical works procured him the acquaintance and esteem of many of the most learned and ingenious men of the age; they were looked upon with envy and admiration, and we have many testimonies of the high esteem in which they were held. Edward Philips, in his Theatrum Poetarum, speaking of the Britannia's Pastorals, says, "that tho' they are not of the sublimest strain, yet for a subject of that nature, amorous and rural, they contain matter not unpleasant to the reader." Winstanley, in his Lives of the most famous English Poets, stiles them a most ingenious piece; "it being (says he) for the subject of an amorous and rural nature, worthily deserving commendations, as any one will confess, who shall peruse it with an impartial eye." And the Author of the Memoirs of the Life of Mr. William Pattison, of Sidney College, Cambridge, prefixed to his poems printed in 1728, tells us, that from some instances, which he produces, "it will appear even to our most infallible criticks, that tho' Mr. Browne wrote an hundred and eleven years ago, his language is as nervous, his numbers are as harmonious, his descriptions as natural, his panegyrick as soft, and his satire as pointed, as any that are to be found in the Whipt-syllabub Poetasters of the present century;

Who verses wrote, as soft, as smooth as cream,
The poem ended, no one knows the theme."

It is said to be a certain fact, that Pattison, at his death, was possessed of no book except the Britannia's Pastorals of W. Browne.

Our Author was no less honoured and respected for his production of the Shepherd's Pipe, than of Britannia's Pastorals; and Prince further informs us that "as he had honoured his country with his sweet and elegant Pastorals, so was it expected, and he also intreated, a little farther to grace it by drawing out the line of his poetic ancestors, beginning in Joseph Iscanus, and ending in himself. A noble design if it had been effected."