1905 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edward Benlowes

George Saintsbury, "Introduction to Edward Benlowes" in Minor Poets of the Caroline Period (1905-21) 1:307-14.



The fate of Benlowes has been one of the hardest in the history of English poetry. Such approval as he met with, in his own time and from persons likely to sympathize with his general way of writing, was chiefly interested; he was savagely though very amusingly satirized by the greatest satirist, save one, of his own later day; he came in, long after his death, for sneers, suppressed and not suppressed, from Pope, as well as for a gratuitous salutation from Warburton's bludgeon; and at the Romantic revival he was almost entirely passed over. Neither Ellis nor Campbell, who were both pretty equitable to the Caroline poets, gave him admission: even Southey, so far as I remember, lets him alone, which is a pretty clear sign that he did not know him. Of late he has received more attention. But most of it has been of the unsatisfactory bibliographical character, little calculated to allay the thirst of the clear spirit in life or after death and most, even of this, has been due to the very cause which (it may be more than suspected) has made Benlowes so rare. At one time (see biographical note), he was a rich man or at least well-to-do, and with the nascent interest in art which distinguished the Cavalier party, from the King downwards, he set himself to embellish his principal work, Theophila, in a manner very uncommon before his time. An uncertain number (for hardly any two copies agree, and the tale seems to vary from six-and-thirty downwards of illustrations — sometimes separate, sometimes in the text, and ranging from more than full folio plates to two-inch-square vignettes — decorate the poem. These have in most instances been ruthlessly ravished from it — often, in the case of those backing matter, to the mutilation of the text, and almost always to the danger and disintegration of the book. It is also probable that no very large number of copies was printed, while the poem was never reissued: so that its rarity is not surprising.

But rarity is very far from being always or necessarily a cause of neglect. On the contrary, it notoriously, and very often, serves as a direct attraction and stimulant to reprinters. It is more difficult to know whether to admit or disallow as a vera causa of Benlowes' obscurity, the fantastic ingenuity (as "metaphysical" in reality as its prey) of Butler's attack. A similar combination of rarity and satire has had no doubt much to do with Shadwell's practical occultation: but this was never so complete as that of Benlowes, and moreover Dryden's consummate art had contrived to kill even curiosity about his victim. For few people care to explore simple and unmitigated dulness. There was something — at least after the eighteenth century was over — which might have excited, instead of quenching, this curiosity in Butler's Character of a Small Poet where, after several pages of general ridicule, Benlowes is gibbetted by name. The woes of Mr. Prynne — when having put a new hat in a hat-box which had been unfortunately lined with leaves from Theophila, or something else of its author's, he suffered from singing in the head, vertigo, and even after blood-letting, a tendency to write harsh poetry; the poet's mastery of high-rope "wit" and low-rope wit alike; his improvement on altars and pyramids by frying-pans and gridirons in verse; his troop-horse's furniture "all in beaten poetry;" the fatal effect of his printed sheets even upon tobacco; his Macaronic Latin and so forth — these are things which might rather tempt at least a slight exploration than discourage it. One does not object to a glimpse, at any rate, of the extravagant and absurd; though one may have a holy horror of the merely dull. And as for Warburton nobody, even in his own time, took him for much of an authority on poetry: while his condemnation was rather likely to serve as a commendation, after the beginning of the nineteenth century, to anybody except the neoclassic remnant, whether the individual took his ideas of poetry from Coleridge or from Wordsworth, from Southey or from Byron, from Shelley or from Keats.

We shall hardly be epigrammatic out of season if we solve or evade the difficulty by saying that accident probably assisted rarity, and that Benlowes himself certainly assisted Butler. He has done (except in the matter of the sculpturesque embellishments which have so often disappeared) almost everything he could to "fence his table" against at least modern readers. Some (let it be hoped not too many) would drop off at once on perceiving that "Theophila" 'is but a name for the soul, in its mystical status as the bride of Christ. More might faint at the prospect before them on coming to the information in the Preface that "The glorious projection and transfusion of ethereal light, both in the Sun and the six magnitudes, constitute, by astronomical computation, more than 300 suns upward to the Empyrean Heaven. A star in the Equator makes 12,598,666 miles in an hour, which is 209,994 miles in a minute, a motion quicker than thought." For even Dante, though he may double Theology with Astronomy, does not cumulate both with Arithmetic in this fashion. And of those who still hold their course, across prefaces and prefatory poems, to the actual text, not a few more may break down at or a little past the gateway.

Benlowes has chosen one of the most awkward stanzas (if it is to be called a stanza) possible — a triplet composed of decasyllable, octosyllable, and alexandrine — the jolt of which only after long familiarity becomes rhythmical even to the most patient and experienced ear, and never reaches a perfect charm. These triplets are monorhymed: but the author begins with three on the same sound, and never expresses the slightest consideration as to symphonic or symmetrical effect in rhyme. He showers italics and capitals in a fashion which might give pause to the sternest stickler for literal typographic reproduction. But undoubtedly the most serious objects of distaste are likely to be found, where Butler long ago found them, in his style — taking that word in the wide sense which admits both diction and expression of thought.

Even before arriving at these one may quarrel (far from captiously) at his general plan and ordonnance. Despite more than one declaration of the author's design, explicit enough in intention, it is very difficult to put this design with any intelligible brevity: and his introductory panegyrists in verse take very good care not to attempt it. The Praelibation, Humiliation, Restoration, Inamoration, Representation, Contemplation, Admiration, Recapitulation, Translations, Abnegation, Disincantation, Segregation, Reinvitation, and Termination — as the several Cantos are headed — refuse reduction to any common denomination except perhaps this: — "a very discursive treatise on mystical theology and passions of the soul, succeeded by an equally discursive comment on the sins of the flesh." The author adopts as his vehicle sometimes English, sometimes Latin, sometimes both in face-to-face translation. The mere lexicon of the vernacular parts is distinctively Caroline: out-of-the-way catchwords such as "remora" and "enthean," both of which he shares with Chamberlayne, being alternated with extremely familiar phrases and archaisms, as well as with the hideous abbreviations ("who's days" for "who his days" and the like), which are the greatest blot upon the poetry of this time. He coins pretty freely (e.g. "angelence" in a very early and by no means bad stanza) and one of the things which shocked Butler was the certainly tremendous Macaronic invention of "hypocondruncicus:" while one can imagine the almost stuttering rage of some critics to-day at such another word as " Proteustant," for the Covenanters. But, on the whole, his licences this way, though considerable and no doubt excessive, are certainly less frequent, if perhaps to the grave and precise more shocking, than the irresponsible and irrepressible libertinism of his composition as regards clause and sentence, material and contexture.

The late Greek rhetoricians, in that mania for subdividing and labelling figures which Quintilian soberly ridicules, might have lost themselves in endeavouring to devise tickets for the subdivisions of Benlowes' indulgence in good, or hectic, or horse-playful, conceit. Already the twentieth couplet of the Praelibation provides us with this:—

Each gallon breeds a ruby; — drawer! score 'um—
Cheeks dyed in claret seem o' th' quorum,
When our nose-carbuncles, like link-boys, blaze before 'um.

But an even less dignified use of "the blushing grape of western France" occurs later: — "War hath our lukewarm 'claret' broach'd with spears" where it would be really interesting to know whether there is an earlier instance of the "fancy" use of the word. It would not be easy to find a wilder welter of forced metaphors than here:—

Betimes, when keen-breath'd winds, with frosty cream,
Periwig bald trees, glaze tattling stream:
For May-games past, white-sheet peccavi is Winter's theme.

And he surpasses even his usual quaintness when he concludes a long interruption of Theophila's address to him on heavenly things in the Fifth Canto:—

Fond that I am to speak. Pass on to bliss,
That with an individual kiss
Greets thee for ever! Pardon this parenthesis.

He does not hesitate to rhyme "Hades" to "Shades" and will draw attention in the margin, with modest pride, to a "versus cancrinus" (it is in Latin), that is to say one which reads the same with the letters taken backwards or forwards. I have thought it well to make no secret or "abscondence" of these absurdities. They are such, and there are many others; indeed, the man who could commit some of them evidently could not have guarded himself against others if he would, and perhaps would not if he could. If any be of the mood of Butler on this particular occasion (for as I have hinted above his own method is often only that of Benlowes changed from unconscious indulgence to conscientious and deliberate utilization for comic effect), or of Boileau always, he had better abstain from Benlowes. For "awful examples" of the metaphysical gone mad are on record plentifully already, and there is no need to do again what Johnson did sufficiently more than a hundred years ago in the Life of Cowley. Indeed, I do not know, despite the greater sureness of Crashaw's command of poetical expression, that Benlowes has ever gone beyond Crashaw when he pictured the eyes of St. Mary Magdalen as walking baths and portable oceans, though modern practice has brought out an extra whimsicality for us in this. But the arguments which have been sketched in the General Introduction apply here with special force. We know that Crashaw was not a fool; and, though there is no reason for adopting the opinions of parasites and pensioners about Benlowes, there is nearly as little for agreeing with Butler that our poet was one. We come in him to one of the most remarkable examples provided by English literature of the extreme autumn of the Elizabethan annus mirabilis. The belief in conceits is as strong as ever and though the power of producing them poetically is dying down, and except for flickers has almost died, a fresh, deliberate, critical, belief in furor poeticus has come to blow the embers. There is still a too exclusive reliance on one of the great pair of poetic instruments — the method of making the unfamiliar acceptable, of procuring a welcome for the strange. But the exercise and employment of this is forced, mechanical, what was called two hundred years later, in a fresh though only momentary revival of the circumstances, "spasmodic." One perfectly understands how, in presence of such things, men, especially not feeling any particular enthusiasm themselves, turned to the other method-the method of raising and inspiring the familiar, the ordinary, the common-sense. And one understands with scarcely less fulness and ease why men like Butler felt their own sense of the ridiculous stimulated and, as it were, exacerbated by the consciousness (half-conscious as it might be) that it was their own method which was thus caricatured and brought into contempt-that their own matters were at stake, or at least one side of them. Meanwhile the other side — that which leant to the new dispensation of Prose and Sense — was wholly and genuinely hostile to all the works, all the spirit, all the tastes, methods, intellectual habits of persons like the author of Theophila. The opportunity of such understanding is not fully provided till we know these persons in their own work — in that "horse-furniture of beaten poetry" in which they ambled and jingled across the stage.

But we are, or ought to be, more disinterested now than Butler or even Dryden, though it is unnecessary to repeat what should have been said on this head before. And Benlowes, besides his interest of absurdity — his mere helotry which, though it might almost suffice for some, cannot be expected to do so for all — has other and less dubious claims. The earlier, larger, and better part of his poem is a really remarkable, and beyond all reasonable doubt a perfectly genuine, example of that glowing intensity of mystical devotion which plays, like a sort of Aurora, on the Anglican High Churchmanship of the seventeenth century, and has made it, to some, one of the most attractive phases of religious emotion to be found in all history. It may be prejudice or partisanship, but there seems to me some reason for connecting Benlowes' return to Anglican orthodoxy, as contrasted with Crashaw's permanent estrangement, with the freedom from overlusciousness which is remarkable in the lesser poet. Benlowes is afraid of no metaphor, however extravagant and however doubtful in point of taste but his metaphors are not, to use the Persian criticism, "Limber in loin and liquid on the lip" like those of some others. His "Clevelandisms," his astonishing contortions and bizarrenesses of thought and phrase, are not more incompatible with true and intense piety than some to be found in the poetical books of the Bible, and even no doubt, to some extent, owe suggestions to them. Those who insist upon "sanity" as the first and last distinction of religion cannot like him; but they will find (and as is notorious enough have found) not very much less difficulty with a rather formidable body of Prophets, Saints Apostles, Fathers, Divine Poets, from the earliest and the latest days of Christianity.

Coming to still closer quarters, the eccentricity of Theophila does not prevent it from containing not a few passages, sometimes of length, that require very little allowance or apology from any tolerably catholic-tasted reader of poetry. There is a fine outburst, justifying its own pretty phrase, "The opal-coloured dawns raise fancy high," beginning at stanza LXIII of the Praelibation itself; another, fantastic enough but not uncharming, on Theophila in penance, at Canto II. LXX sq. Theophila's Love-Song, in the six-lined stanza, shows at once the relief from the stricture of the blood caused by the "cross-gartered" triplet which Benlowes has perversely used elsewhere; the address to the Ancient of Days at VI. LII sq. is really impressive (one rather likes the idea of Blake illustrating Benlowes anew) and at the end there is a delightful country-and-evening piece to match the opal-coloured dawns of the opening.

But (as was once said in a phrase which, as it happens, chimes in with the Latin anagram that cost Benlowes part of his fortune), apologies are things which "lectori benevolo supervacanea, nihil curat malevolus." It is at any rate open to the former, as well as to the latter, to treat this poet each after his own kind.

In the setting up of Pharonnida Singer's reprint, already modernized in spelling, was utilized; but as Theophila is printed directly from the original it may be desirable to explain the principles of orthography which have been observed here, and will be observed in similar cases. I am, of course, well aware that there is, as there has long been, a habit of demanding adherence to original spelling, and of regarding those editions which comply with this demand as "scholarly," and those which do not as "slovenly." I disagree with the opinion and decline to comply with the demand. As a matter of fact, the retention of the old spelling gives the editor very little trouble, and the alteration of it a very great deal. But this is nothing. In the first place there is no real reason, in the case of any writer at any rate later than the beginning of the seventeenth century, for throwing in the way of the modern reader an unnecessary obstacle to enjoyment. In the second place, and in the case of such authors as those with whom we are now dealing, the advantage of the original spelling, even to the severest reader for knowledge and not enjoyment, is almost infinitesimally small. I have before writing these words carefully gone over a page, selected at random, of the text which follows. It contains twenty-six lines, and in round numbers over two hundred words. Of these (putting some classes of typographical peculiarity, to be mentioned presently, aside) exactly eight and eight only are spelt differently from our present system, and these differences supply us with the immensely important and interesting knowledge that "less" was spelt "lesse" (twice), that adjectives like "natural" were spelt with two l's (twice), that "obey" was sometimes spelt "obay," that "wild" and "find" had a final e; and that the contraction of "over" was carelessly written "o're." Of the general variations, the habit of beginning nouns with a capital can be neither surprising nor instructive to any one who has interest enough in English literature to open such a book as this: and it frets the eyes of some who have a good deal of such interest. The other habit of frequent italicizing (without personification or the like) has a still more fretting effect, and is very difficult to reduce to any logical system; while though the presence of apostrophes in such words as "pow'r" is undoubtedly important as showing metrical theory, and is therefore kept here, the absence of it in the genitive case is again fretting and sometimes confusing, so that it is worth correction. The same is not quite the case with Benlowes' frequent habit of printing whole words in capitals and this is therefore frequently retained. But in those other things, general and particular, nothing is gained by the reproduction of what were in most cases mere arbitrary printers' caprices or fashions. And even putting aside, as a question not to be disputed, the question which makes the prettier page, there can be little dispute that retention of such things prevents that horizontal study of English poetry — that taking it all on equal terms — which some think the great desideratum and desiderandum. We want these things to be regarded as poems, not as curiosities and bric-a-brac. You cannot modernize Chaucer without loss, because his language itself is not modern: you cannot modernize Chatterton without unfairness, because his archaism was part of his deliberate method. But Chamberlayne and Benlowes lose (except in the very rarest instances) nothing at all and may gain something: while innumerable instances — whole lines, whole stanzas, whole passages, present not a single actual variation from modern practice except the initial capital. And the extraordinary "harlequin" effect of the original printing of Theophila, of which a specimen is given, emphasizes unduly, for modern readers, the already sufficient eccentricity of the text. In every case where there is the slightest direct or indirect interest, historical, phonetic in the good sense, prosodic, grammatical, or other, attention will be drawn in the notes to the original spelling. Elsewhere, that method will be adopted which will give the poetry the best chance of producing any poetical effect of which it is capable.

After examining the minor poems attributed to Benlowes, I have decided to add only two, to Theophila. Most, as said above, are wholly in Latin; and though I did not think it fit to exclude the Latin parts of his magnum opus there is no reason for including these. Some are very doubtfully his: — the initials E. B. being treacherous. The Summary of Wisdom, however, in a hundred triplets of the Theophila stamp, though it duplicates that poem largely does not do so wholly, and should therefore be given; while the little musical piece which follows it is fresh, pleasing, and very characteristic.