1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Browne of Tavistock

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:128.



WILLIAM BROWNE (1590-1645) was a pastoral and descriptive poet, who, like Phineas and (Ides Fletcher, adopted Spenser for his model. He was a native of Tavistock, in Devonshire, and the beautiful scenery of his native county seems to have inspired his early strains. His descriptions are vivid and true to nature. Browne was tutor to the Earl of Carnarvon, and on the death of the latter at the battle of Newbury in 1643, he received the patronage and lived in the family of the Earl of Pembroke. In this situation he realised a competency, and, according to Wood, purchased an estate. He died at Ottery-St-Mary (the birth-place of Coleridge) in 1645. Browne's works consist of Britannia's Pastorals, the first part of which was published in 1613, the second part in 1616. He wrote, also, a pastoral poem of inferior merit, entitled, The Shepherd's Pipe. In 1620, a masque by Browne was produced at court, called The Inner Temple Mosque; but it was not printed till a hundred and twenty years after the author's death, transcribed from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library. As all the poems of Browne were produced before he was thirty years of age, and the best when he was little more than twenty, we need not be surprised at their containing marks of juvenility, and frequent traces of resemblance to previous poets, especially Spenser, whom he warmly admired. His pastorals obtained the approbation of Selden, Drayton, Wither, and Ben Jonson. Britannia's Pastorals are written in the heroic couplet, and contain much beautiful descriptive poetry. Browne had great facility of expression, and an intimate acquaintance with the phenomena of inanimate nature, and the characteristic features of the English landscape. Why he has failed in maintaining his ground among his contemporaries, must be attributed to the want of vigour and condensation in his works, and the almost total absence of human interest. His shepherds and shepherdesses have nearly as little character as the "silly sheep" they tend; whilst pure description, that "takes the place of sense," can never permanently interest any large number of readers. So completely had some of the poems of Browne vanished from the public view and recollection, that, had it not been for a single copy of them possessed by the Rev. Thomas Warton, and which that poetical student and antiquary lent to be transcribed, it is supposed there would have remained little of those works which their author fondly hoped would

Keep his name enroll'd past his that shines
In gilded marble, or in brazen leaves.

Warton cites the following lines of Browne, as containing an assemblage of the same images as the morning picture in the L'Allegro of Milton:—

By this had chanticleer, the village cock,
Bidden the goodwife for her maids to knock;
And the swart ploughman for his breakfast stayed,
That he might till those lands were fallow laid;
The hills and valleys here and there resound
With the re-echoes of the deep-mouth'd hound;
Each shepherd's daughter with her cleanly pail
Was come a-field to milk the morning's meal;
And ere the sun had climb'd the eastern hills,
To gild the muttering bourns and pretty rills
Before the labouring bee had left the hive
And nimble fishes, which in rivers dive,
Began to leap and catch the drowned fly
I rose from rest, net infelicity.

Browne celebrated the death of a friend under the name of Philarete in a pastoral poem; and Milton is supposed to have copied his plan in Lycidas. There is also a faint similarity in some of the sentiments and images. Browne has a very fine illustration of a rose:—

Look, as a sweet rose fairly budding forth
Betrays her beauties to th' enamour'd morn,
Until some keen blast from the envious north
Kills the sweet bud that was but newly born;
Or else her rarest smells, delighting,
Make herself betray
Some white and curious hand, inviting
To pluck her thence away.