1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Chamberlayne

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:323-24.



WILLIAM CHAMBERLAYNE (1619-1689) describes himself in the title-page to his works as "of Shaftesbury, in the county of Dorset." The poet practised as a physician at Shaftesbury; but he appears to have wielded the sword as well as the lancet, for he was present among the royalists at the battle of Newbury. His circumstances must have been far from flourishing, as, like Vaughan, he complains keenly of the poverty of poets, and states that he was debarred from the society of the wits of his day. The works of Chamberlayne consist of two poems — "Love's Victory," a tragi-comedy published in 1658; and "Pharonnida, a Heroic Poem," published in 1659. The scene of the first is laid in Sicily, and that of "Pharonnida" is also partly in Sicily, but chiefly in Greece. With no court connexion, no light or witty copies of verses to float him into popularity, relying solely on his two long and comparatively unattractive works — to appreciate which through all the windings of romantic love, plots, escapes, and adventures, more time is required than the author's busy age could, afford — we need hardly wonder that Chamberlayne was an unsuccessful poet. His works were almost totally forgotten, till, in our own day, an author no less remarkable for the beauty of his original compositions than for his literary research and sound criticism, Mr. Campbell, in his "Specimens of the Poets," in 1819, by quoting largely from "Pharonnida," and pointing out the "rich breadth and variety of its scenes," and the power and pathos of its characters and situations, drew attention to the passion, imagery, purity of sentiment, and tenderness of description, which lay, "like metals in the mine," in the neglected volume of Chamberlayne. We cannot, however, suppose that the works of this poet can ever be popular; his beauties are marred by infelicity of execution; though not deficient in the genius of a poet, he had little of the skill of the artist. The heroic couplet then wandered at will, sometimes into a "wilderness of sweets," but at other times into tediousness, mannerism, and absurdity. The sense was not compressed by the form of the verse, or by any correct rules of metrical harmony. Chamberlayne also laboured under the disadvantage of his story being long and intricate, and his style such — from the prolonged tenderness and pathos of his scenes — as could not be appreciated except on a careful and attentive perusal. Denham was patent to all — short, sententious, and perspicuous.

The dissatisfaction of the poet with his obscure and neglected situation, depressed by poverty, breaks out in the following passage descriptive of a rich simpleton:—

How purblind is the world, that such a monster,
In a few dirty acres swaddled, must
Be mounted, in opinion's empty scale,
Above the noblest virtues that adorn
Souls that make worth their centre, and to that
Draw all the lines of action? Worn with age,
The noble soldier sits, whilst, in his cell,
The scholar stews his catholic brains for food.
The traveller return'd, and poor may go
A second pilgrimage to farmers' doors, or end
His journey in a hospital; few being
So generous to relieve, where virtue doth
Necessitate to crave. Harsh poverty,
That moth, which frets the sacred robe of wit
Thousands of noble spirits blunts, that else
Had spun rich threads of fancy from the brain:
But they are souls too much sublim'd to thrive.

The following description of a dream is finely executed, and seems to have suggested, or at least bears a close resemblance to, the splendid opening lines of Dryden's "Religio Laici:"—

A strong prophetic dream,
Diverting by enigmas nature's stream,
Long hovering through the portals of her mind
On vain fantastic wings, at length did find
The glimmerings of obstructed reason, by
A brighter beam of pure divinity
Led into supernatural light, whose rays
As much transcended reason's, as the day's
Dull mortal fires, faith apprehends to be
Beneath the glimmerings of divinity.
Her unimprison'd soul, disrob'd of all
Terrestrial thoughts (like its original
In heaven, pure and immaculate), a fit
Companion for those bright angels' wit
Which the gods made their messengers to bear
This sacred truth, seeming transported where,
Fix'd in the flaming centre of the world,
The heart o' th' microcosm, about which is hurl'd
The spangled curtains of the sky, within
Whose boundless orbs the circling planets spin
Those threads of time upon whose strength rely
The pond'rous burdens of mortality.
An adamantine world she sees, more pure,
More glorious far than this — fram'd to endure
The shock of dooms-day's darts.

Chamberlayne, like Milton, was fond of describing the charms of morning. We have copied one passage in the previous notice of Denham, and numerous brief sketches, "Like atoms of the rainbow fluttering round," are interspersed throughout his works. For example—

Where every bough
Maintain'd a feather'd chorister to sing
Soft panegyrics, and the rude wings bring
Into a murmuring slumber, whilst the calm
Morn on each leaf did hang her liquid balm,
With an intent, before the next sun's birth,
To drop it in those wounds, which the cleft earth
Receiv'd from last day's beams.

Of virgin purity he says, with singular beauty of expression—

The morning pearls,
Dropt in the lily's spotless bosom, are
Less chastely cool, ere the meridian sun
Hath kiss'd them into heat.

In a grave narrative passage of "Pharonnida," he stops to note the beauties of the morning—

The glad birds had sung
A lullaby to-night, the lark was fled,
On dropping wings, up from his dewy bed,
To fan them in the rising sunbeams.