1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Hookham Frere

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:366-68.



In 1817 Mr. Murray published a small poetical volume under the eccentric title of Prospectus and Specimen of on intended National Work, by William and Robert Whistlecraft, of Stowmarket in Suffolk, Harness and Collar-Makers. Intended to comprise the most Interesting Particulars relating to King Arthur and his Round Table. The world was surprised to find, under this odd disguise, a happy imitation of the Pulci and Casti school of the Italian poets. The brothers Whistlecraft formed, it was quickly seen, but the mask of some elegant and scholarly wit belonging to the higher circles of society, who had chosen to amuse himself in comic verse, without incurring the responsibilities of declared authorship. To two cantos published in the above year, a third and fourth were soon after added. The poem opens with a feast held by King Arthur at Carlisle amidst his knights, who are thus introduced:—

They looked a manly generous generation;
Beards, shoulders, eyebrows, broad, and square, and thick,
Their accents firm and lend in conversation,
Their eyes and gestures eager, sharp, and quick,
Showed them prepared, on proper provocation,
To give the lie, pull noses, stab and kick;
And for that very reason it is said
They were so very courteous and well-bred.

In a valley near Carlisle lived a race of giants; and this place is finely described:—

Huge mountains of immeasurable height
Encompassed all the level valley round
With mighty slabs of rock, that sloped upright,
An insurmountable and enormous mound.
The very river vanished out of sight,
Absorbed in secret channels under ground
That vale was so sequestered and secluded,
All search for ages past it had eluded.

A rock was in the centre, like a cone,
Abruptly rising from a miry pool,
Where they beheld a pile of massy stone,
Which masons of the rude primeval school
Had reared by help of giant hands alone,
With rocky fragments unreduced by rule:
Irregular, like nature more than art,
Huge, rugged, and compact in every part.

A wild tumultuous torrent raged around,
Of fragments tumbling from the mountain's height;
The whistling clouds of dust, the deafening sound,
The hurried motion that amazed the sight,
The constant quaking of the solid ground,
Environed them with phantoms of affright;
Yet with heroic hearts they held right on,
Till the last point of their ascent was won.

The giants having attacked and carried off some ladies on their journey to court, the knights deem it their duty to set out in pursuit; and in due time they overcome these grim personages, and relieve the captives from the castle in which they had been immured:—

The ladies? — They were tolerably well,
At least as well as could have been expected:
Many details I must forbear to tell
Their toilet had been very much neglected;
But by supreme good luck it so befell,
That when the castle's capture was effected,
When those vile cannibals were overpowered,
Only two fat duennas were devoured.

This closes the second canto. The third opens in the following playful strain:—

I've a proposal here from Mr. Murray.
He offers handsomely — the money down;
My dear, you might recover from your flurry,
In a nice airy lodging out of town,
At Croydon, Epsom, anywhere in Surrey;
If every stanza brings no in a crown,
I think that I might venture to bespeak
A bedroom and front parlour for next week.

Tell me, my dear Thalia, what you think;
Your nerves have undergone a sudden shock;
Your poor dear spirits have begun to sink;
On Banstead Downs you'd muster a new stock,
And I'd be sure to keep away from drink,
And always go to bed by twelve o'clock.
We'll travel down there in the morning stages;
Our verses shall go down to distant ages.

And here in town we'll breakfast on hot rolls,
And you shall have a better shawl to wear;
These pantaloons of mine are chafed in holes;
By Monday next I'll compass a new pair:
Come now, fling up the cinders, fetch the coals,
And take away the things you hung to air;
Set out the tea-things, and bid Phoebe bring
The kettle up. Arms and the Monks I sing.

Near the valley of the giants was an abbey, containing fifty friars, "fat and good," who keep for a long time on good terms with their neighbours. Being fond of music, the giants would sometimes approach the sacred pile, attracted by the sweet sounds that issued from it; and here occurs a beautiful Piece of description:—

Oft that wild untutored race would draw,
Led by the solemn sound and sacred light,
Beyond the bank, beneath a lonely shaw,
To listen all the livelong summer night,
Till deep, serene, and reverential awe
Environed them with silent calm delight,
Contemplating the minister's midnight gleam,
Reflected from the clear and glassy stream.

But chiefly, when the shadowy moon had shed
O'er woods and waters her mysterious hue,
Their passive hearts and vacant fancies fed
With thoughts and aspirations strange and new,
Till their brute souls with inward working bred
Dark hints that in the depths of instinct grew
Subjective — not from Locke's associations,
Nor David Hartley's doctrine of vibrations.

Each was ashamed to mention to the others
One half of all the feelings that he felt,
Yet thus far each would venture — "Listen, brothers,
It seems as if one heard heaven's thunders melt
In music!"

Unfortunately, this happy state of things is broken up by the introduction of a ring of bells into the abbey, a kind of music to which the giants had an insurmountable aversion:—

The solemn mountains that surrounded
The silent valley where the convent lay,
With tintinnabular uproar were astounded
When the first peal burst forth at break of day:
Feeling their granite ears severely wounded,
They scarce knew what to think or what to say;
And (though large mountains commonly conceal
Their sentiments, dissembling what they feel,

Yet) Cader-Gibbrish from his cloudy throne
To huge Loblommon gave an intimation
Of this strange rumour, with an awful tone,
Thundering his deep surprise and indignation;
The lesser hills, in language of their own,
Discussed the topic by reverberation
Discoursing with their echoes all day long,
Their only conversation was, "ding-dong."

These giant mountains inwardly were moved,
But never made an outward change of place;
Not so the mountain giants — (as behoved
A more alert and locomotive race)
Hearing a clatter which they disapproved,
They ran straight forward to besiege the place,
With a discordant universal yell,
Like house-dogs howling at a dinner-bell.

This is evidently meant as a good-humoured satire against violent personifications in poetry. Meanwhile, a monk, Brother John by name, who had opposed the introduction of the bells, has gone in a fit of disgust with his brethren to amuse himself with the rod at a neighbouring stream. Here occurs another beautiful descriptive passage:—

A mighty current, unconfined and free,
Ran wheeling round beneath the mountain's shade,
Battering its wave-worn base; but you might see
On the near margin many a watery glade,
Becalmed beneath some little island's lee,
All tranquil and transparent, close embayed;
Reflecting in the deep serene and even
Each flower and herb, and every cloud of heaven;

The painted kingfisher, the branch above her,
Stand in the steadfast mirror fixed and true;
Anon the fitful breezes brood and hover,
Freshening the surface with a rougher hue;
Spreading, withdrawing, palming, passing over,
Again returning to retire anew:
So rest and motion in a narrow range,
Feasted the sight with joyous interchange.

Brother John, placed here by mere chance, is apprised of the approach of the giants in time to run home and give the alarm. Amidst the preparations for defence, to which he exhorts his brethren, the abbot dies, and John is elected to succeed him. A stout resistance is made by the monks, whom their new superior takes care to feed well by way of keeping them in heart, and the giants at length withdraw from the scene of action—

And new the gates are opened, and the throng
Forth issuing, the deserted camp survey;
"Here Murdomack, and Mangonel the strong,
And Gorbuduc were lodged," and "here, they say,
"This pig-stye to Poldavy did belong;
Here Bundleback, and here Phigander lay."
They view the deep indentures, broad and round,
Which mark their postures squatting on the ground.

Then to the traces of gigantic feet,
Huge, wide apart, with half a dozen toes;
They track them on, till they converge and meet
(An earnest and assurance of repose)
Close at the ford; the cause of this retreat
They all conjecture, but no creature knows;
It was ascribed to canoes multifarious,
To saints, as Jerom, George, and Januarius,

To their own pious founder's intercession,
To Ave-Maries, and our Lady's psalter;
To news that Friar John was in possession,
To new wax candles placed upon the altar,
To their own prudence, valour, and discretion;
To relics, rosaries, and holy water;
To beads and psalms, and feats of arms — in short,
There was no end of their accounting for't.

It finally appears that the pagans have retired in order to make the attack upon the ladies, which had formerly been described — no bad burlesque of the endless episodes of the Italian romantic poets.

It was soon discovered that the author of this clever jeu d'esprit was the Right Honourable John Hookham Frere, a person of high political consequence, who had been employed a few years before by the British government to take charge of diplomatic transactions in Spain in connexion with the army under General Sir John Moore. The Whistlecraft poetry was carried no further; but the peculiar stanza (the ottava rima of Italy), and the sarcastic pleasantry, formed the immediate exemplar which guided Byron when he wrote his Beppo and Don Juan; and one couplet—

Adown thy slope, romantic Ashbourn, glides
The Derby dilly, carrying six insides—

became at a subsequent period the basis of an allusion almost historical in importance, with reference to a small party in the House of Commons. Thus the national poem has actually attained a place of some consequence in our modern literature. It is only to be regretted that the poet, captivated by indolence or the elegances of a luxurious taste, has given no further specimen of his talents to the world.

For many years Mr. Frere has resided in Malta. In the Life of Sir Walter Scott, there are come particulars respecting the meeting of the declining novelist with his friend, the author of Whistlecraft. We there learn from Scott, that the remarkable war song upon the victory at Brunnenburg which appears in Mr. Ellis's Specimens of Ancient English Poetry, and might pass in a court of critics as a genuine composition of the fourteenth century, was written by Mr. Frere while an Eton schoolboy, as an illustration on one side of the celebrated Rowley controversy. We are also informed by Mrs. John Davy, in her diary, quoted by Mr. Lockhart, that Sir Walter on this occasion "repeated a pretty long passage from his version of one of the romances of the Cid (published in the appendix to Southey's quarto), and seemed to enjoy a spirited charge of the knights therein described as much as he could have done in his best days, placing his walking-stick in rest like a lance, 'to suit the action to the word.'"