1921 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Flatman

George Saintsbury, "Introduction to Thomas Flatman" in Minor Poets of the Caroline Period (1905-21) 3:277-82.



FLATMAN has been condoled with on his name by Mr. Bullen, one of the few persons who have done him some justice in recent years. I should rather myself, for reasons which will be given presently, condole with him on his date. His father was probably Robert Flatman of Mendham, Norfolk, and it is supposed that the poet was born in London. The date of his birth, recorded here for the first time, was February 21, 1635, about 5.29 in the morning. So his horoscope, preserved by Ashmole, informs us. When he was elected at Winchester on Michaelmas Day, 1648, he was stated to be "eleven years old" — a slight miscalculation. He himself in The Retirement, written in 1665, correctly speaks of his "thirty years." He actually entered Winchester in September, 1649. He was transferred in the usual (when uninterrupted) course to New College, Oxford; he was admitted as a probationer on September 11, 1654, but seems not to have matriculated till July 25, 1655; he became Fellow in 1656. There is no academic record, it would seem, of his ever having taken his degree, though he is spoken of as "A.B. of Oxford" when, by the King's Letters, he was made M.A. of St. Catherine Hall, Cambridge, in 1666. He went from Oxford to the Inner Temple, in 1655, and was called to the Bar on May 11, 1662. Oldys has a half-satiric reference to his pleading. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in April, 1668. In 1672 he married, his wife being favourably spoken of, and gossip — inevitable whether well founded or not — records that his "Bachelor's Song" (v. inf.) was sung under his windows on the occasion by "merry friends." And he died in London on December 8, 1688. Beyond these meagre details, and a statement that he had property at Diss (the cure of Skelton and the home of Maria Jolly), we know little about him directly or by external evidence. By that of his poems he must have been a friend of good men — Walton, Cotton, Edward Browne (Sir Thomas's son), Faithorne the engraver, Oldham, and others. His miniature portraits are well spoken of; — one is in possession of the Duke of Buccleuch, seven are in the South Kensington Museum. That, however, which illustrates his Poems is from a painting by John Hayls, whom Pepys's Diary has made known to a wider circle than students of the History of English Painting.

Flatman was evidently a tolerable scholar; and his Latinity, of which several specimens will be found here, does no discredit to the Winchester and the New College of the time. When he began English verse-writing does not seem to be known, but it must have been pretty early. He does not appear to have hurried his Muse; but collected his poems first in 1674, issuing augmented editions, to the number of four in all, up to a time shortly before his death. Of these, the third (1682) and the fourth (1686) have a claim to be regarded as authoritative and are the basis of the present text. The 1682 edition, "With Additions and Amendments," is better printed, and the 1686 — which makes a modest attempt to outbid it "With many Additions and Amendments" — is valuable for the supplementary poems." His Pindaric epicedes on public men — Ossory, Rupert, the King, &c. — for the most part appeared separately in folio; and in the earlier days of my preparation of this collection I gave myself a good deal of trouble in looking them up. Except the elegy on Ormond (1688) they were reprinted in these two editions. The last (1686) edition of the Poems, after some search, was procured for me. It seems to be much rarer than the third of 1682, which I have long possessed, and is not in the Bodleian. Additional poems, not included in the texts of 1682 and 1686, are added as a supplement. Three of these are taken from a transcript in Professor Firth's collection of an autograph MS. of Flatman which is now in America; the title is "Miscellanies by Tho. Flatman, ex Interiori Templo Londini. Sic imperantibus fatis. Nov. 9, 1661, 13o Caroli 2di." This contains in all twenty-three of the poems which have been collated for this reprint. An interesting feature of this manuscript is that it dates a number of the poems. Besides his poems, some pamphlets and Almanacks have been attributed to him on extremely doubtful evidence, or none at all. Except among his friends, it does not seem even in his own time to have been the fashion to think much of his verse; and a triplet of Rochester's, dismissing him as an imitator of Cowley, and a bad one, is usually quoted. Flatman's Pindarics are certainly his weakest poems. But Rochester, for all his wit and wits, was, though an acute, a very ill-natured critic; we know that he thought Cowley himself out of date and (as his representatives in kind, though not in gift, would say to-day) "early Caroline." Besides, to dismiss a Pindaric poet of the Restoration as an imitator, and a bad imitator, of Cowley is too obvious to be of much importance. I should certainly admit that the minor Pindaric — of which I have, for my sins or as part of them, probably read as much as any one living — is one of the most dismal departments of English verse. But Flatman's is by no means exceptionally bad, and is at its best better than that of Oldham, or of Otway, or of Swift — men with whom he cannot compare as a man of letters generally. Let us come closer to him and to his work.

Hayls may not have been a great painter; but he certainly seems to have had the knack of putting character in his portraits. Neither that of Pepys nor that of his wife is without it: and that of Flatman has a great deal. It is what would be called, I suppose, by most superficial judges an "ugly" face — with a broad "retrousse" nose, lips of the kind sometimes called "sensual," and a heavy (something of a double) chin. But the forehead is high, the mouth smallish, and above all there are a pair of somewhat melancholy eyes which entirely rescue it from any charge of vulgarity, though it is not exactly refined. It certainly suggests what is called in stock phrase an "artistic temperament": and it may not be too fanciful to see in it the kind of artistic temperament which aims higher than it can hit, begins what it is unable to finish, and never forgets the yew even among the roses. This complexion is, of course, in a way reflected in the very titles of the few things of Flatman known to the few people who do know him — "Death," "A Thought of Death," "A Dooms-day Thought," "Nudus Redibo," &c. But it is almost everywhere; and there is no affectation or "sensiblerie" about it. Flatman is not, as Longfellow, picturesquely and perhaps Carlylesquely, remarked of Matthiessen and Salis, "a gentleman who walks through life with a fine white cambric handkerchief pressed to his eyes." He can write battle-songs and love-songs and festive "gaillardises" naturally enough. But the other vein is also natural, and perhaps more so. The funeral panegyric Odes which make a considerable feature of his works were, of course, almost part of the routine business of a professional poet in those times of patronage: one of his regular sources of revenue, in fives or tens or hundreds of guineas, according to his rank on Parnassus and the rank and liberality of his subject in Church or State or City. But Flatman at his best suffuses them with a grave interest in Death itself — a touch now of Lucretius (who seems to have been a favourite of his), now of the Preacher — which is not in the least conventional. In this curious Second Caroline period of faint survivals of the Renaissance and complete abandonment of its traditions, Flatman's heritage appears to have been this sense of Death. A poet might have a worse portion.

In powers of expression he was not equally well apanaged: and it was unlucky for him that he fell in with the special period of popularity of that difficult and dangerous thing the Pindaric, and had enough of the older taste in him to attempt the short metaphysical lyric: "The Resolve," "The Fatigue," "The Indifferent." For the first he carried guns hardly heavy enough; for the second his lyrical craft was hardly sufficiently swift and handy to catch every puff of spiritual wind. Yet it is mildly astonishing to find how often he comes near to success, and how near that approach sometimes is. How many poets have tried to put the thought of the first line of the first poem in the complete edition: "No more! — Alas! that bitter word, No more!" and how many have put it more simply and passionately? The "Morning Hymn" and "Evening Anthem" have rather strangely missed (owing no doubt to that superficial connexion with Bishop Ken's which is noticed below) association with hundreds and thousands of very often inferior divine poems that have found home in collections. "The Resolve" begins quite admirably, and only wanted a little more pains on the poet's part to go on as well. "Love's Bravo" and "The Expectation" and "Fading Beauty" and "The Slight" are very far indeed from being contemptible. The two "gaillardises," the "Bachelor" and the "Cats," want very little to make them quite capital; and "The Whim" is in the same case. "The Advice" actually deserves that adjective, and not a few others will be found pointed out in the notes; while even his Pindarics (at least the earlier ones, for those written after Rochester's death more fully justify his censure than those he can have read) have fine lines and even fine passages.

It is no doubt rather unfortunate that Flatman should have left us so many Horatian translations. For the one thing needful — except in a very few pieces where Horace outgoes himself in massive splendour, and so can be outgone further by more of this, as in Dryden's magnificent version of "Tyrrhena regum" — the one thing needful in translating Horace is something of his well-known and "curious" urbane elegance. And this was the very quality which perhaps no Restoration poet — certainly not Flatman — could give. The "dash of vulgarity" which Mr. Bullen has too truly stigmatized affects nearly all of them except when transported by passion (which is nowhere in Horace); or fighting hard in a mood of satiric controversy which is quite different from his pococurantism; or using a massive rhetoric which is equally absent from him. The consequence is that what Flatman gives us is not Horace at all; and is not good Flatman. The "Canidia" pieces, as one would expect, are about the best, and they are not very good.

I own, however, and I am duly prepared to take the consequences of the confession, that Flatman appeals to me, though in a different way, almost as much as any other of the constituents of this volume, though certainly not so much as some of those of the other two. He had the pure misfortune — as the sternest critic must acknowledge it to have been — of being born too late for one period and too early for another. He could not give to his most serious things the "brave translunary" exaltations and excursions which came naturally to the men of a time just before his, and he could not correct this want by the order and the sense, the neatness and the finish, which were born with the next generation. "Death" and "A Thought of Death" and the other things mentioned unfairly but inevitably remind us that we have left Donne and Crashaw, Vaughan, and even Herbert, behind us. "The Mistake" and "The Whim" and many others remind us that we have not come to Prior. Yet others — which it were cruel to particularize and which he that reads will easily find for himself — display a lack of the purely lyrical power which, among his own contemporaries, Rochester and Sedley and Aphra Behn, not to mention others, possessed. Nor had he that gift of recognizing the eclipse of the Moon and utilizing the opportunities of the Earth, which has made Dryden, to competent and catholic tastes, all but one of the greatest of English poets. But still he was a "child of the Moon" herself; and he has the benefits which she never withholds from her children, though they may be accompanied by a disastrous influence. He was no doubt a minor poet in a time when minor poetry was exposed to special disadvantages. But with far less wit he was more of a poet than Cleveland; with far less art he was perhaps as much of a poet as Stanley; and I am not even sure that, with "weight for age" in the due sense, he was so very much less of a poet than King. And if those who think but little of these others as poets deem this scanty praise let us go further and say that he is a poet — imperfect, disappointing as well as disappointed, only half aneled with the sacred unction and houselled with the divine food — but a poet. Which if any denies he may be "an excellent person" — as Praed or Praed's Medora so finally puts it — but he does not know much, if indeed he knows anything, about poetry.