1866 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Richard Carew

John Payne Collier, "A Herrings Tale" in Bibliographical and Critical Account of the Rarest Books (1866) 1:133-44.



On the authority of Guillim's Heraldry, p. 154, edit. 1610, it has been supposed that this rhyming rigmarole, for it is nothing better, was written by Richard Carew of Anthony, the author of the preceding work [Godfrey of Bulloigne], and of the Survey of Cornwall, 1602. The internal evidence is all the other way; for, allowing much for discursiveness and intended obscurity, it is clear that the writer knew nothing of metre, and his meaning, when discoverable, is anything but such as would proceed from a man of good sense, elegant mind, and refined attainments. We think, therefore, that Guillim, who was himself no good judge of such matters, was misinformed: in deference, however, to his statement we have placed the tract under Carew's name. That the real writer, whoever he may have been, was a man of some classical learning, the many allusions to, ancient history and mythology sufficiently establish; but even in this respect the piece is certainly not worthy of Carew, and it is very properly not assigned to him in either edition of Lowndes' Bibl. Man., while Fry, in his Bibl. Mem., 1816, 4to, p. 156, though he gives the writer far more than deserved credit, does not pretend to have ascertained who he was. It has been said that an allegory was intended, and that A Herring's Tayle was a sort of satire upon two eminent personages of the time; but we can discern nothing of the kind, although somebody may possibly have been personified under the figure of a snail in its futile endeavor to climb. That the author did not understand the commonest rules of metre, as then practised by Carew himself and so many great poets, we may prove by the first six miserably lame lines:—

I sing the strange adventures of the hardie Snayle
Who durst (unlikely match) the weathercock assayle:
A bold attempt, at first by fortune flattered
With boote, but at the last to bale abandoned.
Helpe, sportfull Muse, to tune my gander-keaking quill,
And with inck blotles of sad merriments it fill. &c.

No person with the slightest ear for rhythm could possibly have produced such lines, and many others equally lamentable; yet the writer, if we understand him, professes admiration for Spenser and Sidney, the latter by his name and the former as the "Muses despencier":—

But neither can I tell, ne can I stay to tell
This pallace architecture, where perfections dwell.
Who list such know, let him Muses "despencier" reede,
Or thee whom England sole did since the Conquest breed
To conquer ignorance, Sidney, like whom endite
Even Plato would, as Jove (they say) like Plato write.

We conjecture that by Muses "despencier" (printed in Italics in the original) the author of The Faery Queene must have been intended, but the pun is as bad as the poetry, and we can trace no other allusion to any writer of the period. If the riddle of the whole piece were ever worth solving, we are not in a condition to explain it now, and such lines as those that follow could surely never have been considered tolerable:—

For when the god of puffes, great master of the ayre,
Saw the base Snayle of his sonnes spoyles a Trophee reare,
Choler enflam'd his heart, revenge tickled his fist,
Disdaine wrinckled his face to smile of little list,
And up his throte bole staires climbd words of threatening,
Which to effects of deedes thus wise he sought to bring.
Poste through his large Dominions are writs out sent
To warne his windie vassals to a parliament:
So whizzing, blustring, peeping, whisking, there came in
First lithie Eurus with his parchie rivild skin;
Next Boreas armd in ice, &c.

Some humor seems here to have been meditated, but most ineffectually, as far as moderns are concerned; and when, in his last words, the author tells us that his "pen is worne to the stumpe," it is much in the same condition as the reader's patience.