1866 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Reynolds

John Payne Collier, "Mythomystes" in Bibliographical and Critical Account of the Rarest Books (1866) 2:352-55.



This is in all respects a singular volume — remarkable in its character, and we never saw any other exemplar of it.

The dedication, "to the Right Honourable and my ever-honored Lord, Henry Lord Matrevers," is subscribed H. R., and we are much mistaken if it were not written by Henry Reynolds, to whom Drayton addressed his famous epistle Of Poets and Poesy; certain it is that Drayton speaks of Henry Reynolds as a poet and it is as clear that H. R., the author of The Tale of Narcissus, which is added to the volume before us, deserved the title. Still we are bound to admit, that beyond the initials we can adduce no direct evidence upon the point. H. R. was certainly acquainted with Drayton, praising especially his "late-writ Polyolbion and his Agincourt." The last had come out in 1627, so that, although Mythomystes has no date, we may fix its appearance in or about 1630: he also speaks of Chapman as still alive, although he died in 1634. He applauds Sidney for his "smooth and artful Arcadia," and Daniell for his Civil Wars, but Spenser seems to have been H. R.'s especial favorite:—

"Next I must approve the learned Spenser, in the rest of his poems, no less than his Faery Queene, an exact body of the Ethicke doctrine; though some good judgments have wisht (and perhaps not without cause) that he had therein beene a little freer of his fiction, and not so close rivetted to his morall."

It is to be observed also that, when speaking of his "good old friend" Chapman, H. R. mentions his translations of Musaeus, Hesiod, and Homer precisely in the same way, and in the same order, as Drayton had done in his epistle to Henry Reynolds.

The avowed object of the author is to explain the mythological fables of the Greeks and Romans upon natural grounds, and to show that they figuratively represent ordinary incidents. Of his own Tale of Narcissus (misprinted "Marcissus") he says: "As not the least of the fables of the Auncients but had their meanings, and most of them divers meanings also, so no lesse hath this of Narcissus, which Ovid hath smoothly sung, and I paraphrastically Englisht after my owne way, and for my owne pleasure." He then proceeds to show its real application, with the love of Echo for him and his own passion for himself, but at too much length for extraction. We must confine ourselves to a few specimens of H. R's poetry, premising that The Tale of Narcissus briefly Mythologised forms the title, and occupies a whole page, while a short advertisement to the reader states that he had written it "diverse yeares since;" perhaps about the time when Drayton and he had talked so freely upon the subject of poetry, and had read specimens of their versification to each other, among them, possibly, this very Tale of Narcissus. Of the love of Echo for the hero he writes thus sweetly:—

Her pale sick lookes the woefull witnesse beare
Of her hartes agonye and bitter teene:
Her flesh she batters, martyrs her faire haire,
And, shaming ere to be of any seene,
Hides her in some wilde wood or cave, and there
Answers perhaps, if she have question'd been;
And more and more increaesth ev'ry day
Loves flame in her, and meltes her life away.

Thus we see that he adopts the Italian ottava rima as his form of verse; and we may here observe that in various places he proves himself to be well acquainted with the works of Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Tasso, and most of the great ornaments of the Italian language. When Narcissus falls in love with his own shadow in the fountain, we are told,—

Transported with the silly vaine desire,
That the deceiptfull shadow breedes in him,
With his inkindled lips he presses nigher
To kisse the lips that on the water swimme;
Those lips, as if they did his lips require,
Arize with equall hast to the wells brimme;
But his abused lips their purpose misse,
And only the deluding water kisse.

The poet thus apostrophizes him:—

Yll-fated wretch, alas! what dost thou see
That in thy brest this mutiny awakes?
Perceiv'st thou not that what enamors thee
Is but the shadow thy owne body makes?
And of how strange and silly a quality
The passion is wherewith thy bosome akes,
That fondly flatters thee 'tis still without thee,
When what thou seek'st thou ever bear'st about thee?

We add the concluding stanza, after the death of Narcissus:—

His funerall pile, rounded with tapers bright,
The wayling Nymphes prepare without delay;
But the dead corse is vanisht from their sight,
And in the place where the pale carcasse lay
A flowre of yallow seed, and leaves milk white
Appeares: a fairer flowre Aprill nor May
Yeelds; for it keeps much of his beauty still:
Some call't a Lilly, some a Daffadill.

The work is ill printed, and on the last leaf is an unusually long list of errata. One of the most noticeable is the direction always to substitute "throughout the booke" "then" for "than," whether used as an adverb or as a conjunction, — as in the first instance where the author says, "but disease of the Soules health is no other then meerely knowledge of the Truth of things." There is little doubt that "than" and "than" are the same word; and about the date when H. R. (i.e. Henry Reynolds, as we believe him to have been) wrote, it was becoming usual to print "than" and not "then"; but he wished, for some reason he does not give, to check the modern practice.