1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. John Aikin

William Goodhugh, in The English Gentleman's Library Manual (1827) 302-04.



AIKIN. The Select Works of the British Poets, with biographical and critical prefaces, octavo, 18s.

This book is beautifully printed in double columns, consisting of more than eight hundred pages; the object is to comprise within a moderate compass, a chronological series of our classical poets, from Ben Jonson to Beattie, without mutilation or abridgment; with biographical and critical notices of their authors. It may justly be termed a Library of Classical English Poetry.

The same work is also so divided as to form a Cabinet Library of British Poetry; contained in 10 volumes, 18mo, 2.

The English are the only people who have any general collection of their poets. In forming these there was no principle of selection used with the Minorites and Minims of Parnassus. The adventurous bookseller who had the merit, and it is no light one, of making them, inserted in his list the names which were familiar to him in his trade, and, with few exceptions, they have continued to take their place by prescription, in subsequent publications of the same kind.

By virtue of this prescription they passed muster with John Bell, with Dr. Johnson and his booksellers, who formed the list according to their copyrights, with Dr. Anderson, the most good-natured of all critical editors, whose good-nature certainly was not such as to atone for his want of judgment. But the prescription which placed them there obtains no longer; and their very collections exemplify the effect which Pope produced; for, from his time, they became, to a certain degree, select. Till then every one who could rhyme claimed and acquired the privilege of a poet, just as a culprit who could spell out a verse in the testament was allowed to plead his clergy; it was granted now to none but those who could produce a fair qualification.

Meantime a change was going on equal in degree to that which the vigour of Pope had brought about. We were brought back by Thomson and Dyer to the love of natural objects. Young taught us with what success a true poet might appeal to the religious feelings of the human heart. Akenside elevated his readers by a high moral and philosophical strain. Glover set before them a plain and equal style, which rejecting all meretricious ornaments, with a severity like that of Alfieri, relied upon the strength and dignity of its subject for its sole support. Mason, on the contrary, who was more able to have sustained such a style, adopted a rich and gorgeous manner, acting upon the opinion that in a language in which Shakspeare, by native genius, had attained the highest place, an aspirant might with most reason hope to succeed, through an elaborate imitation of Attic art. Lyric poems of the most opposite kind, but which have become equally popular, were produced by Gray and Collins; those of the former were the highly finished compositions of a patient and fastidious artist; those of the latter the effusions of an ardent poetical spirit. And while Percy and Warton recalled the rising generation to the school of Spenser and the Elizabethan age, Mr. Hayley led the way to a renewed intercourse with the literature of those countries from which the writers in that illustrious age had drawn so largely and with success.