1852 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Hookham Frere

Mary Russell Mitford, "Mock-Heroic Poetry. John Hookham Frere" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 474-87.



Long before "Beppo," the experiment of imitating the well-known Italian school, which unites so strangely the wildest romance of chivalry with pungent satire and good-humored pleasantry, had been successfully tried by John Hookham Frere, one of Mr. Canning's most brilliant coadjutors in the poetry of the "Anti-Jacobin." The mock-heroic in question bore the curious title of "Prospectus and Specimen of an intended National Work, by William and Robert Whistlecroft, of Stowmarket, in Suffolk, Harness and Collar Makers. Intended to comprise the most Interesting Particulars relating to King Arthur and his Round-Table." Two cantos were published by Mr. Murray in 1817; and a third and fourth rapidly followed. The success was decided; but the poem has been long out of print, and is now among the scarcest books in modern literature.

To attempt to tell the story of a poem which travels backward and forward from knights to giants, and from giants to monks, no sooner interesting you in one set of personages than he casts them off to fly to other scenes and other actors, would be a fruitless task. Who would venture to trace the adventures of the Orlando Furioso? and Mr. Frere, in imitating the "Morgante Maggiore," and other parodies of the great poet of romance, has won for himself the privilege of wandering at pleasure over the whole realm of chivalrous fable, and makes the best use of that privilege by being often picturesque, often amusing, and never wearisome.

The poem opens with a feast given by King Arthur at Carlisle to his knights, who are thus described:

They looked a manly, generous generation,
Beards, shoulders, eyebrows, broad and square and thick;
Their accents firm and loud 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.

Then come the giants, living in a valley near Carlisle. The description of this place affords an excellent opportunity for displaying Mr. Frere's command over a higher order of poetry.

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

A rock was in the center, like a cone
Abruptly rising from a miry pool,
Where they beheld a hill 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 who dwelt in this romantic spot had captured some ladies, whom the knights thought it their duty to deliver. They overcame the grisly warriors as a matter of course, and the state in which they find the fair prisoners is related in a stanza of which the concluding couplet bears some resemblance to a well-known transition in "Don Juan."

The ladies! They were tolerably well,
At least as well as could be well 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 duenna were devoured.

In the third book, according to the universal practice of the Italian poets, the story takes a backward leap, and recounts a previous feud between the giants and the inhabitants of a neighboring monastery. A certain monk, Brother John by name, who had gone out alone to fish in a stream near the Abbey, is luckily enabled to give notice to the brethren of the approach of their enemies. The scene of his sport is finely described.

A mighty current, unconfined and free,
Ran wheedling 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 king-fisher, the branch above her
Hard in the steadfast mirror fixed at me;
Anon the fitful breezes brood and hover
Freshening the surface with a rougher hue;
Spreading, withdrawing, pausing, passing over,
Again returning to retire anew:
So rest and motion in a narrow range
Feasted the sight with joyous interchange.

A stout resistance is made by the monks, and the giants at length withdraw from the scene of action:

And now the gates are opened, and the throng
Forth issuing the deserted camp survey;
"Here Mardomack and Mangone the strong
And Gorbudnek were lodged, and here," they say,
"This pigstye to Poldavy did belong;
Here Roundleback 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 causes multifarious,
To saints, as Jerom, George, and Januarius,

To their own pious founder's intercession,
To Ave-Marias 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, valor, and discretion:
To reliques, rosaries, and holy water;
To beads and psalms, and feats of arms; — in short
There was no end of their accounting for't.

In the last volume of Mr. Lockhart's "Life of Sir Walter Scott," there is a very interesting account of the delight which the great minstrel took to the last in Mr. Frere's spirited versions of the old Spanish ballads. "In speaking of Mr. Frere's translations he 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 be could have done in his best days; placing his walking-stick in rest like a lance, to suit the action to the word." — Extract from Mrs. John Davy's Journal of Sir Walter Scott's residence in Malton.

The following is the passage referred to:

The gates were then thrown open, and forth at once they rushed,
The outposts of the Moorish hosts back to the camp were pushed;
The camp was all in tumult, and there was such a thunder
Of cymbals and of drums, as if earth would cleave in sunder,
There you might see the Moors arming themselves in haste,
And the two main battles how they were pouring past,
Horsemen and footmen mixed, a countless troop and vast...
The Moors are moving forward, the battle soon must join:
"My men stand here in order, ranged upon a line!
Let not a man move from his rank before I give the sign."
Pero Bermuez heard the word, but he could not refrain,
He held the banner in his hand, he gave his horse the rein:
"You see yon foremost squadron there, the thickest of the foes,
Noble Cid, God be your aid, for there your banner goes!
Let him who serves and honors it show the duty that he owes."
Earnestly the Cid called out: "For Heaven's sake be still!"
Bermuez cried, "I can not hold!" so eager was his will.
He spurred his horse and drove him on amid the Moorish rout;
They strove to win the banner, and compassed him about.
Had not his armor been so true, he had lost either life or limb;
The Cid called out again: "For Heaven's sake succor him!"
Their shields before their breasts forth at once they go,
Their lances in the rest leveled fair and low,
Their heads all stooping down toward the saddle-bow.
The Cid was in the midst, his shout was heard afar,
"I am Ruy Dias, the champion of Bivar!
Strike among them, gentlemen, for sweet Mercy's sake!"
Then where Bermuez fought amid the foe they brake;
Three hundred gallant knights, it was a gallant show,
Three hundred Moors they killed, a man at every blow!
When they wheeled and turned, as many more lay slain,
You might see them raise their lances, and level them again,
There you might see the breastplates, how they were cleft in twain,
And many a Moorish shield lie scattered on the plain.
The pennons that were white marked with a crimson stain,
The horses running wild whose riders had been slain.

Mr. Frere's familiarity with Spanish literature probably took its rise from his employment in various diplomatic missions during the Peninsular war; but his great achievement as a translator is of a far higher and more difficult order. The following specimen of his version of "The Frogs" of Aristophanes will show how complete he has contrived to naturalize the wit and humor of the old Athenian dramatist. The passage about "full and equal franchise" might pass for a translation from half a dozen modern languages at the present hour:

RANAE.
CHORUS.
Muse, attend our solemn summons,
And survey the assembled Commons
Congregated as they sit,
An enormous mass of wit,
—Full of genius, taste and fire,
Jealous pride and critic ire—
Cleophon among the rest
(Like the swallow from her nest,
A familiar foreign bird)
Chatters loud and will be heard,
(With the accent and the grace
Which he brought with him from Thrace)
But we fear the tuneful strain
Must be turned to grief and pain;
He must sing a dirge perforce
When his trial takes its course;
We shall hear him moan and wail
Like the plaintive nightingale.
It behooves the sacred Chorus, and of right to them belongs,
To suggest sagacious counsels in their verses and their songs.
In performance of our office we suggest with all humility
A proposal for removing groundless fears and disability;
———*———*———*———*———*———
Better would it be, believe us, casting off revenge and pride,
To receive as friends and kinsmen all that combat on our side
Into full and equal franchise: on the other hand, we fear
If your hearts are filled with fancies, proud, captious and severe,
While the shock of instant danger threatens shipwreck to the State
Such resolves will be lamented and repented of too late.
If the Muse foresees at all
What in future will befall
Dirty Cleiganes the small—
He the scoundrel at the bath—
Will not long escape from scath,
But must perish by and by,
With his potash and his lye,
And his soap and scouring ball,
And his washes, one or all;
Therefore he can never cease
To declaim against a peace.

These two portraits of Cleophon and Cleiganes are so graphic that they might serve H. B. as models for a caricature. What follows introduces the celebrated contest for supremacy between Aeschylus and Euripides. The scene is laid in the Infernal Regions

Enter XANTHIAS and AEACUS.
AEACUS.
By Jupiter! but he's a gentleman,
That master of yours.

XANTHIAS.
A gentleman! to be sure he is;
Why, he does nothing else but wench and drink.

AEACUS.
His never striking you when you took his name—
Outfacing him and contradicting him!

XANTHIAS.
It might have been worse for him if he had.

AEACUS.
Well, that's well spoken, like a true-bred slave.
It's just the sort of language I delight in.

XANHIAS.
You love excuses?

AEACUS.
Yes, but I prefer
Cursing my master quietly in private.

XANTHIAS.
Mischief you're fond of?

AEACUS.
Very fond, indeed.

XANTHIAS.
What think you of muttering as you leave the room
After a beating!

AEACUS.
Why that's pleasant too.

XANTHIAS.
By Jove it is! but listening at the door
To hear their secrets!

AEACUS.
Oh! there's nothing like it!

XANTHIAS.
And then the reporting them in the neighborhood.

AEACUS.
That's beyond every thing, that's quite ecstatic.

XANTHIAS.
Well, give me your hand, and there, take mine, — and buss me,
And there again-and tell me, for Jupiter's sake—
For he's the patron of our kicks and beatings—
What's all that noise and bustle and abuse
Within there?

AEACUS.
Aeschylus and Euripides only.

XANTHIAS.
Ha?

AEACUS.
Why there's a custom we have established
In favor of professors of the arts.
When any one, the first man in his line
Comes down among us here, he stands entitled
To privilege and precedence, with a seat
At Pluto's royal board.

XANTHIAS.
I understand you.

AEACUS.
So he maintains it, till there comes a better
Of the same sort, and then resigns it up.

XANTHIAS.
But why should Aeschylus be disturbed at this?

AEACUS.
He held the seat for Tragedy, as being master
In that profession.

XANTHIAS.
Well, and who's there now?

AEACUS.
He kept it till Euripides appeared;
But he collected audiences about him,
And flourished and exhibited and harangued
Before the thieves, and housebreakers, and rogues,
Cut-purses, cheats and vagabonds and villains,
That make the mass of population here;
And they — being quite transported and delighted
With all his subtleties, and niceties,
Equivocations, quibbles and so forth,
Evasions and objections and replies,—
In short-they raised an uproar, and declared him
Arch poet, by a general acclamation.
And he with this grew proud and confident,
And laid a claim to the seat where Aeschylus sate.

XANTHIAS.
And did he not get pelted for his pains?

AEACUS.
Why, no. — The mob called out, and it was carried
To have a public trial of skill between them.

XANHIAS.
You mean the mob of scoundrels that you mentioned?

AEACUS.
Scoundrels, indeed! Ay, scoundrels without number.

XANTHIAS.
But Aeschylus must have good friends and hearty.

AEACUS.
Yes; but good men are scarce, both here and elsewhere.

XANTHIAS.
Well, what has Pluto settled to have done?

AEACUS.
To have a trial and examination
In public.

XANTHIAS.
But how comes it, Sophocles?
Why does not he put in his claim among them?

AEACUS.
No, no, not he! — the moment he came down here
He went up and saluted Aeschylus,
And kissed his cheek and took his hand quite kindly;
And Aeschylus edged a little from his chair
To give him room; so now, the story goes,
(At least I had it from Cleidemides,)
He means to attend there as a stander-by,
Professing to take up the conqueror.
If Aeschylus gets the better, — well and good,
He gives up his pretensions; — but, if not
He'll stand a trial, he says, against Euripides.

It is impossible for any translator to give a more perfect rendering of comedy. The facility, the flow, the living, breathing, chattering impudence of the two slaves is inimitable, lively and true. It may be doubted if Sheridan know much about Aristo phanes, but following the same great model, Nature, he has produced a companion scene to this dialogue in the opening of "The Rivals." The compliment to Sophocles and Aeschylus is very graceful. Bacchus, the appointed judge, now enters, accompanied by the rival bands, and the contest begins.

CHORUS.
Here beside you, here are we
Eager all to hear and see
This abstruse and curious battle
Of profound and learned prattle,
—But as it appears to me,
Thus the course of it will be;
That the junior and appellant
Will advance as the assailant,
Aiming shrewd satiric darts
At his rival's noble parts,
And, with sallies sharp and keen,
Try to wound him in the spleen;
While the veteran sends and raises
Rifted rough uprooted phrases.
Wields them like a thrashing staff,
And dispels the dust and chaff.

BACCHUS.
Come now begin and speak away; but first I give you warning
That all your language and discourse must be genteel and clever
Without abusive similes, or common vulgar joking.

EURIPIDES.
At the first outset I forbear to state my own pretensions;
Hereafter I shall mention them when his have been refuted;
And after I have proved and shown how he abused and cheated
The rustic audience that he found, which Phrygia has bequeathed him.
He planted first upon the stage a figure veiled and muffled,
An Achilles or a Niobe that never showed their faces,
But kept a tragic attitude without a word to utter.

BACCHUS.
No more they did: it's very true.

EURIPIDES.
In the meanwhile the Chorus
Strung on ten strophes right an end, but they remained in silence.

BACCHUS.
I liked that silence well enough; as well perhaps or better
Than those new talking characters.

EURIPIDES.
That's from your want of judgment,
Believe me.

BACCHUS.
Why perhaps it is; — but what was his intention?

EURIPIDES.
Why mere conceit and insolence; — to keep the people waiting
Till Niobe should deign to speak, to drive his drama forward.

BACCHUS.
O what a rascal! Now I see the tricks he used to play me.
[To Aeschylus, who is showing signs of indignation by various contortions.]
—What makes you writhe and wince about?

EURIPIDES.
Because he feels my censures.
Then having dragged and drawled along half-way to the conclusion
He foisted in a dozen words of noisy boisterous accent,
With "nodding plumes and shaggy brows," mere bugbears of the language,
That no man ever heard before.

AESCHYLUS.
Alas! alas!

BACCHUS. [to Aeschylus.]
Have done there!

EURIPIDES.
His words were never clear or plain.

BACCHUS. [to Aeschylus.]
Don't grind your teeth so strangely.

EURIPIDES.
But Bulwarks and Scamanders, and Hippogrifs, and Gorgons,
"Embossed on brazen bucklers" and grim remorseless phrases
Which nobody could understand.

BACCHUS.
Well, I confess for my part,
I used to keep awake at night, conjecturing and guessing
To think what kind of foreign bird he meant by Griffin-horses.

AESCHYLUS.
A figure on the heads of ships; you goose, you must have seen them.

BACCHUS.
I took it for Philoserus, for my part, from the likeness.

EURIPIDES.
So! figures from the heads of ships are fit for tragic diction.

AESCHYLUS.
Well then, thou paltry wretch, explain —What were thy own devices?

EURIPIDES.
Not stories about flying stags, like yours, and griffin-horses;
Nor terms nor images derived from tapestry Persian hangings.
When I received the Muse from you, I found her puffed and pampered
With pompous sentences and terms, a cumbrous huge virago.
My first attention was applied to make her look genteelly,
And bring her to a moderate bulk by dint of lighter diet.
I fed her with plain household phrase, and cool familiar salad,
With water-gruel episode, with sentimental jelly,
With moral mince-meat; till at length I brought her within compass:
Cephisophon, who was my cook, contrived to make them relish.
I kept my plots distinct and clear; and to prevent confusion
My leading characters rehearsed their pedigrees for prologues.

AESCHYLUS.
'Twas well at least that you forbore to quote your own extraction.

(This is a most characteristic bit of Athenian malice. Euripides was illegitimate.)

EURIPIDES.
From the first opening of the scene, all persons were in action:
The master spoke, the slave replied; — the women, old and young ones,
All had their equal share of talk.

AESCHYLUS.
Come then, stand forth and tell us
What forfeit less than death is due for such an innovation?

EURIPIDES.
I did it upon principle, from democratic motives.

BACCHUS.
Take care, my friend; upon that ground your footing is but ticklish.

EURIPIDES.
I taught these youths to speechify.

AESCHYLUS.
I say so too. Moreover
I say, that for the public good, you ought to have been hanged first.

EURIPIDES.
The rules and forms of rhetoric; the laws of composition;
To prate, to state, and in debate to meet a question fairly;
At a dead lift to turn and shift; to make a nice distinction.

AESCHYLUS.
I grant it all; I make it all my ground of accusation.

EURIPIDES.
The whole in cases and concerns, occurring and recurring,
At every turn and every day, domestic and familiar;
So that the audience, one and all, from personal experience,
Were competent to judge the piece and forth a fair opinion
Whether my scenes and sentiments agreed with truth and nature.
I never took them by surprise, to storm their understandings
With Memnons and Zydides's and idle rattle-trappings
Of battle-steeds and clattering shields, to scare them from their senses.
But for a test (perhaps the best) our pupils and adherents
May be distinguished instantly by person and behavior;
His are Pharmisius the rough, Meganetes the gloomy,
Hobgoblin-headed, trumpet-mouthed, grim-visaged, ugly-bearded;
But mine are Cleitophon the smooth, Theromenes the gentle.

BACCHUS.
Theromenes! a clever hand, an universal genius;
I never found him at a loss, in all the turns of party,
To change his watch-word at a word, or at a moment's warning.

EURIPIDES.
Thus it was that I began
With a nicer, neater plan;
Teaching men to look about,
Both within doors and without;
To direct their own affairs
And their house and household wares;
Marking every thing amiss—
"Where is that? and What is this?
This is broken — That is gone;"—
'Tis the system and the tone.

BACCHUS.
Yes, by Jove and now we see
Citizens of each degree,
That the moment they come in
Raise an uproar and a din,
Rating all the servants round:
"If it's lost it must be found.
Why was all the garlic wasted?
There that honey has been tasted;
And these olives pilfered here.
Where's the pot we bought last year?
What's become of all the fish?
Which of you has broke the dish?"
Thus it is; but heretofore
They sat them down to doze and snore.

Nothing is more remarkable in this scene than the skill with which the poet has made Euripides, all along the chief object of his satire, expose his own faults in the very speeches in which he affects to magnify his merits. The translation is far above my praise, but as a woman privileged to avow her want of learning, it may be permitted to express the gratitude which the whole sex owes to the late illustrious scholar, who has enabled us to penetrate to the heart of one of the scholar's deepest mysteries; and to become acquainted with something more than the name of Aristophanes.