1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Joseph Spence

Anonymous, "Advertisement" Spence, Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters, of Books and Men, ed. Malone (1820) iii-vii.



Perhaps there never was a literary collection existing only in Manuscript, with which the public appear to be so familiar as the present one of SPENCE'S ANECDOTES; for since the days of Warton and Johnson, who were first permitted the use of this literary curiosity, it has been frequently referred to for many interesting particulars respecting some modern authors; but its miscellaneous nature, by enlarging its sphere of amusement, remains to be discovered.

In one respect the present transcript from the manuscript may be considered as preferable to the original itself; for where information on the same subject lies scattered and unconnected, and sometimes repeated, its completeness will be apt to escape from those who cannot take in the dependent parts at one view. It was to obtain this purpose that the present copy was carefully arranged by the late Mr. MALONE, who has also added some notes, and preserved others of SPENCE. Mr. MALONE is indeed the true Editor of this Work; it is well known that his taste for literary anecdotes was keen, and his skill in literary history excelled that of any man of letters of his day.

The great value of the present collection must always rest on its authenticity; every particular is sanctioned by the name of the speaker; and from that simplicity of taste and minute correctness which mark the character of the writer, we may confidently infer, that as he never embellishes, he scrupulously delivers the identical language of the speaker.

It is rarely that men of some eminence themselves have shown that true sensibility for genius, as to write down what can only confer fame on another; although our own literature is distinguished above that of every other, by a monument of this nature which may excite our admiration as much as our gratitude. Authentic works, similar to SPENCE'S ANECDOTES, are precious, not only to the historian of literature, but of the human mind; the conversations of the eminent person will always be found to reflect not only his own character, but an image of the times. Can we read Luther's "Familiar Discourses," without discovering the simplicity and ardour of the age, in that Monk who, while emancipating Germany from the Papacy, was himself so often frightened by a number of delusions, that one day he ventured to fling his ink-stand at the Devil? In Selden, the age of erudition, of turbulent changes and of unsettled opinions, communicate a weight of thought, a depth of research, and an acuteness of disputation, which we cannot read too often in his "Table-Talk."

SPENCE lived in an age when Taste first appeared among us, and Literature first began to diffuse itself among the nation. By his habits a man of letters; by his skill a classical and elegant critic; and by the sweetness of his manners and perpetual curiosity, SPENCE was well adapted to promote, as well as to record the many conversations he has preserved for posterity. Pope was "the god of his idolatry," for Pope was the creator of an epoch in our literature. This period was a transition from one age to another. The immortal writer had to open an age of taste and correctness, and to develope the arts of composition; he had to teach us to learn to think; he had to escape from our native but undisciplined invention, and to restrain our prurient imagination in conception and expression; and to polish a diction colloquially feeble or unskilfully perplexed. Literature assumed a new form; the triumphs and the factions of literature arose with the interests they excited in the public feelings, but the progress of his own works was an object, not only of his egotism, but of the curiosity of other men, and the delight of the retentive fondness of SPENCE.

Some indulgence may however be claimed for one portion of SPENCE'S ANECDOTES; in the literary class the reader will find many with which he is not unacquainted; but if they appear to him as twice-told, he must recollect that SPENCE was the first teller.

The reader shall no longer be detained in this passage of a Preface; he has now only to open the door, and he will find Pope in a very conversible humour, by his parlour fire-side.