1804 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Ellis

Walter Scott, in Review of Ellis, Specimens of Early English Poetry; Edinburgh Review 4 (April 1804) 151-53, 162-63.



The first edition of this interesting work appeared in 1790, comprising in one volume many of the most beautiful small poems which had appeared during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The plan was certainly worthy of being enlarged; and accordingly, in the second edition, published about a year ago, and rapidly disposed of, as well as in that which is now before us, it has received such considerable additions, that the work has increased to thrice the original size; and Mr. Ellis has established his claim to the character of an original author, as well as to that of a judicious collector and editor of the forgotten poems of antiquity. The first volume contains the preliminary historical sketch of the rise and progress of English poetry and language; the second and third are occupied by those specimens which give name to the whole. We shall endeavour successively to analyse the contents, and examine the merits, of these two divisions of the work.

It is obvious to every one who has studied our language, whether in prose or poetry, that a luminous history of its rise and progress must necessarily involve more curious topics of discussion than a similar work upon any other European langauge. This opinion has not its source in national partiality, but is dictated by the very peculiar circumstances under which the English language was formed. The other European tongues, such as at least have been adapted to the purposes of literature, may be divided into two grand classes — those which are derived from the Teutonic, and those which are formed upon the Latin. In the former class, we find the German, the Norse, the Swedish, the Danish, and the Low-Dutch, all of which, in words and construction, are dialects of the Teutonick, and preserve the general character of their common source, although enriched and improved by terms of art or of science adopted from the learned languages, or from those of other kingdoms of civilized Europe. The second class comprehends the Italian, the Spanish, and the French in all its branches. It is true, the last of these has, in modern times, owing to the number of French writers in every class and upon every subject, departed farther from its original than the two others; but still the ground-work is the Latin; and the more nearly any specimen approaches to it, it may safely be concluded to be the more ancient; for in truth, we know no other rule for ascertaining the antiquity of any particular piece in the "Romanz" language, than by its greater or slighter resemblance to the speech of the ancient Romans, from which it derives its name. Thus every language of civilized Europe is formed of a uniform pattern and texture, either upon the Teutonick, or upon the Latin. But the same chance which has peopled Britain with such a variety of tribes and nations, that we are at a loss to conceive how they should have met upon the same spot — and that, comparatively, a small one — has decreed that the language of Locke and of Shakespeare should claim no peculiar affinity to either of these grand sources of European speech; and that if, on the one hand, its conformation and construction be founded on a dialect of the Teutonick, the greater number of its vocables should, on the other, be derived from the Romanz, or corrupted Latin of the Normans. It is interesting to observe how long these languages, uncongenial in themselves, and derived from sources widely different, continued to exist separately, and to be spoken respectively by the Anglo-Norman conquerors and the vanquished Anglo-Saxons. It is still more interesting to observe how, after having long flowed each in its separate channel, they at length united and formed a middle dialect, which, though employed at first for the mere purpose of convenience and mutual intercourse betwixt the two nations, at length superseded the individual speech of both, and became the apt record of poetry and of philosophy.

The history of poetry is intimately connected with that of language. Authors in the infancy of composition, like Pope in that of life, may be said to "lisp in numbers." History, religion, morality, whatever tends to agitate or to sooth the passions, is, during the earlier stages of society, celebrated in verse. This may be partly owing to the ease with which poetry is retained upon the memory, in those ruder ages, when written monuments, if they at all exist, are not calculated to promote general information; and it may be partly owing to that innate love of song, and sensibility to the charms of flowing numbers, which is distinguishable even among the most savage people. But, whatever be the cause, the effect is most certain; the early works of all nations have been written in verse, and the history of their poetry is the history of the language itself. It therefore seems surprising, that, where the subject is interesting in a peculiar as well as in a general point of view, a distinct and connected history of our poetry, and of the language in which it is written, should so long have been a desideratum in English literature; and the wonder becomes greater when we recollect, that an attempt to supply the deficiency was long since made by a person who seemed to unite every quality necessary for the task.

The late Mr. Warton, with a poetical enthusiasm which converted toil into pleasure, and gilded, to himself and his readers, the dreary subjects of antiquarian lore, with a capacity of labour apparently inconsistent with his more brilliant powers, has produced a work of great size, and, partially speaking, of great interest, from the perusal of which we rise, our fancy delighted with beautiful imagery, and with the happy analysis of ancient tale and song, but certainly with very vague ideas of the history of English poetry. The error seems to lye in a total neglect of plan and system; for, delighted with every interesting topic which occurred, the historical poet pursued it to its utmost verge, without considering that these digressions, however beautiful and interesting in themselves, abstracted alike his own attention, and that of the reader, from the professed purpose of his book. Accordingly, Warton's history of English poetry has remained, and will always remain, an immense common-place book of memoirs to serve for such an history. No antiquary can open it, without drawing information from a mine which, though dark, is inexhaustible in its treasures; nor will he who reads merely for amusement ever shut it for lack of attaining his end; while both may probably regret the desultory excursions of an author, who wanted only system, and a more rigid attention to minute accuracy, to have perfected the great task he has left incomplete.

It is therefore with no little pleasure that we see a man of taste and talents advance to supply the deficiency in so interesting a branch of our learning; a task, to which Johnson was unequal through ignorance of our poetical antiquities, and in which Warton failed, perhaps, because he was too deeply enamoured of them. This is the arduous attempt of Mr. Ellis; and it remains to inquire how he has executed it....

From the works of voluminous authors Mr. Ellis has selected such passages as might give the best general idea of their manner; but he has also been indefatigable in seeking out all such beautiful smaller pieces as used to form the little collections, called, in the quaint language of the times, Garlands. His own work may be considered as a new garland of withered roses. The list concludes with the reign of Charles II. The publication seems to have been made with the strictest attention to accuracy, except that, throughout the whole, the spelling is reduced to the measure of the more rigid antiquaries. For our part, as all the antique words are carefully retained and accurately interpreted, we do not think that, in a popular work, intelligibility should be sacrificed to the preservation of a rude and uncertain orthography. As an example of the amatory style of Charles the First's reign, from which our later poetasters have securely pilfered for their mistress's use so many locks of gold and teeth of pearl, not to mention roses and lilies, we insert the following song from Carew.

Ask me no more where Jove bestows,
When June is past, the fading rose;
For in your beauty's orient deep,
These flowers as in their causes sleep.

Ask me no more whither do stray
The golden atoms of the day;
For in pure love heaven did prepare
Those powders to enrich your hair.

Ask me no more whither doth haste
The nightingale, when May is past;
For in your sweet dividing throat
She winters, and keeps warm her note.

Ask me no more where those stars light,
That downward fall at dead of night;
For in your eyes they set, and there
Fixed become as in their sphere.

Ask me no more if east or west
The phoenix builds her spicy nest;
For unto you at last she flies,
And in your fragrant bosom dies.

It only remains to mention, that there are prefixed to these volumes two accurate lists of English poets, one chronological, and the other alphabetical, from 1230 to 1650; and that there is an Essay at the conclusion, in which the author's opinions concerning the origin of language is condensed and recapitulated.