1785 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Warton

Anna Seward to Court Dewes, 30 March 1785; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 1:50-54.



March 30, 1785.

Yes, my dear Sir, our great Laureat is indeed a critic, who, if not unexceptionably judicious, does infinite honour to a profession which so many disgrace. His illustrations and decisions are generally the result of a penetrating judgment and a refined that; united with a long, industrious, and fortunate study of the poetic art. This admirable work, his edition of Milton's Juvenile poems, with that great mass of fine criticism contained in the notes, ought to recal the opinions of the public from the anarchy into which they have been thrown concerning the claims of the British poets, by the misleading sophistry of Johnson in his Lives, and by the fastidious trash of his modern imitators. While the former perplex and dazzle the ingenious, the latter destroy every thing like taste and feeling in the common reader. Thus is the science, and thus are its votaries, — "fallen on evil days and evil tongues." May the powers of Mr. Warton clear the times from their darkness.

Admirable as this work is, it often carries the charge of imitation upon Milton vastly too far, and sometimes to a ridiculous excess. Among many real proofs which it brings, that Comus frequently imitates Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess, one cannot but smile when such charges of plagiarism as the following are brought against a great bard:

Canst thou not tell me of a gentle pair. — Comus

So Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess,

A gentle pair have promised equal love.

Mr. Warton adds, "other petty pilferings of the same sort might be pointed out, which prove Milton's familiarity with Fletcher's play." Now, if an author may be convicted of theft upon such evidences, it will be impossible for the most original genius to produce ten, perhaps two lines, that shall not be equally exposed with Milton's, in this instance, to the charge of pilfering. I thought of the mote and the beam, when I saw Mr. Warton, observing that "Milton's expression, 'clad in complete steel,' is supposed to have been borrowed from Hamlet;" — that "critics must shew their reading by quoting books; but that it was merely an expression, in common use, to signify being armed from head to foot."

Now, certainly,"clad in complete steel," is a more striking arrangement of words, and has much more probability of having been borrowed from Shakespeare, than that the simple and usual expression, "gentle pair," should have been stolen from Fletcher.

When passages from various writers resemble each other, we impute such resemblance, according to the degree of its strength, either to coincidence, imitation, or plagiarism. Even the best critics, as Mr. Warton evinces in his own. example, are too apt to charge ideas and expressions upon imitation and theft, which might fairly be supposed to result from a coincidence.

However, if Mr. Warton be too prone to believe that the rich and plenteous imagination of Milton was perpetually stooping to glean from others, he has fully convicted Pope of "sprinkling over his Eloisa with epithets and phrases of new form and sound, pilfered from Comus and Ii Penseroso:"

And storied windows, richly dight,
Casting a dim religious light — Il Pen.
And the dim windows shed a solemn light. — Elo. to A.
By grots and caverns, shagg'd with horrid shade. — Comus.
Ye grots and caverns, shagg'd with horrid thorn! — Eloisa.

With other instances as flagrant. Here, indeed, is likeness too strong to be the offspring of coincidence; and, indeed, it is often so in many of Milton's passages. Mr. Warton demonstrates, that the general plan of L'Allegro, II Penseroso, was suggested to Milton by a now-forgotten work of one Burton. Curious is the examination of those rough materials of Burton's, upon which Milton has built such a beauteous edifice.

Mr. Warton's two last notes on L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, are some of the most exquisite writing I ever beheld; and the last sentence but one in his preface, is of the sublimest species that oratory has been known to produce. I read them with the same thrill of delight, that the poetry on which they comment inspires; but by what miracle of misconception is it, that be pronounces Milton to have had a had ear!!

Nothing can be more just than Mr. Warton's observation that, "in reading verse, it is better to rest on a general idea, resulting from the whole, when that idea is sufficiently seen, than to seek for the precise meaning of parts." The author might, I think, have extended this rule to every work of imagination, whether in verse or prose.