1795 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Seward

Anna Seward to William Seward, 17 May 1795; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 4:53-58.



Lichfield, May 17, 1795.

I ought more immediately to have thanked you for your obliging present of the Anecdotes of distinguished Persons; but I am not in health, and you know the languid inexertion which the absence of that prime blessing creates. [Scott's note: At that time, the author had no suspicion that those anecdotes were Mr. Seward's, since he had disingenuously told her they were written by a friend of his.]

Several of these anecdotes are curious and amusing as to matter, though defective in that grace of style, that vivacity and happiness of manner in narration, which gives interest to trivial communications, while it throws added lustre upon those which are in themselves striking and important.

Dr Johnson, whose sophistry in criticism has been fatal to the general poetic taste of this period, elevated the style of prose composition much above the water-gruel mark. His splendid example demonstrates, that efflorescence and strength of language united, are necessary to form the perfection of writing in prose as well as in verse; and the brilliant diction of Gibbon and Berrington, equally proves the dull mistake of supposing a plain unornamented style necessary, even to history itself.

Johnson's Tour to the Hebrides shows us the possibility of giving, by the graces of language, an exquisite charm to many observations and descriptions, which, without those verbal graces, would disgust by their want of essential importance. If he had plainly told us, that the channels of the rivers and of the brooks in the Highlands were much wider than the streams that occupied them at the season he travelled through those tracks; — that such disproportionate breadth of channel was occasioned by the frequent and sudden floods; — and that such depth and rapidity after rain, combined with their general shallowness to prevent their containing fish: we should certainly have thought the information dully unimportant, and have probably exclaimed — "Pshaw! who knows not that the generally shallow streams of mountainous countries, often deep by flood, must, in dry seasons, have larger beds than they fill, and cannot possibly sustain fish?" But who, that is not insensible to the magic of fine style, can read the information without delight, as he thus imparts it?

"We passed many rivers and rivulets which commonly ran, with a clear shallow stream, over an hard pebbly bottom. These channels, which seem so much wider than the water they convey would naturally require, are formed by the violence of wintry floods, produced by the accumulation of innumerable streams that fall from the hills, and bursting away, with resistless impetuosity, make themselves a passage proportioned to their mass.

"Such capricious and temporary waters cannot be expected to produce fish. The rapidity of the wintry deluge sweeps them away, and the scantiness of the summer stream would hardly sustain them above the ground. This is the reason why, in fording the northern rivers, no fishes are seen, as in England, wandering in the water."

By the picturesque power of the numerous epithets, in the first sentence, we are placed on the brink of those currents, while they are hurrying through their broad and stony channel, and we seem to stand amidst the wild scenes through which they flow. In the second, the image of the more vital English rivers and brooks is brought distinctly to the eye, by that fine poetic expression, "wandering in the water."

The compiler of the anecdotes you sent me has admitted several to which scarcely the utmost elegance of traditionary detail could have given interest; such as the theft of Sydenham's tankard of small beer, with the sprig of rosemary in it. I wonder this compiler was not afraid that Iago's distich should be applied to himself:

He was a wight, if such a wight there were,
To suckle fools, and chronicle small-beer.

He has given us other anecdotes which are trite and universally known. Of Madame le Valiere, he has told us nothing but what may be found in every history of the court of Louis the XIV., with which all the world is familiar.

That strange incredible tale of the two-bodied monster that lived twenty-seven years, and attained excellence in music, disgraces Buchanan, from whose authority it is quoted, whether received as a possible fact, or despised as a falsehood. If that writer really saw, and knew all that is here related of that prodigy, it was stupid in the extreme not to have said a great deal more on the subject; — not to have examined, and clearly explained, whether the creature had absolutely two souls as well as two bodies — whether each could converse, and separately impart their different ideas to others. By saying that they often disputed about their food, it should seem that there were two souls in this monster; — but upon a subject so extraordinary, Buchanan owed it to himself as a philosopher, to investigate, and to the public as an historian, to impart.

I do not like the servile adulation to the fame of Johnson as a critic on poetry, which is so perpetually introduced in this work. It becomes no lover of literature, since, to the memory of the shining poetic lights of Great Britain, it is that species of ingratitude of which Lear so forcibly expresses his feeling, when he exclaims to his second daughter, "O Regan! wilt thou take her by the hand?" — Least of all does such indiscriminate homage become a Scotish gentleman — and such, you told me at Buxton, was the compiler of these anecdotes. I am obliged to him for his complimentary mention of me, when he name my father as rector of Eyam.

Yet you must not suppose that I mean to deny there being a great deal of just and very fine criticism in Johnson's lives of the Poets; — but since there is so much that is false, absurd, and injurious, it must disgrace the understanding and sensibility of every person, who bestows upon that work unqualled praise.

Few of your old acquaintance are left in Lichfield; but Mr. Saville and his daughter are still the living memorials of pleasanter days. They and my cousins, White, commission me with compliments. The younger Mr. White stands on the matrimonial brink, and with no hesitating foot; — every thing is determined. His choice, Miss Remmington, "of the dark-brown eyes;" I know not if you remember her.

Better health, has, I trust been yours, than has fallen to my lot, since I had the pleasure of meeting you at Buxton two years ago, and the honour of being taken for your sister, from a supposed personal resemblance. — Adieu!