1798 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Henry John Todd

Anna Seward to Henry John Todd, 19 October 1798; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 5:157-60.



Lichfield, Oct. 19, 1798.

I thank you, Sir, for the literary present with which you have honoured me. This rich edition of Comus will be dear to every mind, susceptible of local impressions, and interested in those circumstances which are connected with the pursuits, feelings, and compositions of illustrious genius, who wish to see them cleared from the dark shadows of time. The unwearied energy of your researches has removed those shadows.

All who delight in tracing a great author to his sources, and in observing the congeniality between exalted minds, where resemblance of thought and expression is, from its slightness, perhaps rather coincident than imitative, will not only read, but often recur to your ingenious and learned volume. Such readers will honour the author for his extensive knowledge of English poetry, and for the discriminating justice of his critical remarks. They will be grateful to him for the valuable additions he has made to the affluence of Mr. T. Warton's poetic illustrations. Your preface to this happily elaborate compilation is admirable.

The triumph of classic vanity over his better judgment, often betrayed Milton into Pagan allusions in the Paradise Lost, highly improper in a poem whose subject was of such consecrated sanctity. In Lycidas, he has so finely managed, and so sweetly apologized for the mixture of mythology, that he converts a fault into a beauty; — but it is not so in that local anachronism in Comus, where the attendant spirit would endow the Severn with the properties of Pactolus.

In Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess, Amoret's votive address to the river is surely much more beautiful from its accurate simplicity, however that in Comus may excel it in the grandeur of harmonic numbers. Fletcher's is doubtless an imitation of the similar invocation in the yet older poet, Brown, whom, rather than Fletcher, I should think Milton imitated; but Fletcher, in his imitation of the same writer, has shewn a more just taste than his greater successor, by abstaining from the fault of his model, the invocation of impossible gifts.

You mention the late Headly's work with more distinction than I think it merits. The author's bigotted preference of the first rude blocks of English poetry to the finished statues which later writers carved from them, is surely contemptible. He quarrels with those later writers, and with the moderns, for just ornaments and fertile extension, yet passes no censure on that stiff infelicity of expression, on the quaintness, the quibbling, and the playing with an idea, as a cat plays with a mouse; on the utter want of harmonious flow in the numbers, which characterize our verse from Chaucer's time till Spenser's; and Spenser's sonnets and madrigals, as well as the detached poems of our immortal Shakespeare, are strongly tinctured with them — neither, a little later still, did Cowley and Davenant escape their infection.

Headly mistook awkwardness for simplicity. He had the stupid arrogance to call, in his volume, the most interesting love-poem in our, or perhaps in any language, the Henry and Emma, Matt's versification-piece, preferring to it the old ballad, which has little merit, except that it suggested the plan to Prior, and furnished him with some embryo ideas, awakened into life and beauty by a Promethean pen. The exquisite poem is entirely Prior's own; and, besides its intrinsic excellence, how infinitely does it increase the interest of the dialogue!

He who could complain of extension, when all the constituent properties of fine poetry, lofty sentiment, poetic landscape, graceful picture, and the natural and pathetic effusions of an impassioned heart, produce that extension, is just as competent to poetic criticism, as a man would be to write upon statuary and painting, who prefers a carved barber's block to the Apollo Belvidere, or Mother Redcap on a sign-post to the Madona of Raphael.

I have the honour to remain, Sir, &c.