1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Nathaniel Lee

Anonymous, in Retrospective Review 3 (1821) 241.



His cotemporaries gave him a bad name, and it sticks to him. Yet, with their censures, there was a not undeserved mixture of praise and popularity. Unfortunately, for his fame, a school of wits and critics was then forming, from which no mercy, no justice was to be expected for a poet, however worthy of the name, whose failings were of that class which is most prominent in his compositions. He began with that fantastic, wild, and gorgeous creature, the Heroic Play, and afterwards closely approximated to the good old English Drama; but in the reign of Queen Anne, or rather in the reign of Addison and Pope, who cared for either, except as a laughing stock? As soon as the sovereignty of regularity, polish, and tameness, was proclaimed, he was attainted of treason and condemned. Cato and Alexander could not breathe the same atmosphere. This was, however, "greatly falling with a falling state," for the revolution of taste was complete. Classical models, drest up in French fashions, were enshrined in the temples, from which the native gods of our idolatry were cast to the moles and the bats. People became too nice to muddy their fingers, even to pick up diamonds. Genius was apprenticed to a dancing-master, to make him measure his steps; and Nature taught by a fashionable milliner, how to compress her waist and carry her arms. The noble bonfire, which used to blaze in gunpowder-plot times, was extinguished, and that neat, little, coloured, silver-mounted, wax taper of poesy kindled, of which the last snuff has gone out with Mr. Hayley. Through this period, Lee has the honour of having been occasionally condemned, and generally neglected; and he has it in common with most of those great original writers, who have since, as it were, risen from the dead, to give a new and glorious impulse to the human mind.