1737 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edward Bysshe

William Oldys, in The British Muse (1737) 1:xiv-xvi.



This error of the last author [Joshua Poole] was avoided by the next compiler, Mr. Bysshe, who, however, pursues the general design of the former's Parnassus, and therefore calls his work, The Art of English Poetry. This is also divided into three parts, of which two are "Rules for making verses," and a "dictionary of rhymes," which he terms, "The mechanick tools of a poet." His having furnished so many weak heads with those "tools," has certainly given more "temptations of versifying to such, as, in spite of nature, have mistaken their fondness to rhyme, or necessity of writing, for a true genius of poetry, and lawful call of Apollo," than, he tells us, "he should be willing to have laid to his charge." I shall not object to some mistakes he has made concerning the composition, or, as he calls it, the cadence of our verse; nor to others, concerning the antiquity of some kinds of it, because they have been observed already. But it may be said of the third, and much greater part of this work, which, he calls "A Collection of the most natural and sublime Thoughts in the best English Poets," that, though it is in general a better collection than had appeared before, a great part of it does not consist of the thoughts of the English, but of the Greek and Roman poets, translations in every body's hands. Besides which, whole topicks contain only trite fabulous descriptions, extracted from the mythology of the ancients, which are still more abundant in the larger collections he afterwards published of the same kind. Things of that nature may be proper to teach youth what is called learning at school; but the maxims, sentiments, and reflections best adapted to form the manners, direct the conduct, and enlarge the minds of men, though the could not entirely escape our author's plan, are far from being the principal objects of it. And, indeed, the manners and sentiments of his readers are not properly the objects of his research, but their improvement in "the art" he pretends to teach; which makes him solely intent on flights of imagination, flowing numbers, easy diction, and happiness of colouring. Hence, when he says our best "English" poets, he means only the "modern;" for, says he, "Though Spenser, and some other of the ancients, have not been excelled, nor, perhaps, equalled by their successors, in justness of description, or propriety and greatness of thought; yet their language is now become so obsolete, that most readers, of our age, have no ear for them: And therefore Shakespear himself is so rarely cited in this collection." This is but an indifferent compliment to the "readers of our age," and seems, in making them sacrifice dignity of wit, and energy of sense to sound and colour, to be placing them upon of level with some of our modern fine ladies, who estimate their admirers by their dress and equipage, and not their merit and understanding.