1911 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Brown

George Saintsbury, in History of English Literary Criticism (1911) 209-10.



A few allusions, in contemporaries of abiding fame, have kept half alive the name — though very few, save specialists, are likely to be otherwise than accidentally acquainted with the work — of John Brown of Newcastle, author of the once famous Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times, and afterwards, when he had gained reputation by this, of a Dissertation on the Rise of Poetry and Music, later still slightly altered, and re-christened History of the Rise and Progress of Poetry. The Estimate itself is one of those possibly half-conscious pieces of quackery which from time to time put (in a manner which somehow or other tickles the longer ears among their contemporaries) the old cry that everything is rotten in the state of Denmark. There is not much in it that is directly literary; the chief point of the kind is an attack on the Universities: it may be noted that quacks generally do attack Universities. The Dissertation-History is a much less clap-trap piece, but far more amusing to read. Brown is one of those rash but frank persons who attempt creation as well as criticism; and those who will may hear how

Peace on Nature's lap reposes [why not vice versa?]
Pleasure strews her guiltless roses,

and so forth. The difference of the two forms is not important. In the second, Brown simply left out Music, so far as he could, as appealing to a special public only. He believes in Ossian, then quite new. He thinks it contains "Pictures which no civilised modern could ever 'imbibe' in their strength, nor consequently could ever 'throw out'" — an image so excessively Georgian (putting aside the difficulty of imbibing a picture) that one has to abbreviate comment on it. For the rest, Brown rejoices, and wallows, in the naturalistic generalisation of his century. He begins, of course, with the Savage State, lays it down that, at religious and other festivals, men danced and sang, that then organised professional effort supplemented unorganised, and so poets arose. Then comes a sort of Established Choir, whence the various kinds are developed. And we have the Chinese — the inevitable Chinese — Fow-hi, and Chao-hao, and all their trumpery. Negligible as an authority, Brown perhaps deserves to rank as a symptom.