1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Joseph Beaumont

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 2:309-10.



This writer, though little known, appears to us to stand as high almost as any name in the present volume, and we are proud to reprint here some considerable specimens of his magnificent poetry.

Joseph Beaumont was sprung from a collateral branch of the ancient family of the Beaumonts, that family from which sprung Sir John Beaumont, the author of Bosworth Field, and Francis Beaumont, the celebrated dramatist. He was born at Hadleigh, in Suffolk. Of his early life nothing is known. He received his education at Cambridge, where, during the Civil War, he was fellow and tutor of Peterhouse. Ejected by the Republicans from his offices, he retired to Hadleigh, and spent his time in the composition of his magnum opus, Psyche. This poem appeared in 1648; and in 1702, three years after the author's death, his son published a second edition, with numerous corrections, and the addition of four cantos by the author. Beaumont also wrote several minor pieces in English and Latin, a controversial tract in reply to Henry More's Mystery of Godliness, and several theological works which are still in MS., according to a provision in his will to that effect. Peace and perpetuity to their slumbers!

After the Restoration, our author was not only reinstated in his former situations, but received from his patron, Bishop Wren, several valuable pieces of preferment besides. Afterwards, he exercised successively the offices of Master of Jesus and of Peterhouse, and was King's Professor of Divinity from 1670 to 1699. In the latter year he died.

While praising the genius of Beaumont, we are far from commending his Psyche, either as an artistic whole, or as a readable book. It is, sooth to say, a dull allegory, in twenty-four immense cantos, studded with the rarest beauties. It is considerably longer than the Faery Queen, nearly four times the length of the Paradise Lost, and five or six times as long as the Excursion. To read it through now-a-days were to perform a purgatorial penance. But the imagination and fancy are Spenserian, his colouring is often Titianesque in gorgeousness, and his pictures of shadows, abstractions, and all fantastic forms, are so forcible as to seem to start from the canvas. In painting the beautiful, his verse becomes careless and flowing as a loosened zone; in painting the frightful and the infernal, his language, like his feeling, seems to curdle and stiffen in horror, as where, speaking of Satan, he says

—His tawny teeth
Were ragged grown, by endless gnashing at
The dismal riddle of his living death.

The Psyche may be compared to a palace of Fairyland, where successive doors fly open to the visitor — one revealing a banqueting-room filled with the materials of exuberant mirth; another, an enchanted garden, with streams stealing from grottos, and nymphs gliding through groves; a third conducting you to a dungeon full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness; a fourth, to a pit which seems the mouth of hell, and whence cries of torture come up, shaking the smoke that ascendeth up for ever and ever; and a fifth, to the open roof, over which the stars are seen bending, and the far-off heavens are opening in glory; and of these doors there is no end. We saw, when lately in Copenhagen, the famous tower of the Trinity Church, remarkable for the grand view commanded from the summit, and for the broad spiral ascent winding within it almost to the top, up which it is said Peter the Great, in 1716, used to drive himself and his Empress in a coach-and-four. It was curious to feel ourselves ascending on a path nearly level, and without the slightest perspiration or fatigue; and here, we thought, is the desiderated "royal road" to difficulties fairly found. Large poems should be constructed on the same principle; their quiet, broad interest should beguile their readers alike to their length and their loftiness. It is exactly the reverse with Psyche. But if any reader is wearied of some of the extracts we have given, such as his verses on Eve, on Paradise, on End, on The Death of his Wife, and on Imperial Rome, we shall be very much disposed to question his capacity for appreciating true poetry.