1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Browne of Tavistock

Edmund Gosse, in "Essay on Pastoral Poetry" Complete Works of Spenser, ed. Grosart (1882-84) 3:xxxv-vi.



There has never been a time when William Browne, the laureate of Devonshire, has failed to command a select body of admirers, but it was not until our own day that his place in English literature began to be defined. This amiable and beloved man, who carried "a great mind in a little body," sent out the first part of his famous Britannia's Pastorals from the Inner Temple when he was a youth of twenty-three. He had been exiled for several years from the tors and hurrying streams and bosky wildernesses in which his childhood had been spent, and the echo of the bubbling Tavy filled his ears in memory, and turned his tongue. A sort of haunting nostalgia inspires these Devonia's Pastorals, and while Browne thought that he was singing on the traditional oaten pipe, his strong love for the peculiar scenery of the slopes of Dartmoor was encouraging him to produce it and essentially modern species of poetry. It is by a most curious superstition that Denham's insipid Cooper's Hill, has so long received time credit due to the "linked sweetness long drawn out" of Browne's celebration of the valley of Tavistock. The latter is genuine, though far from unalloyed, topographical writing, and still more credit is due to Browne, for being the first man to celebrate the minute details of country life, not as part of the setting of a poem on human passion, but as in themselves entirely a worthy of occupying a considerable work. It is this curious quality in the imagination of Browne which has led his latest panegyrist, Mr. W. T. Arnold, to compare him to Wordsworth, a startling and apparently paradoxical criticism, to which, on reflection, we are bound to give in our adhesion. In 1614, Browne published a charming little volume, to which Wither, Christopher Brook, and John Davies of Hereford, contributed; a slender garland of loving friendship woven by a group of young men who temper the happiness of their pipings by the sad memory of the lad who too soon went from them, and took "wings to reach eternity." Browne's eclogue on the death of this youth, Thomas Manwood, forms a link between Shakespeare's Sonnets and Lycidas.