1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Phineas Fletcher

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



Phineas Fletcher, whose loyal enthusiasm for the memory of Spenser preserved the fine old notes in his song when they were already in the main neglected, struck out a somewhat new vein in pastoral by his Piscatory Eclogues, published in 1633. These seven poems introduce a pleasant variation on the conventional flocks and herds and shepherd's pipe; the scene is laid by the banks of the Cam, and the conversations which compose the idyls are held by fishermen, who denounce the river, deplore the loss of their nets or rejoice in a rich take of fish, in a graceful Spenserian style, of which this stanza is a fair example:

A fisher-lad — no higher dares he look—
Myrtil, sat down by silver Medway's shore:
His dangling nets (hung on the trembling oar)
Had leave to play, so had his idle hook,
While madding winds the madder ocean shook.
Of Camus had he learnt to pipe, and sing,
And frame low ditties to his humble string.

Unfortunately the writer did not realize the value in literature of exact observation, and his stanzas, with all their delicacy, grace, and melody, lack those realistic touches that poetry needs to make it live. In this Phineas Fletcher stands far below John Dennys, whose little-known, but extremely clever poem, The Secrets of Angling, had been published twenty years earlier, but probably, if we may judge from the style of the two pieces, written about the same time. The artificiality of the Piscatory Eclogues may be indicated by the significant fact that throughout the work there is not a single mention of any one particular fish by name, nor the smallest reference to any of the modes of angling. The idyls are, in fact, a succession of more or less gorgeous dreams of passion, human or divine, with such a background of shaded winding river and cool meadow, starred by ruddy naked figures conventionally fishing, as an Italian painter of the fifteenth century might have chosen to devise. Here is a stanza which presents an exquisite picture to the mind's eye, but can scarcely be said to be founded on actual reminiscence of a day's trout-fishing:—

Scarce were the fishers set, but straight in sight
The fisher-boyes came driving up the stream;
Themselves in blue, and twenty sea-nymphs bright
In curious robes, that well the waves might seem:
All dark below, the top like frothy cream:
Their boats and masts with flowers and garlands dight;
And, round the swannes guard them with armies white;
Their skiffs by couples dance to sweetest sounds,
Which running cornets breath to full plain grounds,
That strikes the river's face, and thence more sweet rebounds.