So great are the revolutions of our language, and such the uncertainty of literary fame, that before the end of the century in which he wrote, his poetry was become antiquated, and only one edition of his works has been printed in a hundred years.
But the effusions of a real poetical mind will be seldom rendered totally abortive, and those honours which through envy or accident, are withheld in one age, are sure to be repaid with interest, by taste and gratitude in another.
The present age, distinguished by a taste for poetical antiquities, has already made him some reparation for the injustice of the last; and posterity, through each succeeding generation, will complete the measure of his fame.
His poems, which deserved to be rescued from the obscurity into which they had fallen, were collected by T. Davies, the laudable restorer of our old English poets, and printed in 3 vols. 12mo. 1772, as a proper companion of his editions of Davies, Carew, and Suckling.
The Shepherd's Pipe was become so extremely scarce, that if Mr. Warton, the learned historian of the English poetry, had not lent his own copy to be transcribed, the public might have been deprived of this admirable collection of eclogues.
The Inner Temple Masque, which had never been printed, was procured from the library of Emanuel College, Cambridge, by the learned Dr. Farmer, who also communicated the copy of Verses prefixed to the Tragedy of Richard III, not inserted in any former edition.
Some other unprinted poems of Browne appear to have been in the possession of Mr. Warburton, the herald, which were sold with his library about the year 1759 or 1760, and cannot be recovered.
His Poems are now, for the first time, received into a chronological arrangement of classical English poetry.
Browne is eminently entitled to a very high rank among our old English classics; he has original imagery, striking sentiment, fertility of expression, and happy combinations, together with a felicity of diction, and a flow of harmony, that merit the attention of the modern writers of verse.
There is an amiable simplicity in most of his pieces; and he knew how to move the heart by strokes of genuine nature and passion. His imagination was fertile, and his mind vigorous, but his judgment was corrupted by the vitiated taste of the age in which he lived: His writings, therefore, abound with false wit, and frivolous ornaments; his descriptions, though picturesque, have an air of extravagance; his conceptions, though strong, have marks of deformity, and his language never flows in a continued strain of purity: he could not plan with precision and delicacy, and was unable to join correctness with spirit.
He is mentioned by Winstanley, as "worthily deserving of commendations;" but the passage which he quotes as a specimen of his manner, is injurious to his merits, and by no means characteristic of Browne.
It is to his honour that Milton read and imitated him, as every attentive reader of Philarete and Lycidas must soon discover: the resemblance is obvious; and it is detracting nothing from the merit of Lycidas, that it owes its origin to Philarete.
His Inner Temple Masque also, may be supposed to have suggested the hint to Milton of his Masque of Comus, to which indeed it is much inferior, both in the design and execution, though some of the songs have an agreeable wildness and beauty, not unworthy of that great genius.
Wood says, that "as he had honoured his country with his elegant and sweet pastorals, so was he expected, and also entreated, a little farther to grace it, by drawing out the line of his poetic ancestors, beginning with Josephus Iscanus, and ending in himself; but whether ever published, having been all or mostly written, as 'twas said, I know not."
In one of Mr. Oldys's MSS. it is observed, that "he was reputed a man not only the best versed in the works and beauties of the English poets, but also in their lives and characters, wherefore he was pitched and prevailed upon to draw out the line of his poetic ancestors, from Josephus Iscanus, down to himself, which must have been a delectable and useful labour, from a man not only of his learning and taste, but who had the advantage of living so much nearer the times when our most renowned cultivators of English poetry adorned this isle."
The authority of Mr. Oldys is unquestionable; and his sentiments relative to this intended work of Browne, cannot fail to command the approbation, and excite the regret of every lover of literature and poetical biography.
The modern testimonies to his merits are few, from the want of his being generally read; but his fame, however tardy, was progressive. He found a friend and reader in Pattison of Sidney College, Cambridge, who, it is said, was possessed of no book at his death, except Britannia's Pastorals, he was also a favourite with Thompson of Queen's College, Oxford, who intended to print an edition of his Pastorals, with notes and observations, which, though of little value, are preserved in Davies's edition.
He was more fortunate in attracting the notice of the amiable and ingenious Mr. Headley, "Who wove fresh garlands for the muse of yore," and has drawn his poetical character with a discriminating pencil, though with a penury rather than a profusion of praise.
"The Italian writers were his models; and he was either too young or too injudicious to resist the contagion of forced allusions and conceits, and the rest of that trash which an incorrect age not only endured but practiced and approved. His descriptions are sometimes puerile, and at other times over-wrought; one while lost in a profusion of colours, and at another bald and spiritless: yet he seems to have been a great admirer, and no inattentive observer, of the charms of Nature, as his works about in minute rural imagery, though indiscriminately selected. From the verses prefixed to his book he should seem to have written very early in life. Had it been otherwise, and chaste and wholesome models been thrown in his way, much might have been expected from his natural powers. The praise he has received from Selden, Davies, Jonson, and Drayton, and the notice he obtained from Milton, are real honours and almost counterbalance oblivion; at least, they prove he did not deserve it."