1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Browne of Tavistock

Anonymous, in Retrospective Review 2 (1820) 151-52.



William Browne wrote his poems, when a very young man: filled with pleasing recollections of his native county of Devon, and, apparently, captivated with the poems of Spenser, which had just then appeared, and with the works of the "divine Astrophel," he deserted the law for "the muses." Young, and ignorant of life and manners, well skilled in classic lore, and ardently in love with nature, Spenser, and Sidney, we might easily have imagined the class of poetry, which he was likely to pursue. — He took to writing pastorals, and has composed a series of poems, which, though abounding with pleasing passages, are devoid of all interest or passion, and frequently of all propriety of character or subject. He seems to have commenced writing, without any object and without any guide, except the assumed character of a shepherd, which he takes no other care to preserve, than by calling his pen a "pipe," and his readers "sheep." We have no subject, story, or plan, from one end to the other of the two long books, or ten songs, of the Britannia's Pastorals, though there are frequent beginnings, and a constant introduction of characters, if they may be so called, who are expected, but in vain, to commence or carry into effect some projected design. — The persons too which are introduced, are the faintest and most indistinct visions of character that ever floated before the eye of a poetical dreamer; and the story, if story may be discovered, is as faint and indistinct as the characters themselves. — The whole poem, indeed, gives you the idea of a faded landscape in water colours, found on some damp neglected wainscot, where the original painting has melted away to indistinctness; and in which, the persons of the piece have lost all traits of individuality, and almost all appearance of life and action; and where every thing is tame and dull, save here and there a bright green hillock, a flourishing tree, or perhaps in some corner a vivid glimpse of country which remains miraculously preserved in its pristine hues. Or perhaps we should convey a clearer idea of these singular volumes, if we were to compare them to the recollection of a dream — the scene of which has been laid in the country, and peopled with shepherds sitting on green banks, "piping as if they would never grow old," and scornful shepherdesses crossing neatly-cropped meads, with stately step and disdainful air. Now, let this vision be dulled, as dreams usually are before the light of morning, and let it be mingled with the usual share of absurdities and improbabilities which are created and annihilated, one does not know how, in all dreams, and the reader will have a correct notion of the Britannia's Pastorals.