1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Browne of Tavistock

Henry Neele, in Russell Institution Lectures on English Poetry (1827); Remains (New York, 1829) 115-16.



Brown is one of the sweetest pastoral writers in the world. It has been complained, that English literature, however rich in other respects, is very defective in pastoral poetry; but this is a complaint which can only be made by critics who are ignorant of the existence of such a writer as Brown. Of the more popular pastorals, the artificial affectations of Shenstone, Philips, Hammond, and a thousand others, I wish to say little or nothing. The tinsel is by this time pretty well rubbed off the meretricious baubles which so long pleased the public taste; and the trumpery materials of which all their finery was composed, is beginning to be properly appreciated. A poem is no longer supposed to be wonderfully natural and pastoral, merely because it makes love rhyme to dove; breeze to trees; and mountains to fountains. The shepherds and shepherdesses, or rather the ladies and gentlemen in disguise, like the Beef-eater in Sheridan's Critic, who sat upon green hillocks, with pastoral pipes in their hands, talking about love and Arcadia, have been discovered to be very insipid and unnatural personages, ever since readers have made use of their eyes, looked into the world and nature for themselves, and found that no such society, or scenery, is, or ever was, in existence. Brown is a writer thoroughly and entirely English. His scenery is English. He paints not Arcadia, or Utopia; but he takes us to the leafy shores of Devon, and the fertile banks of Tamar, and describes their beauties with the ardour of a lover, and the truth of a painter. He does not introduce us to Naiads, or Drydads; to Pan, or to Apollo; but to their fair and smiling faces with which our own green fields are peopled, and to the rustic manners of the English villages. His music is not of the oaten stop, or of the pastoral pipe, or of the wild harp of antiquity; but of the ploughman's whistle, the milkmaid's song, the sheep-bell, minstrelsy rung out from beneath some neighbouring spire. Shepherds piping all night under some hawthorn bush are not often seen in our northern climate; the dryads, and nymphs, and satyrs, harmonize as ill with the features of English scenery, as Dr. Bentley, in the celebrated picture which decorates a certain public building in London, swimming with his wig and gown on, in the Thames, does with the water nymphs and tritons who surround him. Brown confines himself to the scenery, and to the manners, which he has seen and known. His works, although full of truth and nature, are rich in poetry and imagination: for to these nature and truth are not opposed, but are the best and surest inspirers and auxiliaries.