There are few poets, not of the first class, to whose merits a stronger consensus of weighty opinion can be produced than that which attests the value of Samuel Daniel's work. His contemporaries, while expressing some doubts as to his choice of subjects, speak of him as "well-languaged," "sharp-conceited," and as a master of pure English. The critics of the eighteenth century were surprised to find in him so little that they could deem obsolete or in bad taste. The more catholic censorship of Hazlitt, Lamb, and Coleridge was delighted with his extraordinary felicity of expression, and the simple grace of his imagery and phrase. There can be no doubt however that his choice of historical subjects for his poetry was unfortunate for his fame. The sentence of Joubert is not likely to be reversed: "Il faut que son sujet offre au genie du poete une espece de lieu fantastique qu'il puisse etendre et resserrer a volunte. Un lieu trop reel, une population trop historique emprisonnent l'esprit et en genent les mouvements." This holds true of all the Elizabethan historians; and it holds truer perhaps of Daniel than of Drayton. For the genius of the former had a tender and delicate quality about it which was least of all applicable so such work, and seems so have lacked altogether the faculty of narrative. Daniel's one qualification for the task was his power of dignified moral reflection, in which, as the following extracts will show, be has hardly a superior. This however, though an admirable adjunct to the other qualities required for the task, could by no mews compensate for their absence and the result is that the History of the Civil Wars is with difficulty readable. The Complaint of Rosamond is better.
It is however in the long poems only that the "manner better suiting prose," of which Daniel has been accused, appears. His minor work is in the main admirable, and displays incessantly the purity and felicity of language already noticed. His Sonnet to Sleep became a kind of model to younger writers, and imitations of it are so be found in the sonneteers of the time, sometimes with the opening epithet literally borrowed. The whole indeed of the Sonnets to Delia are excellent, and throughout Daniel's work single expressions and short passages of exquisite grace abound. The opening line, for instance, of the Address to Lady Anne Clifford, "Upon the tender youth of those fair eyes," is perfect in its kind. So is the distich which begins one of the Sonnets:—
The star of my mishap imposed this pain,
To spend the April of my years in grief;
and the invocation of Apollo: — "O dear-eyed rector of the holy hill."
It is in such things as these that the greater part of Daniel's charm consists, and they are scattered abundantly about his works. The rest of that charm lies in his combination of moral elevation with a certain picturesque peacefulness of spirit not often to be found in the perturbed race of bards. The Epistle to the Countess of Cumberland is unmatched before Wordsworth in the expression of this.
His two tragedies and his Defence of Rhyme, though neither of them falling strictly within our limits, are too important in connection with English poetry to be left unnoticed. Cleopatra and Philotas are noteworthy among the rare attempts so follow the example of Jodelle and Garnier in English. They contain much harmonious verse, and the choruses are often admirable of their kind. The Defence of Rhyme, directed against the mania which for a time infected Spenser and Sidney, which Webbe endeavoured to render methodic, and of which traces are so be found in Milton, is thoroughly sound in principle and conclusion, though that conclusion is supported by arguments which are as often bad as good.