1880 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir William Davenant

Edmund Gosse, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 2:289.



There is not a more hopelessly faded laurel on the slopes of the English Parnassus than that which once flourished so bravely around the grotesque head of Davenant. The enormous folio edition of his works, brought out in 1673 in direct emulation of Ben Jonson, is probably the most deplorable collection of verses anywhere to be found, dead and dusty beyond the wont of forgotten classics. The critic is inclined to say that everything is spurious about Davenant, from the legend that connects his blood with Shakespeare's to the dramatic genius that his latest contemporaries praised so highly. He is not merely a ponderous, he is a nonsensical writer, and having begun life by writing meaningless romantic plays in imitation of Massinger, and insipid masques in the school of Ben Jonson, he closed his long and busy career by parodying the style of Dryden. But he really deserves so be classed with none of these authors, but with Sir William Killigrew and Sir Robert Stapleton, the dullest crew of pedants and poetasters which our literature has seen. From this wide condemnation of the writings of Davenant, his romantic epic of Gondibert must be excepted. It is a poem of chivalry, the scene of which is laid in Lombardy, but which the author grew tired of before it had occurred to him to construct a plot. It is, accordingly, nothing but an incoherent, rambling fragment, through which the reader toils, as if through a quicksand, dragging his steps along, and rewarded every now and then by a firmer passage containing some propriety of thought or a beautiful single line. The form of Gondibert is borrowed from the Nosce Teipsum of Sir John Davies, and was soon afterwards employed again by Dryden for his Annus Mirabilis.