1780 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Robert Burton

Anonymous, "Burton and Milton" Whitehall Evening Post (12 December 1780).



A similitude of thinking, and sometimes of a similar strain of expression, are not unfrequently taken for imitation: but there are more particular and distinguishing marks than these. They are so very well pointed out by the Bishop of Litchfield [Richard Hurd] in his Essay upon the subject, that it would be superfluous, and impertinent to attempt it here; superfluous, as it is impossible to add anything to it; and impertinent, as the Essay is too replete with matter to suffer abridgment, and too copious to be given at full in the narrow limits we have prescribed to us. We were induced to concur in his sentiments, from observing a Poem published so much earlier than Milton's Allegro and Penseroso, that could we suspect that great Genius of borrowing an idea from a Modern, we should as readily suppose him to have taken his design from the introduction to Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, as we could suspect Mr. Pope of having copied Crashaw. However, if either of them have at all borrowed, they have acted like Virgil, who extracted gold from the dunghill of Ennius.

Of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, the second edition, which is now before us, was published in 1641; Milton's Allegro and Penseroso were first published in 1645. Burton's was a very popular book; for in the year 1651, it had run through five editions. The Poem is subjoined, and there is no doubt but the critical reader will acknowledge not only the similarity of thought which reigns through the whole performance, but we fancy he will likewise find particular traits so exactly alike, as to seem to have been the ground which Burton sketched out for Milton to colour over.

We are often surprised at the consentaneous expressions of men, but can attribute this to accidental memory rather than intentional imitation; but when we see two poems of a master executed captitally upon the same subject with an inferior artist, at the same time that we rejoice that it has been rescued from unable hands, it generally suggests to the mind a designed imitation.

Had Cawthorne, or any of those who adopted the idea of Abelard's answering Eloisa, happened to have excelled or equalled Mr. Pope's paraphrase of that epistle, and at the same time have adopted passages as similar as the following, would not every one have readily allowed the imitation? But Burton was not a Pope, and Milton was not a Cawthorne. Burton and Cawthorne were sunk in the shade of obscurity, while Pope and Milton bask in the sunshine of popularity.