1815 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Nicholas Breton

Samuel Egerton Brydges, in Preface to Breton, Melancholike Humours (1815); Gentleman's Magazine 86 (March 1816) 208.



Is it an idle curiosity that wishes to unfold the secrets of the grave? I would willingly draw back the veil from the story of this Author's misfortunes! He bewails in so many of his writings his sorrows, his sufferings, and his melancholy, that it is impossible to believe these complaints to have been "conjured up for the occasion:" and we seem to have Ben Jonson's authority for our belief that they arose from no fancied causes.

If Breton was the same person who owned the manor of Norton, in Northamptonshire, poverty could scarcely be the ground of his anxieties: for that lordship was transmitted to the owner's male posterity, who are still in affluence, and only sold it within these twenty years. On the whole, it seems more probable that the poet was a collateral branch of the same ancient house.

It is the fashion to consider a querulous disposition little entitled to the favour of the publick. If by querulous be meant an abundant indulgence in the utterance of fanciful griefs, the reprobation is surely just. But it is far otherwise with the expression of real and unaffected sorrow. Cares and misfortunes so universally touch, at some period of life, every feeling bosom, that sympathy with the utterance of genuine grief is a mental exercise almost generally grateful to intellectual beings. He, who cannot distinguish true, from pretended, sensibility, must be himself insensible. There is a touch, a colouring, in it, beyond the reach of Art. Breton, every where, exhibits this touch and colouring.

The reign of Queen Elizabeth was a period of difficulty for the individuals whom it excited to fame and distinction, in which was cherished an emulation of great things with insufficient means. The splendour required of the great nobility far exceeded the unproductive rentals of their estates. The cries of poverty and distress, which their private letters exhibit, are often very striking. What must then have been the case of the private gentry who followed the Court? and most of all, of the wretched dependents, who hunted after Court-patronage? Of men, who, as their only passport, were necessitated to waste their little and precarious subsistence in expensive pageantries, and gaudy clothes?

The great Heroine, who sat upon the throne, had only a choice of difficulties through a perilous reign; and her heart, made of stern materials, exacted, without much apparent regret, hard measure of her subjects.

Perhaps it was to circumstances such as these, that the difficulties of Breton's career through life were owing! Perhaps, of gentle and honourable blood, which early excited him to look to refined society and superior station, he had not the pecuniary means to secure that to which his birth taught him to look; and in the alternacy between the strenuous exertions of worldly ambition, and the delirious forgetfulness of the Muse's libations, the excursive wanderings of one day undid the whole painful progress of another, till exhausted spirits and continued disappointments, brought on melancholy and despair.

Such at least has too often been the struggle of many a great and lamented genius through this world of danger and mischance! Let him who seeks the Muse's favours as the reward of his toils, not hope that he can join with them a worldling's pursuits! The daily plodder, who bends neither to the right nor to the left, whose eye is never drawn aside by a landscape however beautiful, and whose hand is never tempted to gather a flower even on the edge of his path, will win the goal of worldly power and renown, long before him, even at a snail's pace!

Breton enjoyed among his contemporaries a general popularity. But it has been too frequently proved that fame and support have no necessary nor even probable connexion, in the walks of Poetry. A giddy publick, while pleased with the Songster's ditties, neither thought nor cared about the fate or sufferings of him who produced them. It is a resistless and incomprehensible passion, which still impels the tuneful complainer to breathe forth his strains of delight or pathos in defiance of the pressure of neglect or want. Could Breton rise again from the grave, and choose his course through this life, it wool scarcely be that of a Poet, harassed by poverty, and crowned with fruitless laurels. His Melancholike Humours flow from one deeply immersed in the Castalian spring, who had drank fully of its inspiring waters. These strains will, I trust, hereafter be received among the pure relics of the departed genius of England!

March 28, 1815.