When the late ingenious and learned Thomas Warton, the admirable Historian of English Poetry, published his Work, the volumes which for the most part he criticised, and from which he drew his specimens, were so rare and so little accessible, that few Readers had any materials, beyond those with which he furnished them, to exercise their own judgment on. It is within the present century, and principally within the last six or seven years, that a fashion has arisen among certain Poetical Antiquaries, of reprinting small impressions of some of these scarcer volumes. Bishop Percy, and George Ellis, and Headley, had previously exhibited Select Specimens; and had performed their respective tasks with a great deal of taste and ability. Ritson, who had neither taste, nor, in strict judgment, even talent, was a mere bibliographer.
The small Lyrical pieces which had been gathered from the Elizabethan Collections, with the happiest care, and the nicest sense of their comparative merits, by Percy, to adorn his three interesting volumes of Old Ballads, first published early in the present Reign, may be safely pronounced to have laid the foundation both of the modern character of our National Poetry, and the present rage for its antiquities. More than twenty years elapsed before Ellis's Specimens appeared; — but these confirmed the deeply-spread curiosity, which was rapidly working upwards.
The sale of Major Pearson's extraordinary Collection of Old English Poetry in 1789, enriched the stores of Farmer, Steevens, Reed, the Duke of Roxburgh, Malone, and Bindley; of all whom, except the two last, the Libraries have again been dispersed — forming, we presume, the "prima stamina" of the magnificent and unequaled treasures of Mr. Heber in this most valuable and expensive department. Nor would it be proper to omit the very skilful, curious, and select collection of Mr. Park, afterwards largely augmented by Mr. Hill, which principally formed the rich Bibliotheca Anglo-Poetica of Messrs. Longman, offered to the publick about two years ago. Mr. Park began to collect at least as early as the period when Pearson's books were sold: at which sale very few of the rare volumes of old poetry, which would now be anxiously bought at many guineas, scarcely fetched even as many shillings. Mr. Park's was not the spirit of a vain collector: he bought to read and to digest: and hence he acquired that intimate knowledge with this recondite subject, which so justly distinguishes him, and which has afforded so much aid to his Brother Antiquaries, and to the full information we now possess in this branch of bibliography.
The present Editor of Davison's Rhapsody is sufficiently known not to have been inattentive to these pursuits. He began, we believe, to collect about the same time with Mr. Park; but he did not follow this amusement with the some steadiness. More excursive in his nature, more various and uncertain in his occupations, more wildly ambitious, more subject to fits of indolence or disgust, he for many succeeding years rather retained his taste for these things than made any progress in the collection or study of them. At length his engagement in the publication of the Censura Literaria seems to have revived and fixed a greater proportion of his attention to this sort of knowledge: and to have brought it upon him in lavish abundance, even in the midst of the most uncongenial avocations. Men of a certain ardent temperament are not content with doing things by halves. If they work at all, they work comprehensively, and grasp at a whole subject. Sir Egerton Brydges, finding the Elizabethan Miscellanies so difficult to be procured as to be like sealed treasure, aspired to open to the publick as many of them as were not undertaken by his friend Mr. Park. He printed The Paradise of Dainty Devises, and England's Helion, at the end of The British Bibliographer; and be has now given Davison's Rhapsody from his own private press at Lee Priory.
Mr. Park some years ago pronounced this Book of Davison to be the most curious and valuable Collection of its day. FRANCIS DAVSION, partly the Editor, and partly the Author of this work, was too to the celebrated and unfortunate Secretary to Queen Elizabeth, the date of whose death, hitherto unknown, Sir E. B. thinks he has ascertained to have been the year 1609. Of the son, no particulars are preserved.. His Editor considers him to have been a dependent on the Court, and to have died before the 4th Edition of his Book in 1621. As little is recorded of his brother, WALTER, his colleague in this publication. Another brother, CHRISTOPHER, is here also brought to light as a versifier of two of the Psalms; of 15 of which there are versifications by FRANCIS Davison, which are harmonious, forcible, and poetical. These are transcribed from a MS. in the British Museum.
The great question which a censorious Critic will ask regarding these revivals of forgotten poetry it, "Cui Bono." This is a question which it will not be expected that the Editors of the Gentleman's Magazine should ask! These volumes, for the long period of nearly ninety years, have dealt in the light of history! It has been their prime purpose to draw aside the black and enveloping veil from the figure of Time! to shew the varying costumes of the mind, as well as of the person, in different ages; to make the past familiar to the present; and to go, beyond the necessities of mankind, into their refinements and their pleasures! The hard-minded man, who deals only in that which he deems primarily useful; he who prides himself on a supposed strength of reasoning, by which he imagines that he has purified himself from the prejudices and caprices of weaker and less philosophic intellects, may tell us, that books of this sort teach nothing: that the passions are the same in every age: that people loved, and hated; that they praised solitude; and abused courts; and deprecated the success of envy and malignity in the days of Queen Elizabeth, as they do now! But did they do it in the same language? Has not every age its peculiar tints of colouring? has it not numerous adventitious peculiarities? As we travel into foreign countries for the sake of emancipating our opinions from the benumbing effects of long habit, so we ought to make excursions into distant ages, that comparison and novelty may free us from the slavery of temporary mental fashions.
It would be the blind admiration of an unenlightened passion for past times, to deny that there is much in our old poetry which is tedious, crude, childish, and unworthy of a more polished aera. But a judge of the most fastidious taste and most unbiassed opinions may conscientiously and unreservedly pronounce, that there is much in them which the greatest modern genius cannot study without pleasure and improvement.
The former Editions of this Work are all contained in a 12mo, or small 8vo volumes. The only copy known of the first Edition, 1602, is that which was Major Pearson's, and afterwards passed to Mr. Malone. The present is from the second Edition, 1608. But all the four Editions have been collated, by the indefatigable zeal of Mr. Haslewood, for this re-print. The arrangement (which varied in the old Editions) is new. The FIRST VOLUME contains Poems of Miscellaneous Authors, Sir John Davies, Thomas Watson, Thomas Campion, Henry Constable, Mary Countess of Pembroke, &c. — The SECOND VOLUME contains a set of Poems, which are designated as Anonymous in Davison's Preface, and of which a few had the signature of "Ignoto," or A. W.
Sir E. B. for some time flattered himself that he had made a valuable discovery, and should be able to fix them to Sir Walter Raleigh, to whom those with the name of Ignoto had been hitherto ascribed. However, Mr. James Boswell, on the authority of a note of Mr. Malone, referred Sir E. to a MS. of Sir Symonds D'Ewes in the British Museum, containing a full list of all the Poems of A. W. in which are included all the Anonymous Poems, which now form the second volume of The Rhapsody. Who A. W. was, Sir E. cannot discover. The THIRD VOLUME contains the Poems of the two Davisons, with the addition of the Versification of the Psalms from the MS. in the British Museum.
A Critical Preface is prefixed to each volume, in which the Editor endeavours to draw sound limits between that unreflecting passion for what is old, which has excited so much ridicule, and that indiscriminate disgust to it, which half-cultivated minds are so fond of exhibiting. The Editor is not of the School of the Shakspeare Annotators: he writes no long disquisitions on incidental allusions: neither here; nor at the bottom of the text, does he load his pages with verbal criticism: he touches only on the general spirit of these compositions, and examines only how far they possess the ingredients of genuine poetry; such as has its foundation in the heart of man; and such as it ought to be in all ages and all countries; but still with reference to the manner in which these main ingredients are modified by time and habit; and the state of language, and the degree of intellectual refinement.
Our modern presses have put forth so many re-prints of our poetical ancestors of this aera, principally from the same school of Editorship, that a sort of Elizabethan Library of poetry might now be formed from them. For instance, the Mirror for Magistrates, by Mr. Haslewood, and the Heliconia, by Mr. Park; with the curious Tracts of the Roxburghe Club, and the pieces from the private press of Mr. Alexander Boswell; added to The Raleigh; the Poems of Nicholas Breton; the Tract of Robert Greene; and the Excerpta Tudoriana, from the Lee Priory Press, in addition to the present Work of Davison; and the two Collections called The Paradise, &c. and The Helicon, already mentioned. The Critical Tracts also of Puttenham, &c. which Mr. Haslewood has collected in two 4to. volumes, belong to this set.
It is not easy to guess how it could have happened, that a man of Francis Davison's talents and acquirements should have gone to his grave without having left to posterity any other traces of his existence than this single literary present. The ardour of mind which is an inseparable ingredient of poetical power, is almost always accompanied by ambition, or at least a strong love of fame. It was not the world's insensibility to this production which blighted his hopes, and destroyed his spirits: for this little book was certainly well-received, and very popular. In the present day, it is scarcely possible that such a man could have died utterly unnoticed. And it is clear from the gossiping letters of Rowland White, John Chamberlaine, Garrard, and other news-writers of those times, that men of the world were not then less curious regarding the private history of their contemporaries than they are now. They had not indeed the advantage of printed Newspapers, Magazines, and Obituaries. But what was written privately was necessarily more minute and less restrained than that which is communicated through the public press.
We select one specimen of Francis Davison's poetry, which we take because it is short.
That only his Mistress's beauty and voice please him.
Passion may my judgment blear,
Therefore sure I will not swear
That others are not pleasing:
But I speak it to my pain,
And my life shall it maintain,
None else yields my heart easing.
Ladies, I do think there be
Other some as fair as she
(Tho' none have fairer features);
But my turtle-like affection
Since of her I made election,
Scorns other fairest creatures.
Surely I will not deny
But some others reach as high
With their sweet warbling voices:
But since her notes charm'd mine ear,
Even the sweetest tunes I hear
To me seem rude harsh noises.