1837 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir William Davenant

Henry Hallam, in Introduction to the Literature of Europe of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries (1837-39; 1882) 3:252-53.



Far unlike the poem of Browne [Britannia's Pastorals] was Gondibert, published by Sir William Davenant in 1650. It may probably have been reckoned by himself an epic; but in that age the practice of Spain and Italy had effaced the distinction between the regular epic and the heroic romance. Gondibert belongs rather to the latter class by the entire want of truth in the story, though the scene is laid at the court of the Lombard kings; by the deficiency of unity in the action; by the intricacy of the events; and by the resources of the fable, which are sometimes too much in the style of comic fiction. It is so imperfect, only two books and part of the third being completed, that we can hardly judge of the termination it was to receive. Each book, however, after the manner of Spenser, is divided into several cantos. It contains about 6,000 lines. The metre is the four-lined stanza of alternate rhymes; one capable of great vigor, but not perhaps, well adapted to poetry of imagination or of passion. These, however, Davenant exhibits but sparingly in Gondibert: they are replaced by a philosophical spirit, in the tone of Sir John Davies, who had adopted the same metre, and, as some have thought, nourished by the author's friendly intercourse with Hobbes. Gondibert is written in a clear, nervous English style: its condensation produces some obscurity; but pedantry, at least that of language, will rarely be found in it; and Davenant is less infected by the love of conceit and of extravagance than his contemporaries, though I would not assert that he is wholly exempt from the former blemish. But the chief praise of Gondibert is due to masculine verse in a good metrical cadence; for the sake of which we may forgive the absence of interest in the story, and even of those glowing words and breathing, thoughts which are the soul of genuine poetry. Gondibert, is very little read; yet it is better worth reading than the Purple Island, though it may have less of that which distinguishes a poet from another man.