1826 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Ritson

Richard Ryan, in Poetry and Poets: being a Collection of the choicest Anecdotes relative to the Poets of every Age and Nation (1826) 3:197-202.



Few of our readers can be ignorant that "good Queen Bess," as she has been whimsically nicknamed, was a woman of great learning, and wrote Poetry; most of them must, also, have heard of Joseph Ritson, the Poetical Antiquarian, whose unhappy temper and unsocial peculiarities kept him involved in constant hostility with all who happened to cross his path. The following extract from his "Bibliographia Poetica," (a work of consummate research, containing the most ample catalogue extant of the Poets of Great Britain, and their productions, down to the close of the sixteenth century,) will illustrate his remarkable style of writing, and oddities of spelling, as well as the rancorous spirit with which he was imbued.

"Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England, wrote, in 1555, while prisoner at Woodstock, with a charcoal on a shuter, some certain versees, printed in 'Hentzner's Travels;' and a couplet, with her diamond, in a glass window, printed in Foxes 'Actes and Monumentes;' also, a Poem, touching the practicees of the Queen of Scots and her adherents, preserve'd in Puttenham's 'Arte of English Poesie,' 1589; and, apparently, other things; since, according to that flattering courtier, her 'learned, delicate, noble Muse,' easeyly surmounted all the rest that had writen before her time, or since, 'for sence, sweatnesse, and subtillitie,' were it in 'ode, elegie, epigram, or any other kinde of Poeme, heroicke or lyricke,' wherein it should please her Majesty to employ her pen, 'even by as much oddes as her owne gallant estate and degree' exceeded 'all the rest of her most humble vassalls.' The following 'Epitaph, made by the Queene's Majestie, at the death of the Princesse of Espinoye," inserted among the Poems of one Soothern, printed in her time, is here given merely as a curiosity; since there cannot wel be a more abominable composition, the Musees haveing favour'd her just as much as Venus or Diana.

When the warrier Phoebus goth to make his round,
With a painefull course, to toother hemisphere
A darke shadowe, a great horror, and a feare,
In I knoe not what cloudes inveron the ground.
And even so for Pinoy, that fayre vertues lady,
(Although Jupiter have in this orizon,
Made a starre of her, by the Ariadnan crowne)
Morns, dolour, and griefe, accompany our body.
O Atropos, thou hast doone a worke perverst.
And as a byrde that hath lost both young and nest,
About the place where it was makes many a tourne,
Even so dooth Cupid, that infaunt, god of amore,
Flie about the tombe, where she lies all in dolore,
Weeping for her eyes, wherein he made soiourne.

"Bolton after citeing a fulsome and parasitical dedication to this Queen, (or, rather, 'quean,' as one who would not onely scold, and swear By God! at her nobles, and maids of honour, but, occasionally, box their ears,) by Sir Henry Savil, before his abominable perversion of 'Tacitus,' (principally, he says, to incite her, as by a foil, to communicate to the world, if not those admirable compositions of her own, yet, at the least, 'those most rare and excellent translations of histories,' if he 'may call them translations, which have so infinitely exceeded the originals,'!!!) proceeds as follows: — 'Somewhat it may detract from the credit of this seeming hyperbolical praise, both because it was written in her life-time, and, also, to herself [a censure which may apply, with no less justice or propriety, to Puttenham, and the rest of her servile flatterers] but I can believe they were excellent. For, 'perhaps,' the world never saw a lady, in whose person more greatness of parts met 'than' in hers; unless it were in that most noble princess and heroine, Mary, Queen of Scots, inferior to her only in her outward fortunes; in all other respects and abilities, at least her equal.' This panegyric, though eloquently deliver'd, is, at any rate, a poor compliment to Queen Mary, to put her on an equal footing with a 'green-eye'd monster,' (the illegitimate spawn of a bloody and lustful tyrant) who, not onely, imprison'd that most beautyful and accomplish'd Princess (to whom she had hypocritically and seductively offer'd a refuge) for the eighteen best years of her life and reign; but, upon the falseest suggestions, and the grossest forgerys, with a savage and malignant cruelty, unparallel'd even in the Furies or Gorgons of antiquity, deprive'd of crown and kingdom, and deliberately shed the sacred and precious blood of her nearest relation, and, even, the presumptive heir to her own realm, to which, in fact, she had a better title than herself. 'O, tigress' heart, wrapp'd in a woman's hide.'"

Such are the terms in which this morbidly irritable Antiquarian speaks of the "Virgin Queen," whose praises have been the never-failing theme of Poets without number, and whom some historians even have not scrupled to represent as the "glory of her sex and nation," while others have pictured her in the darkest colours which imagination could devise. The truth, as usual, is to be found between the two extremes; but, were she even all that her enemies, and Ritson among the rest, have represented her, nothing can excuse the grossness of the language, and the vulgarity of the terms, in which his censure is conveyed.