1691
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[The best Poem that was ever made.]

Athenian Mercury 2 No. 14 (11 July 1691).

Rev. Samuel Wesley


By critical consensus, the "best poem" is Virgil's Aeneid. The anonymous writer, probably Samuel Wesley the elder (the other contributors to the Athenian Mercury were John Dunton and Richard Sault), runs through a list of ancient and modern poets, giving each a brief descriptive tag: "Spenser was a noble poet, his Fairy-Queen an excellent piece of Morality, Policy, History." One blinks at "honest" Martial, "fit to be read by School-boys."

The Athenian Mercury, a ground-breaking periodical and the forerunner of The Tatler and The Spectator, offered its readers advice on matters of taste and related subjects.

John Dunton: "The undertaking growing every week upon our hands, the impatience of our Querists, and the curiosity of their Questions, which required a great deal of accuracy and care, did oblige us to adopt a third Member of Athens; and the Reverend Mr. [Samuel] Wesley being just come to town, all new from the University, and my acquaintance with him being very intimate, I easily prevailed with him to embark himself upon the same bottom, and in the same cause. With this new addition we found ourselves to be masters of the whole design, and thereupon we neither lessened nor increased our number" Life and Errors (1705, 1818) 1:190.




Quest. 3. Which is the best Poem that ever was made and who in your Opinion, deserves the Title of the best Poet that ever was?

Answ. The best Poem that ever was made, is the Universe, and he who made that, the first and best Poet. But for artificial Poems, not to meddle with the Scriptures, a great part whereof, as part of Job, several of the Psalms, the Canticles, Isaiah, Lamentations, &c. is undoubtedly the best and noblest Poetry in the World. It is Virgil's Aeneids, which in our Opinion, consonant to the greatest Criticks in all Ages, carries the Laurel from any humane Composition that was ever yet extant; both for the Compleatness of the Work, the Curiosity of the Fable, the fine ordering of the Nexus, the Justness of Thought, Greatness of Spirit, Dignity of Expression, and Purity of the Language, Tully himself scarce writing chaster Latin than Virgil. Add to this, the excellent Descriptions, advantageous and proper Digressions, lovely Passions, neat Praises, (the by far most difficult part of Poetry, and which he so admirably manag'd towards Augustus his Family) take all this together, and nothing that's meerly humane must pretend to come near this incomparable Piece, as we doubt, not will be granted by all the Impartial World, as long as that and this Poem shall last, for they are in all probability of an equal date. Thus an Heroick Poem being the heighth of Poetry, and this of all Heroicks, this being grantedly the best Poem, Virgil must be the best Poet. — Not that we can think him so excellent in his Eglogues, the Greeks out-doing him in that easie and natural way of writing, he making his Shepherds by much too well bred and learned; whereas Theocritus, and some other of the Grecians, show 'em just as they really were, or might be supposed to be. Homer was a great Man, as we have formerly discours'd, and that which he's commonly blam'd for, his long Bedrolls of Names and Descriptions of Places, is perhaps if duly consider'd, one of his greatest Beauties. Sappho has an inimitable softness which melts the Soul at the very hearing of the sound of her words in those few precious Fragments she has left us; nor did ever any come near her since as Mrs Behn, Callimachus and other of the middle-siz'd Poets, have nothing surprizing in 'em. Anacreon is extreme pretty, Pindar incomparable. For the rest of the Latin ones, Ovid was the wittiest, Horace the genteelest, Catullus the most waggish, Petronius the lewdest, Juvenal the angriest; but one of the honestest Martial, fit to be read by School-boys: — Statius a very tall Fellow, and Lucan a very humble Man, he had almost forgot the Dramaticks — Most of the Greek Comics are Stuff, but little of their Tragedy but what's excellent, neither of which we think brought to their heighth under the Romans, though Plautus wrote wittily, Terence neatly — and Seneca has very fine thoughts. But sionce we can't go through all the world, let's look home a little. Grandsire Chaucer, in spite of the Age, was a Man of as much wit, sence and honesty as any that have writ after him. Father Ben was excellent at Humour, Shakespeare deserves the Name of sweetest, which Milton gave him. — Spenser was a noble poet, his Fairy-Queen an excellent piece of Morality, Policy, History. Davenant had a great genius. — Too much can't be said of Mr Coley. Milton's Paradise Lost, and some other Poems of his will never be equal'd. Waller is the most correct Poet we have. For those who are yet living we have nothing to say to 'em: Death shall excuse Mr. Saffold, and dullness the Author of the Lampoon on the Athenian Mercury.


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