1694
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

An Account of the Greatest English Poets. To Mr. H. S. Ap. 3d. 1694.

The Annual Miscellany for the Year 1694. Being the Fourth Part of Miscellany Poems. [John Dryden, ed.]

Joseph Addison


Joseph Addison's verse character of Spenser echoes Sir William Temple's dismissal of the Faerie Queene: "Old Spencer next, warm'd with Poetick Rage, | In Antick Tales amus'd a Barb'rous Age.... The long-spun Allegories fulsom grow, | While the dull Moral lies too plain below." Despite Addison's later praises of Spenser, these early and ill-considered remarks cast a long shadow: John Dryden's miscellanies were frequently reprinted (they were the prototype for Dodsley's Collection), and of course Joseph Addison later succeeded Dryden himself as the chief monitor of polite taste. "H. S." is Henry Sacheverell (1674?-1724) an Oxford friend and high-church Tory clergyman.

London Journal: "Surely the Author had forgot the Pastorals, Epithalamium, &c. of Spencer, which are still as good Poetry as ever was wrote: And as to the Fairy Queen, tho' the Design is justly condemn'd, there are such fine Descriptions and just Sentiments in it, as will charm any Understanding Age whatever, to the End of the World" (14 September 1728).

Alexander Pope: "'I wonder then why his letter to Sacheverell was published?' — 'That was not published till after his death, and I dare say he would not have suffered it to be printed had he been living, for he himself used to speak of it as a poor thing. He wrote it when he was very young, and as such gave the characters of some of our best poets in it, only by hearsay. Thus his character of Chaucer is diametrically opposite to the truth; he blames him for want of humour. The character he gives of Spenser is false too; and I have heard him say that he never read Spenser, till fifteen years after he wrote it'" ca. 1728-30; in Spence, Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters ed. Singer (1820) 49-50.

Samuel Johnson: "In this poem is a very confident and discriminative character of Spenser, whose work he had then never read. So little sometimes is criticism the effect of judgement" "Life of Addison" in Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 2:88.

Richard Hurd: "The introductory and concluding lines of this poem are a bad imitation of Horace's manner — 'Sermoni propriora.' In the rest, the poetry is better than the criticism, which is right or wrong, as it chances; being echoed from the common voice" 1800 ca.; Works of Joseph Addison, ed. Hurd (1811; 1909) 1:22-23n.

Scourge and Satirist: "The man who should now talk of Addison as a poet, would only be answered by a laugh, yet we feel no sentiment of ridicule when we listen to the praises of Dryden, or discuss the excellencies of Milton" 1 (March 1811) 207.

Alexander Chalmers: "His next paper of verses contained a character of the principal English poets, inscribed to Henry Sacheverell, who was then, if not a poet, a writer of verses; as is shewn by his version of a small part of Virgil's Georgics, published in the Miscellanies, and a Latin encomium on queen Mary, in the Musae Anglicanae. At this time he was paying his addresses to Sacheverell's sister. These verses exhibit all the fondness of friendship; but, on one side or the other, friendship was too weak for the malignity of faction. In this poem is a very confident and discriminative character of Spenser, whose work he had then never read" General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 1:154.

Thomas De Quincey: "It is already pretty well known that Addison had no very intimate acquaintance with the literature of his own country.... It is certain that Addison was profoundly ignorant of Chaucer and Spenser. Milton only, — and why? simply because he was a brilliant scholar, and stands like a bridge between the Christian literature and the Pagan, — Addison had read and esteemed" "Shakespeare" (1838) in Works (1889-90) 4:22-23.

William Howitt: "The services of Addison to the poetry of England are far greater through what he recommended than what he composed; and the man who, more than all others, contributed to make periodical literature what it has become, and gave us, moreover, Sir Roger de Coverley, and the spirit of true old English life which surrounds him, with all those noble papers in which religion and philosophy so beautifully blend in the Spectator, must ever remain enshrined in the most grateful remembrance of his countrymen" Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent English Poets (1847) 1:126-27.

W. J. Courthope: "Dryden, Pope, and Goldsmith write on themes which seem unpropitious when compared with the materials of the Elizabethan poets; but the best work of these three poets is, in its class, first-rate; Addison's work is never more than second-rate. His Account of the Principal English Poets is just but tame; he probably wrote it in metre merely because Roscommon had done something of the same kind before him; at any rate, by the side of the animated judgments of Pope in his Epistle to Augustus, his historical survey of English poetry seems flat and languid" The English Poets, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 3:1.

Edmund Gosse: "Joseph Addison (1672-1719) was the son of a Dean of Lichfield, who had written two good books on Morocco. He was educated at the Charterhouse, where he found Steele, and at Queene's College, Oxford, whence he proceeded to Magdalen and became a fellow. He stayed at Oxford until 1699, cultivating polite literature in a dilettante way. In 1693 Addison came forward with a fluent address 'To Mr Dryden,' and began, under the supervision of that poet, to join the band of young men who were placing the Latin classics in the hands of those who read none but English verse. In April 1694 he produced a brief 'Account of the Greatest English Poets,' in verse; the poets were Chaucer and Spenser, at whom he sneered, and Cowley, Milton, Waller, Dryden, and Congreve, whom he praised. In this brief copy of verses there is room for a compliment to 'godlike Nassau,' which showed the author's Whig bias" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 105-06.

William Lyon Phelps: "Addison seems to have had this passage of Temple's in mind [''tis true the pill was gilded, but so thin, that the Colour and the Taste were too easily discovered' in Of Poetry, 1690]" Beginnings of the English Romantic Movement (1893) 49.

Henry A. Beers: "Altogether it is clear that Spenser's greatness was accepted, rather upon trust, throughout the classical period, but that this belief was coupled with a general indifference to his writings. Addison's lines in his Epistle to Sacheverel; An Account of the Greatest English Poets, 1694, probably represent accurately enough the opinion of the majority of readers" (1899) 80.

Herbert E. Cory: "It is simply a succession of boyish platitudes in decorous couplets and is insignificant from every point of view. Whatever he may have known or thought of Spenser at first, Addison became, in his mature years, a deep admirer of The Faerie Queene" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 130.

George Saintsbury: "To dwell at all severely on this luckless production of a young University wit would be not only unkind but uncritical. It shows that at this time Addison knew next to nothing about the English literature not of his own day, and judged very badly of what he pretended to know" History of English Criticism (1911) 172.

See also "Lord Middlesex [Charles Sackville (1711-69)] to Mr. Pope. On Reading Mr. Addison's Account of the English Poets": "Ravish'd they gaze, and struck with wonder say, | Sure Spenser's self ne'er sung so sweet a lay: | Sure once again Eliza glads the Isle, | That the kind Muses thus propitious smile—" in Chalmers's English Poets (1810) 12:135. Addison's poem was "updated" several generations later by "Danos," in "Verses on some late English Poets" Scots Magazine 35 (September 1773) 486.



Since, dearest Harry, you will needs request
A short account of all the Muse possest,
That, down from Chaucer's days to Dryden's Times,
Have spent their Noble Rage in British Rhimes;
Without more Preface, wrote in Formal length,
To speak the Undertakers want of strength,
I'll try to make they're sev'ral Beauties known,
And show their Verses worth, tho' not my Own.

Long had our dull Fore-Fathers slept Supine,
Nor felt the Raptures of the Tuneful Nine;
Till Chaucer first, the merry Bard, arose;
And many a Story told in Rhime and Prose.
But Age has Rusted what the Poet writ,
Worn out his Language, and obscur'd his Wit:
In vain he jests in his unpolish'd strain,
And tries to make his Readers laugh in vain.

Old Spencer next, warm'd with Poetick Rage,
In Antick Tales amus'd a Barb'rous Age;
An Age that yet uncultivate and Rude,
Where-e'er the Poet's Fancy led, pursu'd
Through pathless Fields, and unfrequented Floods,
To Dens of Dragons and Enchanted Woods.
But now the Mystick Tale, that pleas'd of Yore,
Can Charm an understanding Age no more;
The long-spun Allegories fulsom grow,
While the dull Moral lies too plain below.
We view well-pleas'd at distance all the sights
Of Arms and Palfreys, Battle's, Fields, and Fights,
And Damsels in Distress, and Courteous Knights.
But when we look too near, the Shades decay,
And all the pleasing Lan-skip fades away.

Great Cowley then (a mighty Genius) wrote;
O'er-run with Wit, and lavish of his Thought:
His Turns too closely on the Reader press;
He more had pleas'd us, had he pleas'd us less.
One glitt'ring Thought no sooner strikes our Eyes
With silent wonder, but new wonders rise.
As in the Milky way a shining White,
O'er-flows the Heav'ns, with one continu'd Light;
That not a single Star can shew his Rays,
Whilst joyntly all promote the Common-Blaze.
Pardon, Great Poet, that I dare to name
Th' unnumber'd Beauties of thy Verse with blame;
Thy fault is only Wit in its Excess,
But Wit like thine in any shape will please.
What Muse but thine cou'd equal Hints inspire,
And fit the Deep-Mouth'd Pindar to thy Lyre:
Pindar, whom others in a Labour'd strain
And forc'd Expression, imitate in vain?
Well-pleas'd in thee he Soars with new delight,
And Plays in more unbounded Verse, and takes a nobler flight.

Blest Man! whose spotless Life and Charming Lays
Employ'd the Tuneful Prelate in thy Praise:
Blest Man! who now shall be for ever known
In Sprat's successful Labours and thy own.

But Milton next, with high and haughty stalks,
Unfetter'd in Majestic Numbers walks;
No vulgar Heroe can his Muse ingage;
Nor Earth's wide Scene confine his hallow'd Rage.
See! see, he upward Springs, and Tow'ring high,
Spurns the dull Province of Mortality;
Shakes Heav'ns Eternal Throne with dire Alarms,
And sets the Almighty Thunderer in Arms.
What-e'er his Pen describes I more then see,
Whilst ev'ry Verse array'd in Majesty,
Bold, and sublime, my whole attention draws,
And seems above the Criticks nicer Laws.
How are you struck with Terrour and Delight,
When Angel with Arch-Angel Cope's in Fight!
When Great Messiah's out-spread Banner shines,
How does the Chariot Rattel in his Lines!
What sounds of Brazen Wheels, what Thunder, scare,
And stun the Reader with the Din of War!
With Fear my Spirits and my Blood retire,
To see the Seraphs sunk in Clouds of Fire;
But when, with eager steps, from hence I rise,
And view the first gay Scenes of Paradise;
What Tongue, what words of Rapture, can express
A Vision so profuse of pleasantness.
Oh had the Poet ne'er profan'd his Pen,
To varnish o'er the Guilt of Faithless Men,
His other works might have deserv'd applause!
But now the Language can't support the Cause;
While the clean Current, tho' serene and bright,
Betray's a bottom odious to the sight.

But now my Muse, a softer strain rehearse.
Turn every Line with Art, and smooth thy Verse;
The Courtly Waller next commands thy Lays:
Muse Tune thy Verse, with Art, to Waller's Praise.
While tender Airs and lovely Dames inspire
Soft melting Thoughts, and propagate Desire;
So long shall Waller's strains our Passion move,
And Sacharissa's Beauties kindle Love.
Thy Verse, Harmonious Bard, and flatt'ring Song,
Can make the Vanquish'd Great, the Coward strong.
Thy Verse can show ev'n Cromwell's innocence,
And Compliment the Storms that bore him hence.
Oh had thy Muse not come an Age too soon,
But seen Great Nassaw on the British Throne!
How had his Triumphs glitter'd in thy Page,
And warm'd Thee to a more Exalted Rage!
What Scenes of Death and Horrour had we viewd,
And how had Boine's wide Current Reek'd in Blood!
Or if Maria's Charms thou wou'dst rehearse,
In smoother Numbers and a softer Verse,
Thy Pen had well describ'd her Graceful Air,
And Gloriana wou'd have seem'd more Fair.

Nor must Roscommon pass neglected by,
That makes ev'n Rules a noble Poetry:
Rules who's deep Sense and Heav'nly Numbers show
The best of Critticks, and of Poets too.
Nor Denham must we e'er forget thy Strains,
While Cooper's Hill commands the neighb'ring Plains.

But see where artful Dryden next appears,
Grown old in Rhime, but Charming ev'n in Years.
Great Dryden next! whose Tuneful Muse affords
The sweetest Numbers, and the fittest words.
Whether in Comick sounds or Tragick Airs
She form's her voice, she moves our Smiles or Tears.
If Satire or Heroick Strains she writes,
Her Heroe pleases, and her Satire Bites.
From her no harsh, unartful Numbers fall,
She wears all Dresses, and she Charms in all:
How might we fear our English Poetry,
That long has flourish'd, shou'd decay with Thee;
Did not the Muses other Hope appear,
Harmonious Congreve, and forbid our Fear.
Congreve! whose Fancies unexhausted Store
Has given already much, and promis'd more.
Congreve shall still preserve thy Fame alive
And Dryden's Muse shall in his Friend survive.

I'm tir'd with Rhiming, and wou'd fain give o'er,
But Justice still demands one Labour more:
The Noble Montague remains unnam'd,
For Wit, for Humour, and for Judgment fam'd;
To Dorset he directs his Artful Muse,
In numbers such as Dorset's self might use.
How negligently Graceful he unrein's
His Verse, and writes in loose Familiar strains;
How Nassau's Godlike Acts adorn his Lines,
And all the Heroe in full Glory Shines.
We see his Army set in just Array,
And Boine's Di'd Waves run purple to the Sea.
Nor Simois chok'd with men, and Arms, and Blood;
Nor rapid Xanthus' celebrated Flood:
Shall longer be the Poet's highest Themes.
Tho' Gods and Heroes fought, Promiscuous in they're streams.
But now, to Nassau's secret Councils rais'd,
He Aids the Heroe, whom before he Prais'd.

I've done, at length, and now, Dear Friend, receive
The last poor Present that my Muse can give.
I leave the Arts of Poetry and Verse
To them that practise 'em with more success.
Of greater Truths I'll now prepare to tell,
And so at once, Dear Friend and Muse, Farewell.

[pp. 317-27]