1700
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Preface to Fables.

Fables Ancient and Modern; translated into Verse, from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, & Chaucer: with original Poems.

John Dryden


John Dryden constructs the genealogy of English verse, and comments on its refinement over time: "Milton was the Poetical Son of Spencer, and Mr. Waller of Fairfax; for we have our Lineal Descents and Clans, as well as other Families: Spencer more than once insinuates that the Soul of Chaucer was transfus'd into his Body; and that he was begotten by him Two hundred Years after his Decease" Sig. A.

This oft-quoted statement is of some importance in the evolution of ideas about English literature. No longer are the major English writers seen primarily in relation to the Greeks and Romans, as they had been throughout the seventeenth century, nor are they classified according to genres. Rather, Dryden is thinking of English literature as a historical tradition, a rather Catholic and Royalist thing to do of course, though in this context Spenser's metaphor of metempsychosis points directly towards the emerging concept of genius, which in eighteenth-century criticism became literalized as poetic inspiration on the one hand and national culture on the other. Dryden is quite right to trace this new concept of literature-as-tradition to Spenser's decision to take Chaucer as his model. The Fables as a whole repositions English literature away from the French influences that had long dominated it, and returns to medieval and Italian sources; a century later Dryden's new direction was fully assimilated as British romanticism.

Alexander Pope: "It is easy to mark out the general course of our poetry. Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, and Dryden, are the great land-marks for it" ca. 1734-36; in Spence, Anecdotes, ed. Singer (1820) 171.

Universal Magazine: "As [description] is the most striking part of poetry, especially in young minds, being first ingendered in the imagination, and youth most susceptible of these impressions, it will not seem very strange therefore that Cowley, as himself tells us, first caught this flame by reading Spenser; that the great Milton owned him for his original, as Dryden assures us; and that Dryden studied him, and has bestowed more frequent commendations on him, than any other English poet. However, these three were all born with such poetical talents as would have made a figure in the art, had Spenser never been" "Life of Spenser" 49 (Supplement, 1771) 340-41.

Joseph Warton: "Spenser is said to have made a poet of Cowley; that Ogilby should give our author his first poetic pleasures, is a remarkable circumstance. But Dryden soon became his chief favourite, and his model" Life of Pope in Works (1797) 1:xi.

Thomas Green: "Read Dryden's Dedication of his Fables to the Duke of Ormond. One is amazed that such undisguised, overwrought, extravagant and fulsome flattery, could ever have been endured: the most voracious appetite for praise must surely have been gorged by such a dose" 27 January 1798; Extracts from the Diary of a Lover of Literature (1810) 60.

Edmond Malone: "The volume of Poems which our author entitled FABLES, ANCIENT AND MODERN, &c. was first published in folio, in January 1699-1700. The preface therefore, and the preceding Dedication, were his last compositions in prose. He died on the 1st of the following May" Critical and Miscellaneous Prose Works of John Dryden (1800) 3:587.

Walter Scott: "I cannot find any such passages in Spenser as are here alluded to"; to which George Saintsbury responds: "Dryden often writes loosely: he thought no doubt of F.Q. IV. 2. xxxiv. 7." Loci Critici (1903) 165n.

Edward Smedley: "Dryden's Fables are a model of perfect versification; they are also of high interest, from the nature of their stories, and they supply the gap which is only to be filled otherwise by the labour of encountering Chaucer; a task of which I do not repent, but which for your friend is unnecessary. I do not know that I would at present recommend any other of Dryden's original works" To Miss A. M. Smedley, 5 February 1811; Poems (1837) 281.

Sarah Coleridge to Henry Nelson Coleridge: "It appears to me absurd to speak of Chaucer as living in the 'infancy of our poetry.' Chaucer's meter is proved by Tyrwhitt to be, as old Speght declared, quite perfect, if the words are pronounced as they were in his day. So says Sir W. Scott. Time only has 'mis-metred' him, as he himself apprehended. Dryden says that numbers were in their nonage till Denham and Waller appeared. This is a strange misappreciation, as critics think now, of Spenser and Chaucer" 1834; in Memoir and Letters (1874) 90-91.

William Minto: "Although, in Dryden's phrase, 'Spenser more than once insinuates that the soul of Chaucer was transfused into his body,' there can be no doubt that Spenser's chief impulse in the composition of his principal poem was derived from Ariosto and Tasso. It is, indeed, not difficult to adduce passages from the Faery Queen, founded on Chaucer or Sir Thomas Malory. Spenser was a most learned poet, more so probably than any great English poet, except Mr. Swinburne; and he assimilated and incorporated material from many predecessors" Characteristics of English Poets (1874) 213.

Herbert E. Cory: "It is to be observed that most of Dryden's references to Denham and Waller have to do with technique — and with the technique of heroic couplet solely.... When Dryden wrote of the peers of the ancients and considered poetry in all its aspects he praised Chaucer, Tasso, Spenser, Jonson, Shakespeare, Milton, and Corneille in the highest terms. But Waller and Denham were not mentioned" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 118.

A. W. Ward: "He also observes that, of the great English poets who had found no immediate successor in their insight into the poetic genius of our language, the catena Milton-Spenser-Chaucer was closely linked, and that, in going back to Chaucer, he went back to one whom he accounted the first great writer in English poetical literature" Cambridge History of English Literature (1912) 8:57.




'Tis with a Poet, as with a Man who designs to build, and is very exact, as he supposes, in casting up the Cost beforehand: But, generally speaking, he is mistaken in his Account, and reckons short of the Expence he first intended: He alters his Mind as the Work proceeds, and will have this or that Convenience more, of which he had not thought when he began. So has it hapned to me; I have built a House, where I intended but a Lodge: Yet with better Success than a certain Nobleman, who beginning with a Dog-kennil, never liv'd to finish the Palace he had contriv'd.

From translating the First of Homer's Iliads, (which I intended as an Essay to the whole Work) I proceeded to the Translation of the Twelfth Book of Ovid's Metamorphoses, because it contains, among other Things, the Causes, the Beginning, and Ending, of the Trojan War: Here I ought in reason to have stopp'd; but the Speeches of Ajax and Ulysses lying next in my way, I could not balk 'em. When I had compass'd them, I was so taken with the former Part of the Fifteenth Book, (which is the Master-piece of the whole Metamorphoses) that I enjoyn'd my self the pleasing Task of rendring it into English. And now I found, by the Number of my Verses, that they began to swell into a little Volume; which gave me an Occasion of looking backward on some Beauties of my Author, in his former Books: There occur'd to me the Hunting of the Boar, Cinyras and Myrrha, the good-natur'd Story of Baucis and Philemon, with the rest, which I hope I have translated closely enough, and given them the same Turn of Verse, which they had in the Original, and this, I may say without vanity, is not the Talent of every Poet: He who has arriv'd the nearest to it, is the Ingenious and Learned Sandys, the best Versifier of the former Age; if I may properly call it by that Name, which was the former Part of this concluding Century. For Spencer and Fairfax both flourish'd in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth: Great Masters in our Language; and who saw much farther into the Beauties of our Numbers, than those who immediately followed them. Milton was the Poetical Son of Spencer, and Mr. Waller of Fairfax; for we have our Lineal Descents and Clans, as well as other Families: Spencer more than once insinuates, that the Soul of Chaucer was transfus'd into his Body; and that he was begotten by him Two hundred years after his Decease. Milton has acknowledg'd to me, that Spencer was his Original; and many besides my self have heard our famous Waller own, that he deriv'd the Harmony of his Numbers from the Godfrey of Bulloign, which was turn'd into English by Mr. Fairfax. But to return: Having done with Ovid for this time, it came into my mind, that our old English Poet Chaucer in many Things resembled him, and that with no disadvantage on the Side of the Modern Author, as I shall endeavour to prove when I compare them: And as I am, and always have been studious to promote the Honour of my Native Country, so I soon resolv'd to put their Merits to the Trial, by turning some of the Canterbury Tales into our Language, as it is now refin'd: For by this Means both the Poets being set in the same Light, and dress'd in the same English Habit, Story to be compar'd with Story, a certain judgment may be made betwixt them, by the Reader, without obtruding my Opinion on him: Or if I seem partial to my Country-man, and Predecessor in the Laurel, the Friends of Antiquity are not few: And besides many of the Learn'd, Ovid has almost all the Beaux, and the whole Fair Sex, his declar'd Patrons. Perhaps I have assum'd somewhat more to my self than they allow me; because I have adventur'd to sum up the Evidence: But the Readers are the jury; and their Privilege remains entire to decide according to the Merits of the Cause: Or, if they please to bring it to another Hearing, before some other Court. In the mean time, to follow the Thrid of my Discourse, (as Thoughts, according to Mr. Hobbs, have always some Connexion) so from Chaucer I was led to think on Boccace, who was not only his Contemporary, but also pursu'd the same Studies; wrote Novels in Prose, and many Works in Verse; particularly is said to have invented the Octave Rhyme, or Stanza of Eight Lines, which ever since has been maintain'd by the Practice of all Italian Writers, who are, or at least assume the Title of Heroick Poets: He and Chaucer, among other Things, had this in common, that they refin'd their Mother-Tongues; but with this difference, that Dante had begun to file their Language, at least in Verse, before the time of Boccace, who likewise receiv'd no little Help from his Master Petrarch: But the Reformation of their Prose was wholly owing to Boccace himself; who is yet the Standard of Purity in the Italian Tongue; though many of his Phrases are become obsolete, as in process of Time it must needs happen. Chaucer (as you have formerly been told by our learn'd Mr. Rhymer) first adorn'd and amplified our barren Tongue from the Provencall, which was then the most polish'd of all the Modern Languages: But this Subject has been copiously treated by that great Critick, who deserves no little Commendation from us his Countrymen. For these Reasons of Time, and Resemblance of Genius, in Chaucer and Boccace, I resolv'd to join them in my present Work; to which I have added some Original Papers of my own; which whether they are equal or inferiour to my other Poems, an Author is the most improper judge; and therefore I leave them wholly to the Mercy of the Reader: I will hope the best, that they will not be condemn'd; but if they should, I have the Excuse of an old Gentleman, who mounting on Horseback before some Ladies, when I was present, got up somewhat heavily, but desir'd of the Fair Spectators, that they would count Fourscore and eight before they judg'd him. By the Mercy of God, I am already come within Twenty Years of his Number, a Cripple in my Limbs, but what Decays are in my Mind, the Reader must determine. I think my self as vigorous as ever in the Faculties of my Soul, excepting only my Memory, which is not impair'd to any great degree; and if I lose not more of it, I have no great reason to complain. What judgment I had, increases rather than diminishes; and Thoughts, such as they are, come crowding in so fast upon me, that my only Difficulty is to chuse or to reject; to run them into Verse, or to give them the other Harmony of Prose. I have so long studied and practis'd both, that they are grown into a Habit, and become familiar to me. In short, though I may lawfully plead some part of the old Gentleman's Excuse; yet I will reserve it till I think I have greater need, and ask no Grains of Allowance for the Faults of this my present Work, but those which are given of course to Humane Frailty. I will not trouble my Reader with the shortness of Time in which I writ it; or the several Intervals of Sickness: They who think too well of their own Performances, are apt to boast in their Prefaces how little Time their Works have cost them; and what other Business of more importance interfer'd: But the Reader will be as apt to ask the Question, Why they allow'd not a longer Time to make their Works more perfect? and why they had so despicable an opinion of their judges, as to thrust their indigested Stuff upon them, as if they deserv'd no better?...

Common Sense (which is a Rule in every thing but Matters of Faith and Revelation) must convince the Reader, that Equality of Numbers in every Verse which we call Heroick, was either not known, or not always practis'd in Chaucer's Age. It were an easie Matter to produce some thousands of his Verses, which are lame for want of half a Foot, and sometimes a whole one, and which no Pronunciation can make otherwise. We can only say, that he liv'd in the Infancy of our Poetry, and that nothing is brought to Perfection at the first. We must be Children before we grow Men. There was an Ennius, and in the process of Time a Lucilius, and a Lucretius, before Virgil and Horace; even after Chaucer there was a Spencer, a Harrington, a Fairfax, before Waller and Denham were in being: And our Numbers were in their Nonage till these last appear'd....


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