1713
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Preface to Essay on the Different Stiles of Poetry.

An Essay on the Different Stiles of Poetry.

Rev. Thomas Parnell


Thomas Parnell, writing anonymously, defends allegory and departures from classical precedent: "There have been poets amongst our selves, such as Spencer and Milton, who have successfully ventur'd further. These instances may let us see that Invention is not bounded by what has been done before, they may open our Imaginations, and be one Method of preserving us from Writing without Schemes." Parnell's Essay is an allegorical poem, but not a Spenser imitation. His preface comments on the relation of genius to imitation and ancients to moderns.

Note in Bell's Fugitive Poetry: "The Author of this Epistle was descended from the Parnells who had been long seated at Congleton in Cheshire, but on the Restoration withdrew to Ireland, in consequence of their adherence to the Commonwealth Party. In the capital of that kingdom our Poet was born in 1675, and, having been instructed in the classics by Dr. Jones, was admitted into Trinity College, Dublin, at the age of thirteen. In July, 1700, he took his master's degree and orders; and about four years after was collated by the Bishop of Clogher, to that archdeaconry. Prior, however, to this period, he married a Miss Anne Minchin, who was remarkable both for beauty and merit. By her, he had two sons and a daughter. The latter survived him, but both the former died young. The loss of his wife, preyed greatly on his spirits and considerably hastened his own dissolution. Dying on his way to Ireland, at Chester, he was buried in Trinity Church. Dr. Parnell lived in habits of intimacy with the great and the witty, and was loved and sought after by all who knew him. It appears from Swift's Journal to Stella, that our Author, who was introduced to Bollingbroke, by the Dean, adopted several of his hints for improving this Epistle" (1789-97) 3:163-64.

Thomas Campbell: "But in poetry 'there are many mansions.' I am free to confess, that I can pass from the elder writers, and still find a charm in the correct and equable sweetness of Parnell. Conscious that his diction has not the freedom and volubility of the better strains of the elder time, I cannot but remark his exemption from the quaintness and false metaphor which so often disfigure the style of the preceding age; nor deny my respect to the select choice of his expression, the clearness and keeping of his imagery, and the pensive dignity of his moral feeling" Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1841) lxxxvi.

Whitwell Elwin: "Parnell had been recommended to him by Swift, who has this entry in his Journal to Stella, Dec. 22, 1712: 'I gave Lord Bolingbroke a poem of Parnell's. I made Parnell insert some compliments in it to his lordship. He is extremely pleased with it, and read some parts of it to-day to lord treasurer, who liked it as much. And, indeed, he out does all our poets here a bar's length.' The verses, Mr. Cunningham says, were published in March, 1713, and have for their title, An Essay on the different Styles of Poetry, inscribed to Lord Bolingbroke. They appeared without the name of the author, and are not printed in Parnell's works" Pope, Correspondence, ed. Elwin (1871) 2:195n.

W. J. Courthope: "the characteristics of Parnell's genius are choiceness and purity, rather than force and elevation. He appears to have aimed at a mean between the literary classicalism of Pope and the the colloquial idiom of Prior and Swift" History of English Poetry (1895-1910) 5:189.

Earl R. Wasserman: "Thomas Parnell felt that since other forms of art merely represent reality or reproduce the thoughts of others, 'there seems to be no likelier way by which a Poetical Genius may yet appear as an Original, than that he should proceed with a full compass of thought and knowledge, either to design his plan, or to beautify the parts of it, in an allegorical manner'.... Parnell contributed a number of allegories in prose to the Spectator and Guardian" "The Inherent Values of Eighteenth-Century Personification" PMLA (1950) 445 and note.

Alexander Pope omitted this poem from the collected edition of Parnell's poems published in 1722.




Allegory is in it self so retired a way of Writing, that it was thought proper to say something beforehand concerning the Piece which is intirely fram'd upon it.

The Design therefore is to show the several Stiles which have been made use of by those who have endeavour'd to write in Verse. The Scheme by which it is carry'd on, supposes an old Grecian Poet couching his Observations or Instructions within an Allegory; which Allegory is wrought out upon the single word Flight, as in the figurative way it signifies a Thought above the common Level: Here Wit is made to be Pegasus, and the Poet his Rider, who flies by several Countries where he must not touch, by which are meant so many vicious Stiles, and arrives at last at the Sublime.

This way of Writing is not only very engaging to the Fancy whenever it is well perform'd, but it has been thought also one of the first that the Poets made use of. Hence arose many of those Stories concerning the Heathen Gods, which at first were invented to insinuate Truth and Morality more pleasingly, and which afterwards made Poetry it self more solemn, when they happen'd to be receiv'd into the Heathen Divinity. And indeed there seems to be no likelier way by which a Poetical Genius may yet appear as an Original, than that he should proceed with a full compass of Thought and Knowledge, either to design his Plan, or to beautify the Parts of it, in an Allegorical manner. We are much beholden to Antiquity for those excellent Compositions by which Writers at present form their Minds; but it is not so much for us to adhere merely to their Fables as to observe their Manner. For if we preclude our own Invention, Poetry will consist only in Expression, or Simile, or the Application of old Stories; and the utmost Character to which a Genius will arrive will depend on Imitation, or a borrowing from others, which we must agree together not to call Stealing, because we take only from the Ancients. There have been poets amongst our selves, such as Spencer and Milton, who have successfully ventur'd further. These instances may let us see that Invention is not bounded by what has been done before, they may open our Imaginations, and be one Method of preserving us from Writing without Schemes.

As for what relates any further particularly to this Poem, the Reader will observe, that its Aim is Instruction. Perhaps a representation of several Mistakes and Difficulties which happen to many who write Poetry, may deter some from attempting what they have not been made for: And perhaps the description of several Beauties belonging to it, may afford Hints towards forming a Genius for delighting and improving Mankind. If either of these happen the Poem is useful; and upon that Account its Faults may be more easily excused.


[pp. i-iv]