1727
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Alley. An Imitation of Spencer.

Miscellanies. The Last Volume. [Jonathan Swift, ed.]

Alexander Pope


Six Spenserians anonymously published in 1727 in the Swift-Pope Miscellanies. Alexander Pope acknowledged the poem in his Works (1736), where it appears among his juvenilia with the other imitations of English poets. The Alley evokes Spenser's powers of description, here applied to a low subject with the minute particularity of a Dutch genre painting. If the poem imitates Spenser, its low-life descriptions are composed in emulation of Philips's The Splendid Shilling, a burlesque of Milton.

The often-assigned date of 1706 seems too early, and we know from Spence that John Gay had a hand in its composition. But while Pope may have placed The Alley with his juvenilia for reasons that had as much to do with genre as chronology, The Alley may well have been written long before it was published. Joseph Spence reports (1730) that "Among the imitations in Pope and Swift's Miscellanies, that of the City Shower was designed by Swift to imitate Virgil's Georgic style. The Alley, in imitation of Spenser, was written by Mr. Pope, with a line or two of Mr. Gay's in it: and the imitation of Chaucer was wholly by Mr. Pope" Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters (1820) 23.

The Alley recalls the characters of Envy and Detraction at the end of Book V of the Faerie Queene: "Then th' other comming neare, gan him revile, | And fouly rayle, with all she could invent" 5.12.40. However, as Joseph Warton noted with disapproval, Pope burlesques Spenser's description of the musical grove in the Bower of Bliss, Faerie Queene 2.12.71: "The joyous birdes shrouded in chearefull shade, | Their notes unto the voyce attempred sweet."

The Alley was a germinal poem, several times imitated in the periodicals and elsewhere. It was a general source for burlesque urban pastorals, such as The Billingsgate Contest, in the Gentleman's Magazine (1737). Pope's burlesque could not help but become one of the best known imitations of Spenser. It was an inspiration for Shenstone's School-Mistress (1737), which, in combination with the Splendid Shilling, generated a series of imitations that continued unabated well into the nineteenth century.

Alexander Pope wrote to John Hughes in 1715: "Spenser has ever been a favourite poet to me: he is like a mistress, whose faults we see, but love her with 'em all" in Duncombe, ed. Letters of Several Eminent Persons (1772, 1773) 1:133.

Alexander Pope to Jonathan Swift: "The third volume consists of verses, but I would choose to print none but such as have some peculiarity, and may be distinguished for ours, from other writers. There's no end of making books, Solomon said, and above all making miscellanies, which all men can make. For unless there be a character in every piece, like the mark of the elect, I should not care to be one of the twelve thousand" 8 March 1727; Works of Swift, ed. Nichols (1801) 14:63.

J. Preston to Miss Blisset: "I should be glad to know exactly when you set out for Richmond, because I think I can provide you a very agreeable Companion in the literary Way. It is a Poem called The Alley. It describes all inconvenient and disagreeable Circumstances, which are met in the pleasant-situated Town and Villages on the Banks of the Thames. It would be an Entertainment to you any where, and at any Time; but you will be much more sensible of the Beauties, when you are passing through those Places. I therefore shall not send it, till you tell me that you are about to set forward" 23 June 1743; in Genuine Letters from a Gentleman to a Young Lady his Pupil (1772) 2:91-92.

William Cowper: "With the unwearied application of a plodding Flemish painter, who draws a shrimp with the most minute exactness, he had all the genius of one of the first masters" to Rev. William Unwin, 5 January 1782; in Southey, Life and Works of Cowper (1835-37) 4:168.

Joseph Warton: "To imitate Spenser on a subject that does not partake of the pathos, is not giving a true representation of him, for he seems to be more awake and alive to all the softnesses of nature, than almost any writer I can recollect" Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (1782) 2:32, and again: "How different from those enchanting imitations of Spenser, The Castle of Indolence and the Minstrel!" Works of Pope (1797) 2:280n.

William Roscoe: "The above remarks [by Joseph Warton] seem scarcely to be called for, on the present occasion. Pope was as well aware as any one, of the superlative beauties and merits of Spenser, whose works he assiduously studied, both in his early and riper years; but it was not his intention, in these few lines, to give a serious imitation of him. All that he attempted was to show how exactly he could apply the language and manner of Spenser to low and burlesque subjects; and in this he has completely succeeded. To compare these lines, as Dr. Warton has done, with those more extensive and highly finished productions, the Castle of Indolence by Thomson, and the Minstrel of Beattie, is manifestly unjust" Works of Pope (1824) 2:362.

Nathan Drake: "It were much to be wished also that every future editor [of Pope] would expel not only these offensive pages, but the Imitations likewise of Chaucer and Spenser, neither of which have a particle of merit, and the last impresses an idea of the genius of the poet totally void of all verisimilitude" Essays Illustrative of the Rambler (1809-10) 2:143.

W. J. Courthope: "Warton's criticisms are strangely beside the mark. This Imitation is merely so called in the sense in which the parodies in the Dunciad are imitations — it is, in fact, a broad burlesque. Pope meant to turn the style of Spenser upside down; and as the Elizabethan poet excelled in describing abstractions with so much 'circumstantial imagery' as to make them resemble paintings, so the eighteenth-century satirist gives a mock elevation to the basest realities of life by gravely associating them with allegorical figures, drawn with all the breadth and vigour of Hogarth, and exhibiting their deformity the more plainly under the transparently antique disguise in which they are presented" Works of Alexander Pope (1871-89) 4:425-26n.

William Lyon Phelps: "Pope was not altogether lacking in appreciation of Spenser.... But his exceedingly coarse burlesque of the old poet shows that if his appreciation was sincere, he did not dare to avow it publicly. When The Alley was written seems difficult to ascertain. We know from Spence's Anecdotes that Gay had some slight share in its composition. The poem stands among Pope's imitations of Chaucer, Waller, Cowley, and others, and we are told that they were 'done by the Author in his Youth.' Joseph Warton said that some of these imitations were written at fourteen or fifteen years of age. In composing The Alley Pope was, of course, not prompted by his love for Spenser; it was simply an exercise in versification" Beginnings of the English Romantic Movement (1893) 52-53.

Henry A. Beers: "It is a commonplace that Spenser has made more poets than any other one writer. Even Pope, whose empire he came back from Fairyland to overthrow, assured Spence that he had read the Faerie Queene with delight when he was a boy, and re-read it with equal pleasure in his last years. Indeed, it is too readily assumed that writers are insensible to the beauties of an opposite school. Pope was quite incapable of making romantic poetry, but not, therefore, incapable of appreciating it.... Among his youthful parodies of old English poets is one piece entitled The Alley, a not over clever burlesque of the famous description of the Bower of Bliss" Eighteenth-Century Romanticism (1899) 79-80.

Herbert E. Cory: "Two fallacious ideas about the neo-classical attitude toward Spenser are current; that he was unpopular even among literary men, and that the Augustans approached him in a spirit of mockery. Professor Phelps, for instance, quotes some platitudes in Addison's boyish Epistle to Sacheverel to indicate how little Addison knew or cared about Spenser. But he does not take into consideration a long series of admiring references in Addison's mature pork, including a prose allegory professedly in the manner of Spenser which Addison once aspired to develop in poetic form. Similarly Professor Phelps makes too much of the Spenserian burlesque, The Alley, which Pope and Gay wrote in a few moments of triviality. If we examined consistently all the vulgar parodies in eighteenth century poetry and made the same deductions, we should be forced to conclude that the eighteenth century admired nobody, ancient or modern. Eighteenth century England devoted occasional moments of recreation to that peculiarly pointless type of obscenity that is now current among boys at grammar schools. It is of little significance" Critics of Edmund Spenser (1911) 129.

Harko Gerrit De Maar: "Alexander Pope's The Alley was written about 1705, but not published till 1727. This short jeu d'esprit is important, because it is the first Spenserian poem, which is frankly burlesque. As such it was destined to have a lasting influence, for in the course of the century Spenserian imitations were again and again written 'to yield the pleasures of the ludicrous.' The poem itself should not be taken seriously. It was the product of a trivial hour with Gay and does not entitle us to conclude that Pope had no genuine admiration for Spenser" History of Modern English Romanticism (1924) 94

Austin Warren: It "is admirable in its kind, — a study in the genre of Hogarth or Crabbe. But though Lyttleton makes Pope complain of Spenser that 'He brings the minute and disagreeable parts too much into sight' [in Dialogues of the Dead], there is surely a sharp distinction to be drawn between this comic realism and the portentous ugliness of some of the episodes and vignettes in the Faerie Queen" (1929) 233.



In ev'ry Town, where Thamis rolls his Tyde,
A narrow Pass there is, with Houses low;
Where ever and anon, the Stream is ey'd,
And many a Boat soft sliding to and fro.
There oft' are heard the Notes of Infant Woe,
The short thick Sob, loud Scream, and shriller Squall:
How can ye, Mothers, vex your Children so?
Some play, some eat, some cack against the Wall,
And as they crouchen low, for Bread and Butter call.

And on the broken Pavement here and there,
Doth many a stinking Sprat and Herring lie;
A Brandy and Tobacco shop is near,
And Hens, and Dogs, and Hogs are feeding by;
And here a Sailor's Jacket hangs to dry:
At ev'ry Door are Sun-burnt Matrons seen,
Mending old Nets to catch the scaly Fry;
Now singing shrill, and scolding eft between,
Scolds answer foul-mouth'd scolds; bad Neighbourhood I ween.

The snappish Cur, (the Passengers annoy)
Close at my Heel with yelping Treble flies;
The whimp'ring Girl, and hoarser-screaming Boy,
Join to the yelping Treble shrilling Cries;
The scolding Quean to louder Notes doth rise,
And her full Pipes those shrilling Cries confound:
To her full Pipes the grunting Hog replies;
The grunting Hogs alarm the Neighbours round,
And Curs, Girls, Boys, and Scolds, in the deep Base are drown'd.

Hard by a Sty, beneath a Roof of Thatch,
Dwelt Obloquy, who in her early Days
Baskets of Fish at Billingsgate did watch,
Cod, Whiting, Oyster, Mackrel, Sprat, or Plaice:
There learn'd she Speech from Tongues that never cease.
Slander beside her, like a Magpye, chatters,
With Envy, (spitting Cat) dread Foe to Peace:
Like a curs'd Cur, Malice before her clatters,
And vexing ev'ry Wight, tears Cloaths and all to Tatters.

Her Dugs were mark'd by ev'ry Collier's Hand,
Her Mouth was black as Bull-Dogs at the Stall:
She scratched, bit, and spar'd nor Lace nor Band,
And Bitch and Rogue her Answer was at all;
Nay, e'en the Parts of Shame by Name would call:
Yea when she passed by or Lane or Nook,
Would greet the Man who turn'd him to the Wall,
And by his Hand obscene the Porter took,
Nor ever did askance like modest Virgin look.

Such Place hath Deptford, Navy-building Town,
Woolwich and Wapping, smelling strong of Pitch;
Such Lambeth, Envy of each Band and Gown,
And Twick'nam such, which fairer Scenes enrich
Grots, Statues, Urns, and Jo—n's Dog and Bitch:
Ne Village is without, on either side,
All up the silver Thames, or all a down;
Ne Richmond's self, from whose tall Front are ey'd
Vales, Spires, meandring Streams, and Windsor's tow'ry Pride.

[(1728) 46-50]