1740 ca.
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters of Books and Men.

Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters of Books and Men. With Notes and a Life of the Author, by Samuel Weller Singer.

Rev. Joseph Spence


These anecdotes, collected by Joseph Spence over many years, presented the public with a new conception of Pope's view of Spenser, along with a wealth of information about other Spenserians. With an eye to writing a biography of his friend Pope, Spence made a systematic attempt to record the conversational remarks of literary men, he eventually ceded this task to Warburton and Ruffhead, with the result that the Anecdotes entered into a kind of limbo, available to Warburton, Johnson, Joseph Warton, and Edmond Malone, but not published until 1820, when they sparked another paper war over Pope and romanticism.

Edmond Malone: "A call from Dr. Joseph Warton produced a conversation respecting Spence, author of the Anecdotes, who he maintained Dr. Johnson had under-rated. He told me that Spence once intended to publish his Anecdotes, and had actually sold them to Robert Dodsley for a hundred pounds. Before the matter was finally settled both Spence and Dodsley died. Spence's executors, Dr. G. Ridley and Dr. South, late Bishop of London (who mentioned this circumstance to Dr. Warton), on looking over the Anecdotes found there were so many personal strokes affecting persons then living, that suppression at least for a time was deemed the more prudent course. James Dodsley, brother to Robert, relinquished his bargain, though he probably would have gained 400 or 500 by it, being unwilling that anything should appear prejudicial to the memory of Spence. The executors sealed up the papers and delivered them to Spence's patron, the present Duke of Newcastle, in whose hands they remain. They were lent to the late Duchess Dowager of Portland, and to Dr. Johnson while he was writing the Lives of the Poets; and have also passed through other hands. They are, Dr. Warton says very entertaining, and full of curious information" 6 January 1792; Maloniana, in Sir James Prior, Life of Edmond Malone (1860) 184.

Walter Scott to Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe: "I have already bespoke Spence, but of late I have not been looking after my books, so have not received him. Never suppose you want such books as I have while I am to the fore. I have always detested literary quarrels, in which, as in common gambling-houses, you stake your tie and temper against those of very unworthy antagonists. But Pope was a fine fellow. His fault was, he was quite literary, and had neither the business nor the idleness of life to divide his mind from his Parnassian pursuits. Those who have not his genius may be so far compensated by avoiding his foibles, and least of all ought they to be nourished by your true and sincere friend, Walter Scott" 16 January 1819; Letters from and to Charles Kirkpatrick Sharp (1888) 2:193-94.

Leigh Hunt: "We justly object to some poetical claims of Pope, as his great ear for music, &c. But upon the whole, we think still higher of Pope's natural goodness, and benevolence from this work, than we used to do; and cannot but think that absolute 'meanness' in money matters was inconsistent with such a spirit" The Examiner (23 January 1820) 59.

William Hazlitt: "There is a gap between each conclusion, and at the end of every paragraph we have a new labour to begin. They are not scenes, but soliloquies, with which we are presented: And in reading through the book, we do not seem travelling along a road, but crossing a series of stepping stones: consequently, we do not get on fast with it. It is made up of shreds and patches, and not cut out of the entire piece; something like the little scraps into which the tailor in Don Quixote cut his cloth, and held them up at his fingers' ends. In a word, the living scene does not pass before us; — we have notes and slips of paper handed out by one of the company, but we are not ourselves admitted to their presence, nor made witnesses of the fray.... It has been currently said, that Pope used to express his distaste for Spenser by making it a rule to ask people, 'Whether they had ever read the Faery Queene through!' How far this was from being the case, will appear from his own words as here recorded" "Spence's Anecdotes" Edinburgh Review 33 (May 1820) 305, 313.

Isaac D'Israeli: "Nothing can present a more inviting appearance than this literary chit-chat; yet we have frequently closed the volume in weariness. There is in the nature of the work an insurmountable defect; it has all the distraction of conversation, without leaving us the power to ask a question or pursue a discussion. In this book of infinite little things, nothing comes prepared to us by introduction or reflection: the hurry of our ideas is oppressive; there is a sort of variety which, so far from exciting attention, puts us half to sleep; it is like the tumbling of waves, one runs over the other, till amidst the rapid changes the mind grows insensible to the successive motions" "Spence's Anecdotes" Quarterly Review 23 (July 1820) 407.

Samuel Egerton Brydges: "I do not think much of Spence's Anecdotes of the poet; they are trifling, though better than nothing, and very proper to have been preserved by the press" Autobiography (1834) 2:124.

George Saintsbury: "The Popiana of Spence add more to our idea of Pope's critical faculty, or at least of its exercises; in fact, it is possible to take a much better estimate of Pope's 'literature' from the Anecdotes than from the Works. Although the Boswellian spirit was, fortunately enough for posterity, very strong in the eighteenth century, there was no particular reason why Spence should toady Pope — especially as he published nothing to obtain pence or popularity from the toadying" History of English Criticism (1911) 187-88.




Waller, Spenser, and Dryden were Mr. Pope's great favourites in the order they are named, in his first reading till he was about twelve [told to Spence about 1728; the sequence of the names varies among the manuscripts].

Michael Drayton was one of the imitators of Spenser, and Fairfax another. Milton in his first pieces is an evident follower of Spenser too, in his famous Allegro and Penseroso [recorded in May 1730].

It is easy to mark out the general course of our poetry. Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, and Dryden are the great landmarks for it [recorded in 1736].

I endeavoured (says he, smiling) in this [early effort at an epic] poem to collect all the beauties of the great epic writers into one piece. There was Milton's style in one part, and Cowley's in another, here the style of Spenser imitated and there of Statius, here Homer and Virgil, and there Ovid and Claudian. — "It was an imitative poem then, as your other exercises were imitations of this or that story?" — "Just that" [recorded 1743].

After reading a canto in Spenser two or three days ago to an old lady between seventy and eighty [Pope's mother, according to the Huntington MS of the Observations], she said that I had been showing her a collection of pictures. — I don't know how it is, but she said very right: there is something in Spenser that pleases one as strongly in one's old age as it did in one's youth. I read the Faerie Queene, when I was about twelve, with infinite delight; and I think it gave me as much, when I read it over about a year or two ago [recorded 1743-44].

The list of writers, that might serve as authorities for poetical language, was begun upon twice, but left very imperfect. There were but nine mentioned, and two of those only for burlesque style. . . . Spenser, Shakespeare, Fletcher, Waller, Butler, Milton, Dryden, Prior, Swift. . . . Butler and Swift. Fletcher was mentioned too only as an authority for familiar dialogue and the slighter kinds of writing [recorded 1743-44].


[pp. 8, 21, 171, 277, 296-97; 310-11 & n.]