In a particularly rich and informative letter, dated 30 March 1751, Thomas Edward speaks of his controversy with Bishop Warburton and complains about the standards of scholarship in the recent commentary on Shakespeare, Milton (by Thomas Newton, Richard Bentley, and Jonathan Richardson), and Spenser. He complains bitterly that the booksellers are more interested in illustrations than texts, as witnessed by the 1751 Faerie Queene with the notorious illustrations by William Kent, then appearing. He had begun editing Spenser himself, but has given it up; however, "This only I can, and this I do promise, that if Spenser be murdered, and I live, he shall not die unrevenged, be the assassin who he will" 3:16.
Warburton's Shakespeare had appeared in 1747. Thomas Newton (1704-82) had edited Paradise Lost in 1749. In a slip of the pen, Edwards describes owning "Rowes's" edition of Spenser, referring to that edited by John Hughes (1715). The editorial tasks declined by Thomas Edwards were performed well by Ralph Church and John Upton in their rival editions of Spenser (1758).
At the conclusion of the letter Thomas Edwards mentions his answering sonnet to Hester Mulso Chapone, later published in the Canons of Criticism; her verses to him began, "Blest Bard! to whom the Muses, grateful, gave | That pipe which erst their dearest Spenser won...."
Henry John Todd (confusing Edwards with his correspondent): "Of this modernised text [of John Hughes], Richardson, the author of Pamela, as it appears in the late publication of his Letters, has expressed his disapprobation; but at the same time has been mistaken in assigning to Rowe the edition which had been conducted by Hughes. Richardson also once entertained an intention, with the fulfilment of which the world of letters must have been highly gratified, of presenting to the publick an unadulterated edition of the poet. But the task of collation, it seems, became wearisome to him" Works of Spenser (1805) 1:Sig. A3v.
Edwards did eventually become involved with with the 1751 Works of Spenser, as Jewel Wurtsbaugh reports: "Brindley, the bookseller who promoted the edition, attempted to secure the assistance of Thomas Edwards, but with little success. Brindley's angling or friendship for [Thomas] Birch led to Edwards's having, however, a small share in the preparation of the 1751 text. On October 1, 1751, Edwards wrote to Birch that, upon receiving the Spenser, he went to work as hard as he could that he might send Birch the errata as soon as possible" Two Centuries of Spenserian Scholarship (1936) 64. See her essay, "Thomas Edwards and the Editorship of the Faerie Queene" Modern Language Notes 50 (1935) 146-50.
I should be insensible of our common calamity, and regardless of the afflicting hand of Providence, if I did not deeply feel the loss we have sustained by the death of the Prince of Wales; and indeed I do feel more than I can easily express on this melancholy occasion. God preserve the King's life, and keep us from the inconveniences which generally attend a minority!
I give you a great many thanks for your last letter, and for your so kindly executing the commission about the plants, which came very safe through your care: but I am afraid I gave you too much trouble in it. Many thanks too for the mezzotintos: they shall go to none but such as deserve them by a true value of the good original.
I have the same sentiments about Dr. N—'s performance as you have, and think it a shame that he should get so much more for a bad edition of the Paradise Lost than the divine Milton did for the original; but the blame lies on the great people, who encourage such unable undertakers; which if they would not do, the booksellers must break who employ them. I did give the Doctor a little rap on the knuckles in the appendix to the Canons: but as it would not be worth while to kill dead men, such as your namesake and Dr. Bentley, so I do not think his part in it would yield much diversion. It is a heavy, tedious and unedifying performance, which I imagine must sink with its own weight, if we have any taste left amongst us.
However, have not I work enough upon my hands with the professed critic? whose long-threatened vengeance is probably only suspended, to fall with greater weight on my devoted head as soon as his pictures come from Holland; especially as, I hear, matters are compromised between Mallet and him, and I am left the sole butt of his wrath. Would it not be unpardonable rashness in me to, provoke more enemies, till I see what will befall me from the resentment of those I already have? For not only the Doctor and his patrons, who by his subscriptions must be not a few, but the whole tribe of booksellers, those exact judges and rewarders of merit, would join against me, like the silversmiths at Ephesus, as an enemy to the craft.
As to what you write about my ever-honoured Spenser, it really gives me a very sensible concern; and, as he says of his Red-cross Knight,
—I do my stout heart eat,
And waste my inward gall with deep despite;
for I have seen the proposals: and if the work be executed according to the specimen, poor Spenser will be even worse treated than either Milton or Shakespeare; and they were handled badly enough in conscience. But let me ask you, What can be done in this picture-loving age, when, if a bookseller can but get a few paltry cuts to raise the price of a book, people will come-in in shoals to subscribe, be the editor's work ever so carelessly or ignorantly executed? If pictures be, as the popish priests say, the books of the unlearned, one may guess whence this encouragement comes: but the discovery will be no great reputation to our age.
For my own part, I never was master of any edition of Spenser but Rowe's, which, upon my first reading it, appeared to be published in a very hasty and careless manner: a very great number of faults I could discover and correct, without comparing with any other edition. Some time since I borrowed the folio of 1609; but it was not till lately that I could get a sight of the first quarto of 1590, which was published in Spenser's lifetime: and I proposed this summer, if I should have life and health, to collate the three together, — as indeed I have begun to do. From hence one may perhaps get a correct text: but to give such an edition of that charming poet as he deserves, and as is really wanted, now when a great deal of his language is become obsolete, — this is a work not to he done with a wet finger, and is, I doubt, beyond my strength; not to mention the collecting parallel places where he has imitated other authors, a work which Lauder has made me sick of. The making a glossary alone is a work of time, and would require several books which I have not, — nor are they to be had in the country: and I will by no means engage myself to publish a work which I cannot perfect; for I should die with shame to be guilty of such crude unlicked performances as I justly blame in others. In short, I doubt nothing can be done to save our classic authors from such scandalous injuries as we both lament, unless they can be rescued out of the hands of the booksellers, who begin quite at the wrong end of the work. Instead of waiting till they can get a good edition of an author, they procure a competency of cuts, publish proposals, levy subscriptions, and then beat about for an undertaker, no matter whom, the cheaper the better, to perform their part of the contract they have made with the public. Can any thing good, any thing reputable either to themselves or their authors, be the result of such preposterous proceedings? Yet what possible method is there of putting a stop to them? This only I can, and this I do promise, that if Spenser be murdered and I live, he shall not die unrevenged, be the assassin who he will.
As to the other affair about our language, the more I consider it, the more difficulties appear in it; and I am convinced that it is not only above my strength, but perhaps that of any one man. I have many doubts myself, and there are many words that I am not clear how they should be spelled: how then shall I set up for a teacher? The most that I could do would be to throw out a specimen by way of spur to others, who, lighting their links at my candle, may make further discoveries. If what you have, with a few additions, would serve this purpose, and it be thought by my friends worth publishing, I should be glad to contribute what I can towards so desirable a thing as settling our orthography: and indeed I think this would be on many accounts the best method; for I apprehend any change must be brought about by degrees, and in the most gentle manner: people would rise up against a dictatorial edict, and would not at once change their mumpsimus for a new sumpsimus, especially as they can plead custom for their mistakes.
But it becomes me, who have a little reputation to lose, to be very cautious of what I publish, as I doubt not there are who would watch for my halting. You must be my Mentor, to check any vanity that you see rising in me; and you ought to do it, since you have been the innocent occasion of my being in danger. You cannot imagine how I am altered since your last letter. I am grown, like your Lovelace, a foot or two taller, and begin to think I may possibly live in this world after I am dead. Your linnet twitters most enchantingly. I am exceedingly obliged to her for her music, and have endeavoured to chirp to her again as well as I can in the inclosed sonnet, which I beg you to present to her from me, if you think it worth her acceptance. There is, and I doubt not but you have felt it, there is something more deliciously charming in the approbation of the ladies, than in that of a whole university of he-critics; and if I can deserve their applause, let the sour pedants rail as much as they please,
For theirs the claim to each instructive tongue,
And theirs the great monopoly of song.
Good night, good Mr. Richardson! Remember me to all your good family, to all your pretty disciplesses, and all friends who inquire after
Your THOS. EDWARDS.
Turrick, March 30, 1751.
Eleven o'clock—a late country hour.