1754
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[To Samuel Richardson, on Sonnets.]

The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison, selected from the original Manuscripts, bequeathed by him to his family. To which is prefixed a Biographical Account of that author, and Obervations on his Writings, by Anna Laetitia Barbauld. 6 vols.

Thomas Edwards


Thomas Edwards, who revived the long-neglected sonnet for eighteenth-century poetry, describes how he was led to adopt the form after reading Spenser — in John Hughes's edition, as he elsewhere reports. He defends the practice of imitation, pointing out that he is no more an imitator than Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, and defends the use of unusual diction taken from "our classic authors": "this has always been allowed lawful, and I wish it were more practised, so it be done with judgment: it would enrich our language with a better ore than we can have from the French mint, which is so much in fashion" 3:92.

The first half of the letter continues a running thread in the correspondence concerning John Duncombe's Feminiad (1754). The comments about the sonnet, indeed, appear to have been provoked by a yet-unpublished sonnet of Duncombe's, gently chiding Edwards for his affectations of antiquity: "Why then dost thou, great Spenser's genuine son, | Too fondly emulous, that vestment wear, | Which in Eliza's court adorn'd they sire?"

William Lyon Phelps: "Edwards was the author of just fifty sonnets. These are chiefly addressed to his private friends, and are not particularly remarkable for their literary merit. What is remarkable is the fact that Edwards persistently wrote in this form at a time when it was so unfashionable. Forty-six of these sonnets are on the Miltonic model, and the other four are after the Spenserian pattern — a curious fact, as the Spenserian sonnet has never been at all popular" Beginnings of the English Romantic Movement (1893) 46.




Turrick, July 18, 1754.

I am quite ashamed, my dear Mr. Richardson, when I reflect how long I have been in debt for your last favour. To confess the truth, after a long confinement at home from indisposition and bad weather, I was glad, upon the change of the season, to take the air as much as I could; and my summer friends being returned with the swallows, I have for some time past lived almost wholly on horseback, or in company, excepting the evenings, which of late I have not found so convenient for writing as I could wish.

I like the title of "Female Genius" for Mr. D's poem; in my opinion, where there is one good title there is no occasion for an alias: but every man a right to name his own child as he pleases: it might, therefore, be impertinent in me to object; though, had I not a regard both for the work and the author, I should not have mentioned any thing of it. To speak frankly, the Dunciad being a mock-heroic poem, Mr. Pope might be justified in giving it a mock-epic name. But I always thought it a piece of affectation in Voltaire to call his the Henriade; a Greek termination does not suit with our modern Gothic names: who could bear a Williamade, Carolade, or Fredericade, at least, in any but a burlesque poem?

I did say, and I do really think, that it is a pity so many fine performances, as you and I have seen written by ladies, should be lost to the world; that the public should be robbed of the pleasure and instruction, and they themselves of the honour of them. Yet, seriously to consider of it, what can one say? Till this world is mended, a lady perhaps may be justified in fearing lest she should be looked upon (as Harriet says) "like an owl among the birds," and should lose more credit among the majority than she can gain with the few.

The prejudices against a learned wife (such mean as are free from pedantry, and neglect not their proper duty to acquire their learning) are absurd, irrational, and often flow from envy; but they are strong, inveterate, and too general. Who then is she who dares step forth to vindicate her sex, and assert their clame to genius, at the hazard of forfeiting all her own hopes of a settlement in the world, and friendship with the rest of her sex? I think the present more liberal education of our girls may probably pave the way for their emancipation hereafter: but in the mean time I acknowledge, I cannot from my heart blame those who are afraid of being made the jest of fools for performances above their comprehension. This I know has been the case of a lady whom we are both acquainted with; which makes me not wonder that she rejoices at being not taken notice of in this poem.

I return you many thanks for Miss Farrer's Ode on the Spring; it is a charming piece, and must do her honour with all judges. I wish I could see that to Cynthia.

The verses from my fair Pupil, as she does me the honour to call herself, did indeed a little alarm me. To chide me in a sonnet for writing of sonnets, was doing as a physician did by me the other day, — who at the very time he was taking a pinch out of my box reproved me for taking snuff.

But for my Sonnets, — whether I shall ever transgress in that way again I cannot tell; at present I have no impulse to it, and therefore I must beg leave to vindicate or at least excuse myself in prose. The reading of Spenser's Sonnets was the first occasion of my writing that species of little poems, and my first six were written in the same sort of stanza as all his and Shakespeare's are. But after that Mr. Wray brought me acquainted with the Italian authors, who were the originals of that sort of poetry, and whose measures have more variety and harmony in them, — ever since, I wrote in that stanza; drawing from the same fountains as Milton drew from; — so that I was complimented with having well imitated Milton when I was not acquainted with his Sonnets. I hope I shall never be ashamed of imitating such great originals as Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton, whom to imitate with any degree of success is no small praise. But why is my writing of sonnets, imitation any more than theirs? At least, it is not imitating them, but the same authors whom they imitated. I have indeed taken the liberty to revive a good old word from them and other of our classic authors, where I could not think of a modern word equally expressive, or to raise the diction above prose. But this has always been allowed lawful, and I wish it were more practised, so it be done with judgment: it would enrich our language with a better ore than we can have from the French mint, which is so much in fashion. If this will not excuse me, I have only to add that the impulse was that way; and to borrow an expression of Mr. Pope's, I wrote in sonnet, "for the numbers came"; and now I submit myself to correction.

Your

T. EDWARDS.


[3:88-92]