Three sonnets posthumously published in the sixth editions of Edwards's Canons of Criticism (1758) — presumably they were originally composed for presentation copies of this satire on William Warburton's notes to Shakespeare. Warburton had responded to Edwards with personal abuse in the 1751 edition of Pope's Dunciad, of which he was also the editor. The Canons of Criticism was a popular work, so that this literary spat became a very public matter. In the first of the three sonnets compares Warburton to one of the more famous characters in the Faerie Queene: "But led by Love of True, and Fit, and Right, | In which good cause each gentle breast should strive: | While I with hazard of my own good name | Like Calidore pursue the Blatant Beast | In dear defense of Ladies' honest fame." This controversy had already provoked Mark Akenside's ode to Thomas Edwards (1751) which opens "Believe me, Edwards, to restrain | The licence of a railer's tongue | Is what but seldom men obtain | By sense or wit, by prose or song."
John Dussinger has suggested to me that the initials in the title likely stand for "Most Honorable" and the asterisks for Marchioness — Jemima, Lady Grey, Philip Yorke's wife, whose estate at Wrest Park was the family's country seat. The 1765 edition of the Canons of Criticism has another poem addressed to this friend: "To the most Honorable the Lady Marchioness Grey." The recipient of the second sonnet he suggests was Elizabeth, Lady Anson, Yorke's sister, and the third he suggests was addressed to Catherine Talbot ("Sweet Modesty, the third of that fair band"), who like the others was a member of Samuel Richardson's literary circle.
Thomas Edwards to Samuel Richardson: "That pamphlet has already done for me more than I could reasonably expect. I have in some measure vindicated the reputation of the divine Shakespeare; and (but you must not let Miss S. hear this) in some measure represented the insolence of his over bearing commentator: and though in this engagement I have been a little bitten by the blatant beast of Spenser, yet I have gained so much of the regard and countenance of so many of the most worthy of both sexes, as makes me ample amends for what I have suffered, or can suffer, in this cause" 20 March 1752; in Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, ed. Barbauld (1804) 3:44-45.
Bell's Fugitive Poets: "His 'Canons of Criticism' did him great credit, both as a critic and as a scholar, and of course provoked the vengeance of Dr. Warburton, which he wreaked very illiberally in a note on the Dunciad (IV. 567); of which Mr. Edwards was more susceptible than he need have been, deeming his gentility impeached by the words 'a Gentleman, as he is pleased to call himself, of Lincoln's Inn; but, in reality, a Gentleman only of the Dunciad,' &c," (1789-97) 17:174-75.
William Tooke: "Mr. Edwards, a barrister of Lincoln's Inn, published a very ingenious work, entitled 'Canons of Criticism,' in which Warburton is severely censured; indeed the learned prelate, in his notes on Shakspeare, evinced a want of research in English antiquity, which, accompanied with a dictatorial style, and an offensive contempt for all former and contemporary commentators, justly exposed him to critical reprobation" Poetical Works of Charles Churchill (1804) 1:224.
William Lisle Bowles: "In vain was the author thrust into a niche of the Dunciad; these Canons will continue to be read with equal pleasure and conviction, as well as the Ode which Akenside wrote to him on the subject" Note in Works of Alexander Pope, ed. Bowles (1806) 9:474n.
Isaac D'Israeli: "Edwards, the author of the Canons of Criticism, when young and in the army, was a visitor at Allen's of Prior-park, the patron of Warburton; and in those literary conversations which usually occupied their evenings, Warburton affected to show his superiority in his acquaintance with the Greek writers, never suspecting that a red coat covered more Greek than his own — which happened unluckily to be the case. Once, Edwards in the library, taking down a Greek author, explained a passage in a manner which did not suit probably with some new theory of the great inventor of so many; a contest arose, in which Edwards discovered how Warburton came by his illegitimate knowledge of Greek authors: Edwards attempted to convince him that he really did not understand Greek, and that his knowledge, such as it was, was derived from French translations — a provoking act of literary kindness, which took place in the presence of Ralph Allen and his niece, who, though they could not stand as umpires, did as witnesses. An incurable breach took place between the parties, and from this trifling altercation, Edwards produced the bitter Canons of Criticism, and Warburton those foaming notes in the Dunciad" Quarrels of Authors (1814) in Works (1881) 5:532-33.
TO THE M. H. THE * * *
Lady, whose fair approof I wish should give
A glorious sanction to whate'er I write;
Since what your well-pois'd judgment marks with white
Secure from envy will to ages live;
So may I in this arduous emprise thrive,
As I not follow in the chase for spite;
But led by Love of True, and Fit, and Right,
In which good cause each gentle breast should strive:
While I with hazard of my own good name
Like Calidore pursue the Blatant Beast
In dear defense of Ladies' honest fame,
Which his foul mouth profanely taints with blame;
Let me howe'er, with dread and dangers press'd,
Enjoy the smiles of ev'ry virtuous dame.
TO THE R. H. THE * * * *
Let him rail on, till e'vry mouth cry shame;
Of his ill word I little reckoning make
For Ladies' honor, and for Shakespear's sake;
So these I may defend from blot or blame:
But ill I bear, that any worthy name
Of those, who virtue for their mistress take,
And hate the sland'rer like the poisonous snake;
Should deem my just reproof deserving blame.
Yet, if fair * * speak in my defense,
If * vouchsafe her sanction to my page,
If * * sweetly deign to smile applause;
Aided by these and conscious innocence,
I'll boldly brave the CRITIC'S utmost rage;
And glory suff'ring in so just a cause.
TO MISS * *
Sweet Modesty, the third of that fair band,
Whom virtuous friendship, ill by churls deny'd
To Ladies' gentle bosoms, hath ally'd;
May I unblam'd your favoring voice deman,
While arm'd with Truth's good Shield alone I stand
In Shakespear's cause determin'd to abide
Th' outrageous efforts of insulting pride,
And marks of Calumny's detested brand?
Deep are the wounds she gives, and hard to heal.
Yet though enrag'd her hundred tongues she join
With canker'd spite to blast my honest name,
I reck not much, nor bate my pious zeal;
But to the Fair and Good my cause resign,
Who smile on Virtue, and whose smiles are Fame.