1759
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

History of England under the House of Tudor.

History of England under the House of Tudor. 2 Vols.

David Hume


In a plain-spoken manner David Hume offers some of the least flattering criticism of Spenser to come out of the eighteenth century: "Upon the whole, Spencer maintains his place in the shelves among our English classics: But he is seldom seen on the table; and there is scarcely any one, if he dares to be ingenuous, but will confess, that, notwithstanding all the merit of the poet, he affords an entertainment with which the palate is soon satiated." Not seen.

Thomas Warton: "A sensible historian observes, that 'Homer copied true natural manners, which, however rough and uncultivated, will always form an agreeable and interesting picture: But the pencil of the English poet [Spenser] was employed in drawing the affectations, and conceits, and fopperies of chivalry.' This however, was nothing more than an imitation of real life; as much, at least, as the plain descriptions in Homer, which correspond to the simplicity of manners then subsisting in Greece. Spenser, in the address of the Shepherd's Kalendar, to Sir Philip Sidney, couples his patron's learning with his skill in chivalry; a topic of panegyric, which would sound very odd in a modern dedication, especially before a set of pastorals" Observations on the Fairy Queen of Spenser (1762) 2:88-89.

Joseph Warton: "Mr. Hume is of opinion, that the perusal of Spenser becomes tedious to almost all his readers. 'this effect, says he, [History of England, pag. 738.] of which every one is conscious, is usually ascribed to the change of manners; but manners have more changed since Homer's age, and yet that poet remains still the favourite of every reader of taste and judgment. Homer copied true natural manners, which, however rough and uncultivated, will always form an agreeable and pleasing picture; but the pencil of the English poet was employed in drawing the affectations, and conceits, and fopperies of chivalry, which appear ridiculous as soon as they lose the recommendation of the mode.' But they had not ceased to be the mode in Spenser's time" Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (1782) 2:33n.

Edmond Malone: "It is surprising, on examining any particular point, how superficial Hume is, and how many particulars are omitted that would have made his book much more entertaining; but perhaps we have no right to expect this in a general history. For my own part, I am much more entertained with memoirs and letters written at the time, in which everything is alive, and passes in motion before the eye" circa 1787; Maloniana, in Sir James Prior, Life of Edmond Malone (1860) 370.

Henry John Todd: "The French criticks appear to have followed the severe and unjust opinion of Hume in regard to Spenser. See Nouv. Dict. Hist. Caen, art. Spenser" Works of Spenser (1805) 1:clxii.

Percival Stockdale: "Your merely great philosophers have always made a most contemptible and ridiculous figure when they usurped the chair of poetical criticism. Blackmore, 'rumbling rough, and fierce,' was the greatest of poets, in the opinion of the venerable, and illustrious Locke; and Catullus, and Parnelle were the first favourites of the muses, in the judgement of David Hume; who was a very great man when he kept within his metaphysical, and historical sphere" Lectures on the Truly Eminent English Poets (1807) 1:38.

British Lady's Magazine: "Hume, with his Gallic taste, speaks of Spenser as a poet that can only be read as a task. If the Faerie Queen were to be perused as a narrative, his observations might be correct. Allegorical narration is doubtless tedious; but who takes up this work with any regard to the personality of the beautiful phantasmagoria, or lays it down as an incomplete story-book" "Westminster Abbey" 4 (September 1816) 259-60.

J. W. Croker to John Murray: "I confess I had never thought of editing Hume's History of England; and I should like to know the principle on which you would wish to see an edition prepared. I can easily comprehend the making Hume the groundwork of a large embroidery of comment and elucidation; but I doubt, however well that employment might suit me, whether the result would be likely to suit you. Perhaps, however, you mean something more popular and marketable. Let me therefore know your views" 26 March 1831; The Croker Papers, ed. Louis J. Jennings (1884) 1:533.

John Wilson: "Hume says, 'that Homer copied true natural manners, which, however, rough and uncultivated, will always form an agreeable and interesting picture; but the pencil of the English poet (Spenser) was employed in drawing the affections, and conceits, and fopperies of chivalry.' That is sad stuff. Was Achilles rough and uncultivated? And lived there ever on this earth such a being? No — never. But not to dwell on that — there were chivalrous ages — and if they had their affectations, and conceits, and fopperies, you will seek in vain for them in the Faerie Queen" Blackwood's Magazine 36 (1834) 414.

Leigh Hunt: "Hume, acute and encroaching philosopher as he was, but not so universal in his philosophy as great poets, hurt Spenser's reputation with none but the French (who did not know him); and, by way of involuntary amends for the endeavour, he set up for poets such men as Wilkie and Blacklock! In vain, in vain" Imagination and Fancy (1844) 76.

Samuel Austin Allibone: "We have here some of the same dogmatism which is displayed still more offensively in the historian's unfortunate Essay on Miracles" Critical Dictionary of English Literature (1882) 2:2206.

Edmund Gosse: "To his great chagrin this famous work failed to please any class of readers. He tells us: 'I was assailed by one cry of reproach, disapprobation, and even detestation.... I scarcely heard of one man in the three kingdoms, considerable for rank or letters, that could endure the book.' In the first anguish of disappointment, he talked of changing his name, and becoming a citizen of France. Further volumes, however, of the work gradually commended themselves to the general public. The methods of the recent school of history have discredited Hume, whose first aim was to amuse, or at least to please, whose researches were superficial, and whose statements were anything but authoritative. It is almost laughable to compare Hume's treatment of any incident, or still more, of any crisis, with S. R. Gardiner's treatment of the same.... Nevertheless, when we compare this polished and elegant compendium, in all its dignity and sober beauty, with such crude histories as those of Carte, Bower, and Guthrie, which preceded or accompanied it, we are ready to grow enthusiastic over its signal excellence" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 298.




Unhappily for literature, at least for the learned of this age, the queen's vanity lay more in shining by her own learning, than in encouraging men of genius by her liberality. Spencer himself, the finest English writer of his age, was long neglected; and after the death of Sir Philip Sydney, his patron, was allowed to die almost for want. This poet contains great beauties, a sweet and harmonious versification, easy elocution, a fine imagination: Yet does the perusal of his work become so tedious, that one never finishes it from the mere pleasure which it affords: It soon becomes a kind of task-reading; and it requires some effort and resolution to carry us on to the end of his long performance. This effect, of which every one is conscious, is usually ascribed to the change of manners: But manners have more changed since Homer's age; and yet that poet remains still the favourite of every reader of taste and judgment. Homer copied true natural manners, which, however rough or uncultivated, will always form an agreeable and interesting picture: But the pencil of the English poet was employed in drawing the affectations, and conceits, and fopperies of chivalry, which appear ridiculous as soon as they lose the recommendation of the mode. The tediousness of continued allegory, and that too seldom striking or ingenious has also contributed to render the Fairy Queen peculiarly tiresome; not to mention the too great frequency of its descriptions, and the languor of its stanza. Upon the whole, Spencer maintains his place in the shelves among our English classics: But he is seldom seen on the table; and there is scarcely any one, if he dares to be ingenuous, but will confess, that, notwithstanding all the merit of the poet, he affords an entertainment with which the palate is soon satiated. Several writers of late have amused themselves in copying the stile of Spencer; and no imitation has been so indifferent as not to bear a great resemblance to the original: His manner is so peculiar, that it is almost impossible not to transfer some of it into the copy.


[Appendix III; Todd (1983) 4:386]