1762
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

A Charge to the Poets.

A Charge to the Poets. By William Whitehead, Esq; Poet Laureat.

William Whitehead


William Whitehead, poet laureate, addresses a Horatian epistle to his fellow bards, metaphorically assuming the role of a bishop visiting his clergy (Whitehead's epigraph is "Quasi ex Cathedra loquitur"). The laureate's advice is entirely of a moral character: the literary virtues are the polite virtues, tolerance perhaps chief among them: "To all true merit give it's just applause, | The worst have beauties, and the best have flaws. | Greek, French, Italian, English, great or small, | I own my frailty, I admire them all" p. 16. Whitehead illustrates this doctrine by extending his approbation to Joseph Warton's doctrine of "pure poetry" with its rejection of the very principles on which A Charge to the Poets is composed: "some can raise | To fairy FICTION their extatic gaze, | Admire PURE POETRY, and revel there | On sightless forms, and pictures of the air!" p. 17.

The mention of fairy fiction leads into the Spenser passage, which seems to advocate a temperate enjoyment of the Prince of Poets: "Tir'd with th' ambiguous tale, or antique phrase, | O'er Spenser's happiest paintings, loveliest lays, | Some heedless pass: while some with transport view | Each quaint old word, which scarce Eliza knew; | And, eager as the fancied knights, prepare | The lance, and combat in ideal war | Dragons of lust, and giants of despair" p. 17. This sentiment goes some ways towards illustrating the intention behind Whitehead's own "Horatian" Spenserianism.

Monthly Review: "We have here a modest and genteel exhortation to the present belligerent Bards, to cease their idle contests and dissensions; — in which the good sense, refined taste, and worthy heart of the Author, are equally conspicuous" 26 (March 1762) 222.

Thomas Gray to William Mason: "The laureate has honoured me (as a friend of yours, for I know no other reason) with his new play and his Charge to the Poets: the first very middling; the second I am pleased with, chiefly with the sense, and sometimes with the verse and expression; and yet the best thing he ever wrote was that Elegy against Friendship you once showed me, where the sense was detestable; so that you see it is not at all necessary a poet should be a good sort of man — no, not even in his writings" 17 March 1762; Correspondence of Gray and Mason ed. John Mitford (1853) 286.

William Mason: "As Laureate, he ludicrously assumes the dignified mode of a Bishop giving his visitatorial instructions to his clergy. The idea was new, pregnant with grave humour, and executed so successfully, that even the Egotisms, necessary to the subject, are among the most pleasing parts of the whole poem. Replete with good sense and good taste, it is still more to be admired for the amiable picture which it gives of the author's own mind, and his readiness to by pleased by Poets of very different abilities, provided those abilities were employed on subjects which suited them; and for exposing the fastidious mode of criticism which admits no poem to have any merit, except that which accords with some partial preconceived idea of excellence, which it has set up as its exclusive criterion" Memoirs of Whitehead (1788) 106-07.

William Tooke: "Whitehead, in 1762, published A Charge to the Poets, throughout which there reigns a considerable portion of 'humble insolence,' and affected candour. He ridiculously assumed a degree of consequence as Laureat, which that situation could never give, and dealth out his dictates with a tone of superiority which his abilities could not support" Poetical Works of Charles Churchill (1804) 2:83n.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "WHITEHEAD exerting the prerogative of his laureatship addressed to youthful poets a poetic CHARGE, which is perhaps the best, and certainly the most interesting, of his works" Biographia Literaria (1817; 1983) 1:223.

Hartley Coleridge: "We may suppose that Mason was not displeased to see his friend Whitehead advanced to the honours of 'the Butt and Bayes.' In fact the appointment was very judicious. The character of Whitehead was highly respectable, and he was at least a 'respectable' poet'" "William Mason" in Northern Worthies (1833, 1852) 2:346.

Austin Dobson: "The Charge to the Poets brought upon Whitehead the reckless and indiscriminate cudgel of Churchill. In his desultory Ghost, the second part of which appeared simultaneously with the Charge, he had glanced incidentally at 'placid Whitehead.' In the third book, published some nine months later, he attacked him in force. But the blustering octosyllabics of the Ghost do not show the 'Bruiser' at his best. He hits, fairly enough, some of Whitehead's obvious characteristics — his deference to tradition, his dislike of emphasis, his lack of vigour, and so forth — all of which, of course, have harsher names in the satirist's haphazard invective. It is easy, for instance, to transform judicious reticence into a kind of 'letting-I-dare-not-wait-upon-I-would' sort of timidity by representing the poet as one who — 'Champion swore in Virtue's cause, | 'Gainst Vice his tiny bodkin draws, | But to no part of Prudence stranger, | First blunts the point for fear of danger.' Much, however, that Churchill says, is mere 'rhyme and rattle;' and it is quite possible that but for the mention of 'subject Bards' in the 'Charge,' and the appearance of Whitehead as a writer of serious comedy, he would have neglected him altogether" "Laureate Whitehead" in Old Kensington Palace (1926) 167-68.

Herbert E. Cory: "A reference in William Whitehead's A Charge to the Poets (1762), a plea for catholic taste, has something of the interest of Cibber's Lives in that it gives us a suggestion of the opinions of the cultivated many. 'Some hate all rhyme; some seriously deplore | That Milton wants that one enchantment more. | Tir'd with th' ambiguous tale or antique phrase, O'er Spenser's happiest paintings, loveliest lays, | Some heedless pass: while some with transport view | Each quaint old word, which scarce Eliza knew, | And, eager as the fancied knights, prepare The lance, and combat in ideal war Dragons of lust, | and giants of despair Why be it so; and what each thinks the best | Let each enjoy: but not condemn the rest'" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 153.

Harko Gerrit De Maar: "the battle over Spenserian diction continued in the second half of the eighteenth century. William Whitehead, who on the death of Colley Cibber in 1757, was appointed poet laureate, expressed a sound appreciation of Milton and Spenser in A Charge to the Poets, 1762" History of Modern English Romanticism (1924) 54.

R. H. Bowers: "Since Whitehead gives no specific example of what he regards as pure poetry, beyond stating in a puzzling and imprecise manner that it is characterized by 'sightless forms, and pictures of the air,' we are thrown back on conjecture as to what he means" "Pure Poetry in 1762" Notes and Queries 197 (5 July 1952) 294.

Christopher Ricks: "He may perhaps have remembered Shakespeare's famous lines ('the forms of things unknown,' 'airy nothing'). In any case, for Whitehead 'Pure Poetry' presumably meant the poetry of imagination which Warton and Hurd advocated; clearly Whitehead is not so much attacking 'Pure Poetry' as protesting against those 'who on one species all their rapture waste'" Notes and Queries 202 (May 1957) 226.

Compare William Whitehead's allusion to Spenser in "On Ridicule" (1745): "Why, Shaftsb'ry tells us, mirth's the test of sense; | Th' enchanted touch, which fraud and falsehood fear, | Like Una's mirror, or Ithuriel's spear."



Full twenty years have roll'd, ye rhiming band,
Since first I dipp'd in ink my trembling hand,
For much it trembled, tho' th' obliging few,
Who judge with candour, prais'd the sketch I drew;
And Echo, answering from the public voice,
Indulg'd as genius, what I fear'd was choice.

At length, arriv'd at these maturer years
So rarely rais'd by hope, or sunk by fears,
I rest in peace; or scribble if I please:
In point of wealth not affluent, but at ease;
In point of what the world and you call fame,
(I judge but by conjecture) much the same.

But whether right or wrong I judge, to you
It matters not: the following fact is true.
From nobler names, and great in each degree,
The pension'd Laurel has devolv'd to me.
To me, ye Bards; and, what you'll scarce conceive,
Or, at the best, unwillingly believe,
Howe'er unworthily I wear the crown,
Unask'd it came, and from a hand unknown.

Then, since my King, and Patron have thought fit
To place me on the throne of modern wit,
My grave advice, my brethren, hear at large;
As Bishops to their Clergy give their charge,
Tho' many a Priest, who listens, might afford
Perhaps more solid counsel to my Lord.

To YOU, ye guardians of the sacred fount,
Deans and Archdeacons of the double mount,
That thro' our realms intestine broils may cease,
My first, and last advice is, "Keep the peace!"
What is't to you, that half the town admire
False sense, false strength, false softness, or false fire?
Through heav'n's void concave let the meteors blaze,
He hurts his own, who wounds another's bays.
What is't to you that numbers place your name
First, fifth, or twentieth, in the lists of fame?
Old Time will settle all your claims at once,
Record the Genius, and forget the Dunce.

It boots us much to know, observers say,
Of what materials Nature form'd our clay;
From what strange beast Prometheus' plastic art
Purloin'd the particle which rules the heart.
If milky softness, gliding through the veins,
Incline the Muse to panegyric strains,
Insipid lays our kindest friends may lull,
Be very moral, yet be very dull.
If bile prevails, and temper dictates satire,
Our wit is spleen, our virtue is ill-nature;
With it's own malice arm'd we combat evil,
As zeal for God's sake sometimes plays the devil.
O mark it well! does Pride affect to reign
The solitary tyrant of the brain?
Or Vanity exert her quick'ning flame,
Stuck round with ears that listen after fame?
O to these points let strict regard be given,
Nor "KNOW THYSELF" in vain descend from Heaven.

Do Critics teize you? — with a smile I speak,
Nor would suppose my brethren were so weak.
'Tis on ourselves and not our foes, or friends,
Our future fame, or infamy depends.
Let envy point, or malice wing the darts,
They only wound us in our mortal parts.
Besides, 'tis much too late to go to school,
Grown men will judge by Nature's noblest rule,
Admire true beauties, and slight faults excuse,
Not learn to dance from Journals and Reviews.

If fools traduce you, and your works decry,
As many fools will rate your worth too high;
Then balance the account, and fairly take
The cool report which men of judgment make.

In writing, as in life, he foils the foe,
Who, conscious of his strength, forgives the blow.
They court the insult who but seem afraid:
And then, by answering, you promote the trade,
And give them, what their own weak claims deny,
A chance for future laughter, or a sigh.

YOU, who as yet, unsullied by the Press,
Hang o'er your labours in their virgin dress;
And YOU, who late the public taste have hit,
And still enjoy the honey-moon of wit,
Attentive hear me: grace may still abound,
Whoever preaches, if the doctrine's sound.

If Nature prompts you, or if friends persuade,
Why write; but ne'er pursue it as a trade.
And seldom publish: manuscripts disarm
The censor's frown, and boast an added charm,
Enhance their worth by seeming to retire,
For what but few can prate of, all admire.

Who trade in verse, alas, we rarely find,
The public grateful, as the Muses kind.
From constant feasts like sated guests we steal,
And tir'd of tickling lose all power to feel.
'Tis novelty we want; and that in view
We praise stale matter, so the Bard be new;
Or from known Bards with exstacy receive
Each pert new whim they almost blush to give.

A life of writing, unless wond'rous short,
No wit can brave, no genius can support.
Some soberer province for your business chuse,
Be that your helmet, and your plume the Muse.
Through Fame's long rubric, down from Chaucer's time,
Few fortunes have been rais'd by lofty rhime.
And, when our toils success no longer crowns,
What shelter find we from a world in frowns?
O'er each distress, which vice or folly brings,
Tho' Charity extend her healing wings,
No Maudlin Hospitals are yet assign'd
For slip-shod Muses of the vagrant kind;
Where anthems might succeed to satires keen,
And hymns of penitence to songs obscene.

What refuge then remains? — with gracious grin
Some practis'd Bookseller invites you in.
Where luckless Bards, condemn'd to court the town,
(Not for their parents' vices, but their own!)
Write gay conundrums with an aching head,
Or earn by defamation daily bread,
Or, friendless, shirtless, penniless complain,
Not of the world's, but "Caelia's cold disdain."

Lords of their workhouse see the tyrants sit
Brokers in books, and stock-jobbers in wit,
Beneath whose lash, oblig'd to write or fast,
Our confessors and martyrs breathe their last!

And can ye bear such insolence? — away,
For shame; plough, dig, turn pedlars, drive the dray;
With minds indignant each employment suits,
Our fleets want sailors, and our troops recruits;
And many a dirty street, on Thames's side,
Is yet by stool and brush unoccupied.

Time was when Poets play'd the thorough game,
Swore, drank, and bluster'd, and blasphem'd for fame.
The first in brothels with their punk and Muse;
Your toast, ye Bards? "Parnassus and the stews!"
Thank Heaven the times are chang'd; no Poet now
Need roar for Bacchus, or to Venus bow.
'Tis our own fault if Fielding's lash we feel,
Or, like French wits, begin with the Bastile.

Ev'n in those days some few escap'd their fate,
By better judgment, or a longer date,
And rode, like buoys, triumphant o'er the tide.
Poor Otway in an ale-house dos'd, and died!
While happier Southern, tho' with spots of yore,
Like Plato's hovering spirits, crusted o'er,
Liv'd every mortal vapour to remove,
And to our admiration join'd our love.

Light lie his funeral turf! — for you, who join
His decent manners to his art divine,
Would ye (whilst, round you, toss the proud and vain
Convuls'd with feeling, or with giving pain)
Indulge the Muse in innocence and ease,
And tread the flowery path of life in peace?
Avoid all authors. — What! th' illustrious few,
Who shunning Fame have taught her to pursue
Fair Virtue's heralds? — yes, I say again,
Avoid all authors, 'till you've read the men.
Full many a peevish, envious, slandering elf,
Is, in his works, Benevolence itself.
For all mankind unknown, his bosom heaves,
He only injures those with whom he lives.
Read then the Man: Does truth his actions guide,
Exempt from petulance, exempt from pride?
To social duties does his heart attend,
As Son, as Father, Husband, Brother, Friend?
Do those who know him love him? if they do,
You've my permission, you may love him too.

But chief avoid the boist'rous roaring sparks,
The sons of fire! — you'll know them by their marks.
Fond to be heard they always court a croud,
And, tho' 'tis borrow'd nonsense, talk it loud.
One epithet supplies their constant chime,
Damn'd bad, damn'd good, damn'd low, and damn'd sublime!
But most in quick short repartee they shine
Of local humour; or from plays purloin
Each quaint stale scrap which every subject hits,
'Till fools almost imagine, they are wits.
Hear them on Shakespear! there the foam, they rage!
Yet taste not half the beauties of HIS page,
Nor see that Art, as well as Nature, strove
To place HIM foremost in th' Aonian grove.
For there, there only, where the sisters meet,
HIS Genius triumphs, and the work's compleat.

Or would ye sift more near these sons of fire,
'Ti Garrick, and not Shakspear they admire.
Without his breath, inspiring every thought,
They ne'er perhaps had known what Shakespear wrote;
Without his eager, his becoming zeal,
To teach them, tho' they scarce know why, to feel,
A crude unmeaning mass had Johnson been,
And a dead letter Shakespear's noblest scene.

O come the time, when diffidence again
Shall bind our youth in Nature's modest chain!
Born in a happier age, and happier clime,
Old Sophocles had merit, in his time;
And so, no doubt, howe'er we flout his plays,
Had poor Euripides, in former days.
Not like the moderns we confess; but yet
Some seeming faults we surely might forget,
Because 'twould puzzle even the wise to show
Whether those faults were real faults, or no.

To all true merit give it's just applause,
The worst have beauties, and the best have flaws.
Greek, French, Italian, English, great or small,
I own my frailty, I admire them all.

There are, mistaking prejudice for taste,
Who on one species all their rapture waste.
Tho', various as the flowers which paint the year,
In rainbow charms the changeful Nine appear,
The different beauties coyly they admit,
And to one standard would confine our wit.
Some MANNER'D VERSE delights; while some can raise
To fairy FICTION their extatic gaze,
Admire PURE POETRY, and revel there
On sightless forms, and pictures of the air!
Some hate all RHIME; some seriously deplore
That Milton wants that one enchantment more.
Tir'd with th' ambiguous tale, or antique phrase,
O'er Spenser's happiest paintings, loveliest lays,
Some heedless pass: while some with transport view
Each quaint old word, which scarce Eliza knew;
And, eager as the fancied knights, prepare
The lance, and combat in ideal war
Dragons of lust, and giants of despair.

Why be it so; and what each thinks the test
Let each enjoy: but not condemn the rest.
Readers there are of every class prepar'd,
Each village teems, each hamlet has its Bard
Who gives the tone, and all th' inferior fry,
Like the great vulgar here, will join the cry.
But be it mine with every Bard to glow,
And taste his raptures genuine as they flow,
Through all the Muse's wilds to rove along
From plaintive Elegy to Epic song;
And, if the sense be just, the numbers clear,
And the true colouring of the work be there,
Again, subdued by Truth's ingenous call,
I own my frailty, I admire them all.

Nor think I, with the mob, that Nature now
No longer warms the soil where laurels grow.
'Tis true Our Poets in repose delight,
And, wiser than their fathers, seldom write.
Yet I, but I forbear for prudent ends,
Could name a list, and half of them my friends,
For whom posterity it's wreaths shall twine,
And it's own Bards neglect, to honour mine.

Their Poets in their turn will grieve, and swear,
Perhaps with truth, no Patron lends an ear.
Complaints of times when merit wants reward
Descend like similies from Bard to Bard;
We copy our distress from Greece and Rome;
As in our Northern lays their flowrets bloom.
We feel their breezes, and their heats we burn,
And plead prescription to rejoice or mourn.

All present times are bad: then cast your eyes
Where fairy scenes of bliss in prospect rise.
As fond enthusiasts o'er the western main
With eager ken, prophetical in vain,
See multitudes from every land
Grow pure by blending, virtuous by command;
'Till, phoenix-like, a new bright world of gold
Springs from the dregs and refuse of the old.

I'm no enthusiast, yet with joy can trace
Some gleams of sunshine for the tuneful race.
If Monarchs listen when the Muses woo,
Attention wakes, and nations listen too.
The Bard grows rapturous, who was dumb before,
And every fresh-plum'd eagle learns to soar!

Friend of the finer arts, when Aegypt saw
Her second Ptolemy give Science law,
Each Genus waken'd from his dead repose,
The column swell'd, the pile majestic rose,
Exact proportion borrow'd strength from ease,
And use was taught by elegance to please.
Along the breathing walls, as fancy flow'd,
The sculpture soften'd, and the picture glow'd,
Heroes reviv'd in animated stone,
The groves grew vocal, and the Pleiads shone!
Old Nilus rais'd his head, and wond'ring cried,
Long live the King! my Patron, and my Pride!
Secure of endless praise, behold, I bear
My grateful suffrage to my Sovereign's ear.
Tho' war shall rage, tho' Time shall level all,
Yon colours sicken, and yon columns fall,
Tho' art's dear treasures feed the wasting flame,
And the proud volume sinks, an empty name,
Tho' Plenty may desert this copious vale,
My streams be scatter'd, or my fountain fail,
Yet Ptolemy has liv'd: the world has known
A King of arts, a Patron on a throne.
Ev'n utmost Britain shall his name adore,
"And Nile be sung, when Nile shall flow no more."

One rule remains. Nor shun nor court the great,
Your truest center is that middle state
From whence with ease th' observing eye may go
To all which soars above, or sinks below.
'Tis yours all manners to have tried, or known,
T' adopt all virtues, yet retain your own:
To stem the tide, where thoughtless crowds are hurl'd,
The firm spectators of a bustling world!

Thus arm'd, proceed: the breezes court your wing.
Go range all Helicon, taste every spring;
From varying nature cull th' innoxious spoil,
And, whilst amusement sooths the generous toil,
Let puzzled Critics with judicious spite
Descant on what you can, or can not write.
True to yourselves, not anxious for renown,
Nor court the world's applause, nor dread it's frown.
Guard your own breasts, and be the bulwark there
To know no envy, and no malice fear.
At least you'll find, thus Stoic-like prepar'd,
That Verse and Virtue are their own reward.

[pp. 5-23]