1765
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

On the Ancient Metrical Romances.

Reliques of ancient English Poetry: consisting of old heroic Ballads, Songs, and other Pieces of our earlier Poets, (chiefly of the lyric Kind.) Together with some few of later Date.

Bp. Thomas Percy


In the essay prefacing his third volume Thomas Percy defends the metrical romances as polite literature and argues that their publication would "serve to illustrate innumerable passages in our ancient classic poets, which without their help must be for ever obscure" — among them Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare.

While Percy does not discuss Spenser other than this brief mention (it was hardly necessary, given all the attention he had recently received) the Reliques was something of a foundational document in the Spenserian tradition. Many later writers, among them Scott and Wordsworth, described how their poetry was profoundly affected by childhood encounters with the Reliques. The ballads published by Percy must have contributed mightily to naturalizing Spenser's diction and stanzaic narrative poetry. Percy also introduced polite readers to the minor Elizabethans and Caroline lyricists that would have such an impact on later romantic poetry. Percy made literary antiquarianism acceptable in fashionable quarters, and encouraged the mania for collecting old books that reached a fever pitch by the end of the century. And his publication of modern imitations of the ballads could only have encouraged further imitations of Spenser.

Thomas Warton to Thomas Percy: "I think you have opened a new field of Poetry, and supplied many new and curious Materials for the history and Illustration of antient English Literature. I have lately had a Letter from Mr. Walpole, who speaks in very high terms of your Publication. At Oxford it is a favourite Work; and, I doubt not, but it is equally popular in Town" 29 April 1765; in Fairer (1995) 185-86.

William Kenrick: "such specimens of ancient poetry have been selected, as either shew the gradations of our language, exhibit the progress of popular opinions, display the peculiar manners and customs of former ages, or throw light on our earlier classical poets. Were this, or this only, the merit of the present compilation, it would lay a just claim to the attention of every lover of polite literature. We are far from thinking, however, with certain tasteless Readers, that there is no merit in the compositions themselves; on the contrary, we find in many of them that pleasing simplicity, and those artless graces, which, in the opinion of Dryden, Addison, and other judicious critics, were thought to compensate for the want of superior beauties" Monthly Review 32 (April 1765) 241-42.

Herbert Croft: "The first book of Beattie's beautiful Minstrel appeared in 1771. While he was employed in painting an ideal Edwin, Bristol, without knowing it, possessed the original. Edwin was certainly the child of Percy's Reliques of antient English poetry: perhaps Chatterton is descended from the same parents" Love and Madness (1780) 195.

William Wordsworth: "I have already stated how much Germany is indebted to this latter work; and for our own country, its poetry has been absolutely redeemed by it. I do not think that there is an able writer in verse of the present day who would not be proud to acknowledge his obligations to the Reliques; I know that it is so with my friends; and, for myself, I am happy in this occasion to make a public avowal of my own" Essay, Supplementary to the Preface (1815) in Prose, ed. Grosart (1876) 2:124.

Thomas James Mathias: "Dr. Percy was a man of learning and accomplishments, and of an elegant mind, whose curious researches into our ancient literature were directed by judgment, which he displayed in these pleasing and most gratifying volumes, published by him in his early life" Works of Gray, ed. Mathias (1814) 2:39n.

Thomas Frognall Dibdin: "The late Bishop of Dromore, if he merit no other distinction, is entitled to the proud praise of being the Father of Poetical Taste, in that department of literature which he has the exclusive merit of having first brought into public notice. His Reliques is a publication that reflects lasting honor upon his name; and it has proved the germ of a rich harvest in the same field of the muses" Bibliographical Decameron (1817) 3:339.

Robert Southey: "For about an hundred years French had been the only literature which obtained any attention in this country, and that had been but little. Now and then some worthless production was 'done into English by a Person of Quality,' and a few sickly dramatists imported stage plots and re-manufactured them for the English market, making of less value, by their bad workmanship, materials which were of little enough value in themselves. But at this time a revival was beginning; it was brought about, not by the appearance of great and original genius, but by awakening the public to the merits of our old writers, and of those of other countries. The former task was effected by Percy and Warton, who can never be mentioned with too much respect; and what they did was aided by the Shakspeare commentators — who can never be mentioned with too little" "Hayley's Memoirs" Quarterly Review 31 (1824-25) 282-83.

William Howitt: "The age which was in its wane when Chatterton appeared upon the stage, was lying beneath the incubus of scholastic formality. Dr. Johnson ruled it as a growling dictator, and the mediocre herd of copyists shrunk equally from the heavy blow of his critical cudgel, and the sharp puncture of Horace Walpole's wit. But the dawn was at hand. Bishop Percy had already, in 1765, published his Reliques, and they were beginning to operate. Men read them, went back again at once to nature, and, at her inspiration, up sprung the noble throng of poets, historians, essayists, and romance writers, which have clothed the nineteenth century with one wide splendour of the glory of genius" Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets (1847) 1:256.

Mary Russell Mitford: "I never take up these three heavily-bound volumes, the actual last edition, at which Dr. Johnson was wont to scoff, without feeling a pleasure quite apart from that excited by the charming book itself; although to that book, far more than to any modern school of minstrelsy we owe the revival of the taste for romantic and lyrical poetry, which had lain dormant since the days of the Commonwealth. This pleasure springs from a very simple cause. The associations of these ballads with the happiest days of my happy childhood" Recollections of a Literary Life (1851) 1.

W. J. Courthope: "George Wither or Withers died in 1667, Edward Ward in 1730, and Charles Gildon in 1724. It is curious to find Wither, who is still read, mentioned [by Pope] in such company. But through the greater part of the eighteenth century his poetical reputation was very low. In 1765, Bishop Percy, in the first edition of his Reliques, inserted one of Wither's poems, but did not venture to give his name; and in the fourth edition (1794) he only mentions him 'as not altogether devoid of genius'" Note in Works of Alexander Pope (1871-89) 4:322-23.

George Saintsbury: "At no time, perhaps, has Bishop Percy had quite fair play. In his own day his friend Johnson laughed at him, and his enemy Ritson attacked him with his usual savagery. In ours the publication at last of his famous Folio Manuscript has resulted in a good deal of not exactly violent, but strong language as to his timorous and eclectic use of the precious material he had obtained, and his scarcely pardonable tamperings with such things as he did extract. Nobody indeed less one-sided and fanatical than Ritson himself, or less prejudiced than the great lexicographer, could ignore the vastness of the benefit which the Reliques actually conferred upon English literature, or the enormous influence which it has directly and indirectly exercised; but there has been a slight tendency to confine Percy's merits to the corners of this acknowledgment.... Modern scholarship — which has the advantage rather of knowing more than Percy could know than of making a better use of what it does know, and which is much too apt to forget that the scholars of all ages are 'Priests that slay the slayer | And shall themselves be slain' — can find, of course, plenty of errors and shortcomings in the essays on the Minstrels and the Romances; and they are all unnecessarily adulterated with theories and fancies about origin, &c. But this last adulteration has scarcely ceased to be a favourite 'form of competition' among critics; while I am bound to say that the literary sense which is so active and pervading in Percy seems to have deserted our modern philologists only too frequently" History of English Criticism (1911) 257-59.




The stories of Arthur and his round table, may be reasonably supposed of the growth of this island; but the English and the French had them from the Britons. The stories of Guy and Bevis, with some others, were probably the invention of English Minstrels; on the other hand, the English procured translations of such Romances as were most current in France, and in the List given at the conclusion of these Remarks, many are doubtless of French original.

The first PROSE books of Chivalry that appeared in our language, were those printed by Caxton; at least, these are the first I have been able to discover, and these are all translations from the French. Whereas Romances of this kind had been long current in metre, and were so generally admired in the time of Chaucer, that his Rhyme of sir Thopas was evidently written to ridicule and burlesque them.

He expressly mentions several of them by name in a stanza, which I shall have occasion to quote more than once in this volume.

Men speken of Romaunces of pris
Of Horn-Child, and of Ipotis
Of Bevis, and Sire Guy
Of Sire Libeux, and Pleindamour,
But Sire Thopas, he beieth the flour
Of riall chevalrie.

Most, if not all, of these are still extant in MS, in some or other of our libraries, as I shall shew in the conclusion of this slight Essay, where I shall give a list of such metrical Histories and Romances as have fallen under my observation.

As many of these contain a considerable portion of merit, and throw great light on the manners and opinions of former times, it were to be wished that some of the best of them were rescued from oblivion. A judicious collection of them accurately published with proper illustrations, would be an important accession to our stock of ancient English Literature. Many of them exhibit no mean attempts at Epic Poetry, and tho' full of the exploded fictions of Chivalry, frequently display great descriptive and inventive powers in the Bards who composed them. They are at least generally equal to any other poetry of the same age. They cannot indeed be put in competition with the nervous productions of so universal and commanding a genius as Chaucer, but they have a simplicity that makes them be read with less interruption, and be more easily understood; and they are far more spirited and entertaining than the tedious allegories of Gower, or the dull and prolix legends of Lydgate. Yet, while so much stress is laid upon the writings of these last, by such as treat of English poetry, the old metrical Romances, tho' far more popular in their time are hardly known to exist. But it has happened unluckily that the antiquaries, who have revived the works of our ancient writers, have been for the most part men void of taste and genius, and therefore have always fastidiously resjected the old poetical Romances, because founded on fictitious or popular subjects, while they have been careful to grub up every petty fragment of the most dull and insipid rhimist, whose merit it was to deform morality, or obscure true history. Should the public encourage the revival of some of these ancient Epic songs of Chivalry, they would frequently see the rich ore of an Ariosto or a Tasso, tho' buried it may be among the rubbish and dross of barbarous times.

Such a publication would answer many important uses. It would threw new light on the rise and progress of English poetry, the history of which can be but improperly understood, if these are negelected: it would also serve to illustrate innumerable passages in our ancient classic poets, which without their help must be for ever obscure. For not to mention Chaucer and Spencer, who abound with perpetual allusions to them; I shall give an instance or two from Shakespeare, by way of specimen of their use. . . .


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