1766
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Reflections on Originality in Authors.

Reflections on Originality in Authors: being Remarks on a Letter to Mr. Mason on the Marks of Imitation: in which the absurd Defects of that Performance are pointed out;... with a Word or Two on the Characters of Ben. Johnson and Pope.

Edward Capell


Edward Capell's anonymous, hostile, point by point review of Richard Hurd's Letter to Mason on imitation (1757) contains several passing references to Spenser and is generally indicative of the improved state of knowledge of renaissance literature among eighteenth-century antiquaries. For example, Capell observes Ben Jonson imitating Spenser: "in his Epithalamion, it is plain he has derived the manner and part of the matter also from Catullus and Spenser, from the latter of whom he has inserted a distick totidem verbis without having given the least hint of it" p. 64.

The vain and headstrong Edward Capell was among the more curious specimens of an eighteenth-century editor.




Following his footsteps speaking of Milton, he says — "He is not happier on another occasion": and in proof of this cites from Spenser—

Virtue gives herself light, thro' darkness for to wade.

And subjoins that Milton catched at this Image (did he lay hold of it?) and has run it into a sort of Paraphrase in those fine lines:

Virtue could see to do what virtue would
By her own radiant light, tho' Sun and Moon
Were in the flat sea sunk.—

I need not ask to which Poet the preference is due. The supposed Paraphrast conveys in his elegant lines as good a moral as the antient bard: and the notion of virtue's doing what she would by her own light is as good a lesson, as that of giving herself light to wade thro' darkness. And as to the versification it is not worth while to make a comparison. Spenser's is such, that it could not but have offended our Poets ear: the pace of the verse — "Thro' darkness for to wade" is such, as he justly condemn'd in a line of Bp. Hall's

With tragic shoes her ancles for to hide.

But that Milton was very happy in his Imitations from Spenser is I think evident from this instance here produced, and this will appear still more clearly from what follows. And we may observe in general that wherever he imitates he is sure to excel. In the Masque the Spirit thus speaks of a certain Shepherd Lad.—

He lov'd me well and oft would beg me sing
Which when I did, he on the tender grass
Would sit and listen even to extasie.

This will appear with uncommon spirit by comparing it with what Spenser says of the Shepherd of the Ocean.

He sitting me beside in that same shade
Provoked me to play some pleasant fit.
And when he heard the musicke which I made
He found himself full greatly pleased at it.

I love Spenser, and will not debase him to aggrandize Milton; but I cannot help remarking the Superiority of the Idea in the last cited Line of Milton to what we meet with in the last of Spenser: whose Poems, (we have the Historical Evidence of the Ingenious Stationer Moseley,) in these English ones of Milton were as rarely imitated as sweetly excelled. This much for this Mark.


[pp. 31-32]