In a brief preface to his romance in couplets Joseph Sterling, a young undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin, declares that Spenser, along with Ariosto and Tasso, has been "the object of his imitation." His comparison of romance to a magnifying glass amplifying nature's laws is original, though the idea that its fabulous inventions are constrained by the unity of fable may be derived from Richard Hurd's Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762). Horace Walpole's preface to Castle of Otranto may also have been an inspiration for accepting the "transgression of Nature's limits" in works of imaginative fancy.
Like other Dublin poets, Joseph Sterling seems to have been largely ignored by the London reviewers. He was a significant figure in Anglo-Irish poetry, however, being the first Irish poet to identify himself with Edmund Spenser. While little is known of his life, he seems (with John Ball) to have been an important influence on later Irish Spenserians like Henry Boyd, and Thomas Dermody, later-century Anglo-Irish poets who embraced an Irish rather than an English identity. Sterling published Spenserian sonnets as well as poems in Spenserian stanzas.
If we consult the Springs that actuate the Human Fancy, or the path thro' which the descriptive Genius pursues its course least interrupted, and with greatest freedom, there is no species of composition which will be found to comprehend these in so great as degree, none wherein the mind thus unrestrained, is exerted more successfully than in Romance.
In it, more than in other compositions, the imagination soars less confined, more general; it alone admits unpardonable terms, the more licentious flights of invention; and if at any time description swells to prodigy, yet as long as it acts with that ingenuity as to unite probability with Fiction, Nature's Laws, though immutable, cannot but admire a distortion so regular. As objects, when presented to the eye by a microscope, still retain their original symmetry and proportion, and constantly return to the senses a just similarity of features, Nature's paths by this are more distinctly discerned; we hence learn more accurately its constitution, penetrate into its recesses, and take a more familiar and general Prospect of the whole: on the contrary, we cannot but abhor the deformity of Vice, which is exhibited to the view in added and more detestable colours.
The mind thus prepared, presents the following pages in their ultimate direction; it sets out already informed of this transgression of Nature's limits, nor sees itself embarrassed amidst the intricacies of this apparent labyrinth, but is well acquainted how to reconcile the Invention and Fable, judging of the extravagancies of the one, from the constancy of the other.
If the author of the following Poem, however inferior to the more celebrated, and which so peculiarly distinguishes their authors by transmitting the names of TASSO, ARIOSTO, SPENCER, and others of the latest praise, has proposed their final scope for the object of his imitation, by endeavouring with them to trace Virtue in its different forms; he flatters himself with an indulgent hope, that his ruder admonitions of fancy will not totally be displeasing to the ingenuous reader, nor his design anticipated or condemned.
Encouraged by these hopes, he submits himself and his works to the generous and impartial determination; he only wishes to convince his readers of the innocency and purity of his intention: to attain which he appeals to the candid examination, happy if he shall be thought to have mixed the careful with the entertaining.