Thomas Davies makes the breathtaking statement that "It is generally acknowledged that the grand aera of English Poetry began about the middle of Queen Elizabeth's reign, and ended with the Civil Wars of Charles the first." This opinion was not at all generally acknowledged, though perhaps it was not a bad way to begin a series of reprints of early poetry.
Davies's Preface gives a useful description of how his editions came together with assistance from such distinguished literary historians as Thomas Warton (who lent his copy of The Shepheard's Pipe), Richard Farmer, and Thomas Percy. Davies also had access to annotated copies of Browne and Sir John Davies owned by William Thompson, one of the century's more distinguished Spenserian poets. Davies had purchased the library of the antiquary William Oldys; see Gentleman's Magazine 54 (March 1784) 162.
London Magazine: "William Browne was a poet of great reputation in the reign of James I. and much esteemed on account of his extraordinary abilities. His works are here collected in a very neat edition, and consists of Britannia's Pastorals, with notes by the Rev. Mr. Thompson. The Shepherd's Pipe, The Inner Temple Masque, and other poems. The editor has also given the author's life, and does not exceed the bounds of truth, when he makes the most honourable mention of is productions" 40 (November 1771) 570.
Weekly Magazine or Edinburgh Amusement: "It appears, by the publisher's advertisement prefixed to these poems, that the author, whose works are now offered to the public, met with a fate uncommon and unmerited by so great a genius. He who was admired and beloved by the best writers of his time; who was esteemed and highly recommended by the classical Johnson and the learned Selden, was, in a few years after his death, almost forgotten; so that no trace of an edition of William Browne's works is to be found since the usurpation of Oliver Cromwell. However, the publisher has received considerable assistance from several gentlemen, who have kindly enabled him to make this edition as complete as possible" 15 (5 December 1771) 307.
Town and Country Magazine: "The public are obliged to the editor of this work for rescuing the productions of so great a genius as William Browne from oblivion" 3 (December 1771) 657.
The proposed re-issue of England's Helicon never appeared; the history of English romantic poetry might have been different had it appeared at this time — surely that anthology would have had a broader appeal than Sir John Davies's Nosce Teipsum? In the event Thomas Davies's reprints of early literature were not successful, and an error in printing made this edition of Browne's works somewhat notorious — three pages of Britannia's Pastorals were omitted in the transcription. Nonetheless, it was on the basis of this edition that Robert Anderson could include Browne of Tavistock in his British Poets a quarter of a century later.
W. Davenport Adams: "Thomas Davies (b. 1712, d. 1785), author, actor, and bookseller, wrote the Life of David Garrick (1780); Dramatic Miscellanies (1784); and many other works. Frequent reference is made to him in Boswell's Life" Dictionary of English Literature (1878) 170.
George Birkbeck Hill: "Johnson wrote to Mrs. Montagu on March 5 : — 'Now, dear Madam, we must talk of business. Poor Davies, the bankrupt bookseller, is soliciting his friends to collect a small sum for the repurchase of part of his household stuff. Several of them gave him five guineas. It would be an honour to him to owe part of his relief to Mrs. Montagu.' Croker's Boswell, p. 570. I. D'Israeli says (Calamities of Authors, i. 265): — 'We owe to Davies beautiful editions of some of our elder poets, which are now eagerly sought after; yet, though all his publications were of the best kinds, and are now of increasing value, the taste of Tom Davies twice ended in bankcruptcy'" Note in Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791); ed. G. B. Hill (1891) 3:253n.
It is generally acknowledged that the grand aera of English Poetry began about the middle of Queen Elizabeth's reign, and ended with the Civil Wars of Charles the first. Dryden and Pope are great names, and ought not to be mentioned without respect and veneration: They polished our numbers and brought versification to perfection. Satire was highly improved by both of them. Pope taught us to write correctly, but all the great parts of Poetry were complete before. Butler was the author of an admirable mock-heroic poem full of learning and wit; Prior improved the merry Tales of Fontaine, borrowed from Boccace; and Parnell and Grey have brought the Elegy to perfection. Satire, and mock-heroic, the ape of the true, are but assistants to the drama; and merry tales, and sweet elegies are only esteemed the ornamental parts of Poetry. The names of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton; Ben Jonson, Beaumont, and Fletcher, and Massinger; Drayton, Waller, and William Browne, will always stand in the first rank of great English Poets.
The Author whose works are now offered to the Public, met with a fate uncommon and unmerited by so great a Genius. He who was admired and beloved by all the best writers of his time; who was esteemed and recommended highly by the critical Jonson, and the learned Selden, was, in a few years after his death, almost forgotten.
It is true, that a few men of taste read him with pleasure in their closets, but the public scarce know that such a man ever existed. We can find no trace of an edition of William Browne's Works, since the usurpation of Oliver Cromwell.
The Publisher of this Work has received considerable assistance from several Gentlemen, who have kindly enabled him to make this Edition as complete as possible.
The Gentlemen of the King's Library were so obliging as to give him the use of the first Edition of Britannia's Pastorals, which had several Manuscript notes in the margin, written by the Rev. W. Thompson, late of Queen's College, Oxford. This seems to have been a favourite Poem with Mr. Thompson; and it is imagined, that he intended to print an Edition of it with notes and observations, those he has left are inserted in their proper places.
The Shepherd's Pipe consists of seven Eclogues, among which is an excellent Monody upon the death of his Friend Mr. Thomas Manwood, whom he calls Philarete; I dare not say that it is equal to the celebrated Lycidas of Milton, but surely it is not much inferior: That great genius has not disdained to imitate William Browne; and Lycidas owes its origin to Philarete.
This admirable collection of Eclogues was become so scarce, that if the Rev. Mr. Tho. Warton had not lent his own copy to be transcribed, the Publick might have been deprived of so valuable a treasure.
The Rev. Mr. Price of Oxford, was so obliging as to send the Publisher a correct copy taken from a MSS. in the Bodleian Library, of Browne's Elegy upon the death of Henry Prince of Wales, eldest Son of James the first. The Author took care to introduce this Poem in the first book of his Britannia's Pastorals, but on comparing it with Mr. Price's copy, the Reader will find some difference. His second thoughts are not perhaps happier than his first.
The Public is greatly obliged to Mr. Farmer of Emanuel College, Cambridge; he very kindly pointed out such passages in several Authors, as might serve to furnish materials for a short Account of the Author's life. Besides a Poem at the end of the Third Volume, he very obligingly procured from the Library of Emanuel College, the Inner Temple Masque, an excellent little poem, which had never been printed. Milton in all probability borrowed the idea of Comus from W. Browne's Masque.
The Bookseller, who has employed himself in reviving the noblest monuments of the Dead, hopes, soon to reprint a very excellent Collection of old Poems, called ENGLAND'S HELICON, or the MUSES HARMONY.
He cannot doubt of success, as he has been promised the assistance of Dr. Percy and Mr. Hawkins, a Gentleman well known in the learned world, and who is now employed in a very curious and valuable work; The History of Music, antient and modern, with anecdotes of the most eminent Musicians, and specimens of their works. By great good fortune he has in his possession some remains of our old English poets, which will greatly enrich the new Edition of England's Helicon.