Disquisitions on the merits of different Writers. [On the Fluctuation of Taste.]

Weekly Magazine or Edinburgh Amusement 20 (13 March 1773) 201-02.

Rev. Vicesimus Knox

A virulent attack on the "gothic" school of Gray, Mason, and the Wartons signed "Nemo." The history of Vicesimus Knox's essay unintentionally illustrates its later title. At the time of its first appearance, Knox plainly hopes that Goldsmith's neoclassicism will supplant the gothic school of Spenser and his followers, which Knox later came to praise. The first, anonymous, version of the essay was written when the young author was very much under the sway of his early patrons, Johnson and Goldsmith; it was considerably softened when published under his name in 1778 and underwent further changes in later editions. It seems likely that the Weekly Magazine reprints the essay from an English publication.

European Magazine: "He also amused himself in the intervals from his severer pursuits with English composition, and shortly before he finally left Oxford, sent the manuscript of the first volume of Essays Moral and Literary, as a present, without a name, to Dilly, the publisher. It was shewn to that eminent critic, Dr. Johnson, who spoke of the style and matter in terms of high panegyric, and predicted the future fame of the author; while the favourable reception given to it by the public has been almost unexampled. The work was subsequently extended to three volumes, and the name of the author no longer concealed. It has been translated into most of the European languages; and at once ranked the writer with the English Classics" "Memoir of Rev. Vicesimus Knox" 81 (March 1822) 196.

W. Davenport Adams: "Vicesimus Knox, D.D., divine, and miscellaneous writer (b. 1752, d. 1821), published Essays, Moral and Literary (1777); Liberal Education (1781); Winter Evenings; Family Letters; and many other works" Dictionary of English Literature (1878) 330.

George Saintsbury: "Vicesimus Knox is a useful figure in this critical Transition Period. A scholar and a schoolmaster, he had some of the advantages of the first state and some of the defects of the less gracious second, accentuated in both cases by the dying influences of a 'classical' tradition which had not the slightest idea that it was moribund. He carries his admiration for Pope to such a point as to assure us somewhere that Pope was a man of exemplary piety and goodness, while Gay was 'uncontaminated with the vices of the world,' which is really more than somewhat blind, and more than a little kind, even if we admit that it is wrong to call Pope a bad man, and that Gay had only tolerable vices. He thinks, in his Fourteenth Essay on the 'Fluctuations of Taste,' that the Augustans 'arrived at that standard of perfection which,' &c.; that the imitators of Ariosto, Spenser, and the smaller poems of Milton are 'pleasingly uncouth' [compare Scott, infra, on the metrical renaissance of Dyer], depreciates Gray, and dismisses the Elegy as 'a confused heap of splendid ideas'; is certain that Milton's sonnets 'bear no mark of his genius,' and in discussing the versions of 'the sensible Sappho' decides that Catullus is much inferior to — Philips!" History of English Criticism (1911) 232.

Knox's views quickly changed; already the 1779 edition has a meliorating footnote, expanded to a full apology in 1782:

"I think it is not difficult to perceive, that the admirers of English poetry are divided into two parties. The objects of their love are, perhaps, of equal beauty, though they greatly differ in their air, their dress, the turn of their features, and their complexion. On one side, are the lovers and imitators of Spenser and Milton; and on the other, those of Dryden, Boileau, and Pope.

"Now it happens, unfortunately, that those who are in love with one of these forms are, sometimes, so blind to the charms of the other, as to dispute their existence. The author of the essay on Pope [Joseph Warton], who is himself a very agreeable poet, and of what I call the old school of English poetry, seems to deny the justice of Mr. Pope's claim to the title of a true poet, and to appropriate to him the subordinate character of a satyrical versifier. On the other hand, the authors of the Traveller [Goldsmith], and of the Lives of the English Poets [Johnson], hesitate not to strip the laurels from the brow of the Lyric Gray.

"Goldsmith, in his Life of Parnell, has invidiously compared the Night Piece on Death to Gray's Elegy; and in a manner which betrays a little jealousy of a living poet's fame, given the preference to Parnell. There is also a little censure thrown on the elegy, in a collection which Goldsmith published under the title of the Beauties of English Poetry. I remember to have heard Goldsmith converse, when I was very young, on several subjects of literature, and make some oblique and sever reflections on the fashionable poetry. I became a convert to his opinion, because I revered his authority. I took up the odes of Gray with unfavourable prepossessions, and in writing my remarks on them, joined in the censure. I have since read them with great delight, and on comparing their style, and even their obscurity, with many of the finest pieces of Lyric composition in all antiquity, I find a very great resemblance. I am not ashamed to retract my former opinion, and to pay the tribute of applause to those elegant friends, Gray and Mason. At the same time, while it is easy to discern that they differ greatly from the school of Dryden and Pope, it is no derogation from their merit to assert, that they are the genuine disciples of Spenser and Milton. Such also are the very elegant and learned brothers [Joseph and Thomas Warton], one of whom presides, with so much honour, over the school of Winchester, and the other has written an elegant and elaborate history of that English poetry in which himself excels" (1782) 2:186-87, in Pope, the Critical Heritage, ed. Barnard (1973) 527.

In the 1784 version of the essay Knox writes, "I cannot help thinking, his poetical ideas are confined, who has not observed with delight the sweet lines, the sweet language, the sweet fancy of Spenser; and who has not been charmed with the smaller pieces of Milton? ... Spenser and Milton drew not from a gothic model, but from the polished Italians, who, though they had lost some of the purity and simplicity of ancient Rome, yet retained much of her elegance" 2:187 (1784); Traugott Bohme (1911) 195.

The opinions of mankind are as much divided on the objects of pure intellect as on those, which fall under the immediate observation of sense. The revolutions of literature will evince, on an accurate retrospect, that the fashions of wit have as frequently changed as the modes of dress. To mark the stages and to trace the progress of these revolutions, I leave to more laborious enquiry, and more acute investigation. It may, however, be pleasing to the imagination to compare the taste which prevails at present, with that which immediately preceded it; and to discover whether of the two is the more agreeable to beauty, to nature, and to truth.

Dryden, Pope, Addison, and their contemporaries, assumed the pen with a full conviction that all excellence in writing was founded on a close imitation of the antients. With this persuasion, they neglected the compositions of their own countrymen, and formed themselves on the models of the Augustan age. Their imitation was successful. Their times were captivated with their writings, and every susceptible reader acknowledged that the nearer they approached the ancients, the more they abounded in all the simple graces of natural beauty.

At this period, the English poetry arrived at that standard of perfection, in the admiration of which mankind have agreed for the space of seventeen hundred years, and to which, after the slight deviations of caprice, they have constantly recurred with reiterated ardour.

But the love of novelty was impatient for supplies, and was ready, for the sake of variety, to acquiesce with inferior excellence. Productions, therefore, of which no archetype could be recognized in the volumes of antiquity, were received with eagerness, because they relieved the satiety of unchanging perfection.

Although these subsidiary compositions could not boast a classical descent, yet were they not destitute of Gothic progenitors. Books of romance and chivalry were replete with ideas congenial to the species of poetry now adopted. The works of Ariosto and Spencer, and some of the smaller pieces of Milton, were the avowed models of these poets: and though their ideas are entirely foreign to nature, and derived solely from the unexplored regions of fancy, yet have they something pleasingly melancholy, and sweetly dreadful. Boileau and Addison have very accurately characterised the usual style of this species of poetry in one word: They called it Tinsel.

There is a vein of this glittering nothingness in the writings of the inimitable Pope; but its dazzling splendour is so overlaid with the solid ore of genuine poetry, that it gives no offence. Grey and Mason have at length professedly adopted the "clinquant," to the exclusion of the simplicity of classic elegance: nor can the general reception their works have met with be a matter of surprise; for, let it be remembered, that there have been times when the complicated deformity of Gothic building was preferred to the regular symmetry of Grecian architecture.

The elegy in a country church-yard breathes a spirit of melancholy which flatters the imagination of an Englishman. It is solemn, it is picturesque. But after all, it is no more than a confused heap of splendid ideas thrown together without order and without proportion, and resembles the loose jewels in the artist's casket before they are formed into a diadem. The odes of the same author, more unintelligible than the aenigma of a sphinx, are in the same predicament, and present to the mind ideas similar to those which arise from a survey of the clouds impurpled by the setting sun. The variegated hues are indeed beautiful, but they quickly vanish, and leave no idea but that of a transient assemblage of visionary colours.

Mason has sometimes shewn that he is capable of true classical poetry. But the taste of the age, and the example of his friend, have led him into the fields of fancy, where he has soared on the pinions of poetry far above the aching sight of common sense.

The two Wartons have followed the track of their superiors. The numerous contributors to our poetical collections, in the same stile, have soared in odes, and wept in elegies, and the empty M—ph—son has compleated the work with the nonsensical jargon of his Ossian.

This seems to have been the taste which prevailed immediately before that which now begins to dawn upon us, and to promise a revival of pure Attic and Augustan wit. It is true the glimmerings are yet but faint. We may, however, venture to assure ourselves of approaching day at the first appearance of twilight. To drop the figure, the favourable reception of the Traveller, and the Deserted Village, poems very different from the productions of the Greys and Masons, gives reason to prognosticate a return to the long forsaken imitation of Greece and Rome. These poems I am far from deeming faultless in their kind. They are, however, confessedly formed on the antient model, and have obtained a popularity, which points are sufficient for our present argument. The Greys and Masons have still some favourers, and that they should deny Goldsmith the smallest degree of poetical merit is not surprising, since they who can admire the affectation of the former poets are incapacitated from relishing the simplicity of the latter; as those who riot in the banquets of princes have no appetite for the plain viands of the rural cottager.

But, whatever may be the execution of these poems, the design is laudable; and the poet will perhaps receive an ample compensation, in being able to felicitate himself as instrumental to the banishment of two ridiculous absurdities from the republic of letters, the barbarism of Gothic poetry, and the dramatic monster of weeping comedy. — For such an event every rational critic will dare to assert, in spite of the imputation of pedantic bigotry, that, to deviate from the antients, is to deviate from excellence.

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