Something of a mystery surrounds this modernized version of Fletcher's Purple Island (p. 1633), apparently made some years earlier and published in 1783 for the benefit of pious and apparently semi-literate readers. Moses Browne's authorship of the preface is doubtful. Also published in 1783 was Giles Fletcher's Christ's Victory, A New Edition, with an anonymous verse preface suggesting that that publication was also aimed at an unsophisticated readership.
Henry Headley: "In the edition of Christ's Victory, together with the Purple Island, in 1783, many unwarrantable liberties are taken with the text; nor is the least apology for the proceeding offered, or even the circumstance itself mentioned. In almost every page injuries are done to the sense, where improvements were intended. The republication seems to have originated from a letter of Hervey's, Vol. II. Let. li., and to have been executed upon the ridiculous plan he there proposes. Now it is the indispensable duty of every editor of an ancient poet to exhibit the spelling of his author in the exact state in which he found it (unless indeed in such words as are evidently mistakes of the press), in order that the reader may trace the progress of orthography, together with that of poetry. Where this practice is not observed, a republication is not merely imperfect, but dangerous, as it leads to an infinity of mistakes, and can answer no possible end but that of multiplying the number of our books without adding to the sources of our information. Whoever, therefore, takes up the edition alluded to, for the purposes of enjoying the poetry, making an extract, or a reference, can never be safe as to the authenticity of a single stanza. A neat republication of all Giles and Phineas Fletcher's poetry, from the old editions, faithfully reprinted, is much wanted" Specimens of Ancient English Poetry (1787; 1810) 1:83n.
Robert Southey: "A villainous edition of the Purple Island was published in 1783; in which the text was modernised and mangled upon the suggestion of James Hervey (1714-58), author of the Meditations; a book, not more laudable in its purport than vicious in its style, and, therefore, one of the most popular that ever was written" English Poets, Chaucer to Jonson (1831) 749.
Earl Wasserman quotes the letter of James Hervey mentioned in the preface (Works, 1769, Letter CCVI): "Had I been in perfect health, and disengaged from other employment, I question whether I should not have retouched the poetry, changed several of the obsolete words, illustrated the obscure passages" Elizabethan Poetry in the Eighteenth Century (1947) 52.
Hervey died only a few weeks after the letter was written, and presumably much of the work of modernizing the text was handled by a friend. The likely candidate is Moses Browne, who had earlier modernized the text of Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler along similar lines. On this basis Wasserman suggests that Browne edited this 1783 edition. He notes, however, that the editor's dedicatory poem by the editor is signed "P. B." Moses Browne, who had composed a very elaborate preface for his piscatory eclogues over half a century earlier, seems unlikely to have written this very unsophisticated essay. Browne was nearly 80 years of age when this edition appeared.
On the James Hervey-Moses Browne connection, see E. P. Morton, "The Elizabethan Stanza in the Eighteenth Century" (1913) 376n; and Earl R. Wasserman, "Moses Browne, and the 1783 Edition of Giles and Phineas Fletcher" Modern Language Notes (1941) 288-90. On the editorial practices, see Earl R. Wasserman, "Elizabethan Poetry 'Improved'" Modern Philology 37 (1940) 357-69.
It has often been lamented by wise and good Men, that whilst such a Number of useless and pernicious Writings are daily issuing from the Press, so many valuable Authors of the last Century should continue to remain in Obscurity. No one appears to have been more sensible of this, than the late excellent Mr. JAMES HERVEY, Author of the Meditations among the Tombs, &c. by whom several scarce and useful Books were rescued from the Pit of Oblivion. In the Letters written to his Friends, we find mention made of this very Poem; which was put into his Hands a few Weeks before his Decease: with which he was so well pleased, that he intended revising it for the Press; and to add another Poem entitled CHRIST'S VICTORY AND TRIUMPH IN HEAVEN AND ON EARTH. To this he says, he "was more particularly inclined, there being so few Scriptural Poems in our Language, wrote by Men of Genius."
Concerning the Author, little Information can now be obtained. He was the Son of GILES FLETCHER, L.L.D. (was was Brother to Dr. RICHARD FLETCHER, Bishop of London in 1594) of whom we have the following Account in the Biographical Dictionary. "He was a very ingenious and learned Man; was born in Kent, and received his Education at Eton; from thence he went to King's College, Cambridge. Was an excellent Poet, and very accomplished Person; whose Abilities recommended him to Queen ELIZABETH, by whom he was employed as a Comissioner to Scotland, Germany, and the Low Countries. In 1588, he was sent Ambassador to Muscovy, from whence he returned to England with Safety and Honour. He left two Sons, GILES and PHINEAS, both learned Men."
PHINEAS was educated at King's College, Cambridge, and beneficed at Hilgay in Norfolk. This Poem procured him the Title of The SPENSER of the Age, from his Cotemporaries; particularly by QUARLES, Author of the Emblems, &c. Some may consider this as paying him too high a Compliment; yet it is acknowledged by all, that in this Piece there is great Fertility of Invention, a glowing Imagination, a Display of much Learning, and a Vein of Piety. This Poem being allegorical, it may be necessary to say something concerning that Species of Writing. An Allegory is figurative Speech, in which more is contained that what the literal Meaning conveys. Thus the Roman Commonwealth is addressed by Horace under the Picture of a Ship. The Fables of Esop, the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, and the Aenied of Virgil, are all reckoned of this Kind. The Use of it is of very early Date, and both Plato and Socrates, who are considered as the wisest amongst the Heathens, recommend it. But what fully evinces its Excellence and Utility is the frequent Use made of it in the Scriptures, and by our blessed LORD himself.
We have several Examples of allegorical Writing in the English Language both in Prose and Verse: amongst the latter, the following Piece has been greatly admired by those into whose Hands it has fallen; and which many wished to see reprinted, it being exceeding scarce, and seldom to be purchased at any Rate.
As the Stanza used by the Author (nearly as in SPENSER'S Fairy Queen) is very different from the Measure in which most modern Poetry is written, it may seem awkward at first to some Persons. This the Editor found to be the Case with some of his Acquaintance; but who, after reading a few Pages, acknowledged it became both familiar and pleasing. It is requested of the Reader, to peruse all the Pieces prefixed to the Poem; and pay particular Attention to the Notes as they occur in the II. III. IV. and V. Cantos, which contain a full Description of that wonderful Structure the human Body. As this Poem was written near Two Hundred Years ago, the Reader will not be surprised, if he should meet with an obsolete Word; which as Mr. HERVEY, on a similar Occasion, beautifully remarked, "may be likened to a Hair adhering to a fine Suit of Velvet, or like a Mote dropped upon a Globe of Crystal." For which Blemishes, and the Deficiency of the Rhyme in a few Instances, no further Apology will be necessary. Respecting the Luxuriance of the Descriptions in some Parts, we hope for the Allowance of Candour and Benevolence.
This Undertaking has been encouraged by many worthy and learned Divines, and other respectable Persons. And that the Divine Blessing, for the advancing the Interests of Learning and Piety, may attend it, is the earnest Desire of the
London, June 16, 1783.