1787
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry: Introduction.

Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry. With Remarks by Henry Headley, A.B.

Henry Headley


The introduction to Henry Headley's landmark anthology, published when the author was only twenty-two years of age, upholds the Elizabethan and Caroline poets against the versifiers of the age of Queen Anne, amplifying the sentiments expressed by Joseph Warton in his Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (1756). The introduction contains an appreciation of ballad poetry (and of poets and critics who appreciated ballad poetry) and criticism of Samuel Johnson's recent selection of English Poets, which had largely excluded Elizabethan and Caroline writers.

The Select Beauties was the first eighteenth-century anthology of early poetry to find commercial success. It became the prototype for George Ellis's Specimens of Early English Poetry (1800), and as such stands near the head of a long line of later "Specimens" anthologies devoted to particular topics: Later English Poets, Sacred Poets, Female Poets, American Poets, Less-Known British Poets, and so on. These anthologies were differentiated, scaled-down versions of the "British Poets" sets modeled on Johnson that reprinted entire the poems of more canonical writers. The brief biographical and critical introductions in the Specimens volumes were important repositories of information about minor writers and served much the same canon-forming function as the larger companions. None of them, however, selected so presciently as the Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry.

Henry Headley, who published the volume at the age of only twenty-two, excludes Spenser from his anthology as too well known (with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jonson, and Milton). Among Spenserians, he gives excerpts from Sir Walter Raleigh, Phineas and Giles Fletcher, William Browne, Richard Niccols, Michael Drayton, and Francis Quarles. Two additional volumes were planned but not completed, as Headley's fragile health was already failing.

Conceding that Spenser has overloaded his writings with archaisms, Headley argues that they can yet serve as a basis for literary diction: "on the whole, Spenser's works are an inexhaustible mine of the richest materials, forming in fact the very bullion of our language; and it is to be lamented they are so rarely explored for present use. Milton was fully conscious of their value; and many of the most admired and popular passages in his works, to every intelligent reader, — 'Whisper whence they stole | Those balmy spoils'" 1:xiv.

Henry Headley to John Nichols: "I find my subscription goes on here very slowly, and I have taken too much trouble in the work to relinquish it contentedly. I merely wish to pay the printing by my subscription. Will you assist me in getting a few names for such a purpose. I am aware of the abruptness of the application I am making, but necessity has almost worn away diffidence, and I have no friend in town who can do me service in a thing of this kind. My Selections will be made from the age of Elizabeth to the beginning of the reign of Queen Anne. I shall not touch any thing which has been already published by Dr. Percy in his Reliques" 13 May 1785; in Nichols, Illustrations (1817-58) 4:745-46.

Monthly Review: "After respectful mention has been made of Addison, Tickell, and Rowe, for their favourable sentiments with respect to the old English Poets, the preface is concluded with strictures on Pope, and on Johnson. In our opinion more respect is due to such illustrious names than Mr. H. is willing to pay them. Granting that Pope was too fond of mechanical beauties, and that he sometimes sacrificed sense to sound, is it fair to assert that the Prose of Young has more imagery than the Poetry of Pope?" 78 (January 1788) 19-20.

William Beloe: "These volumes contain many elegant criticisms, as well as pertinent biographical sketches and anecdotes, which evince, perhaps, a young, but certainly a fine taste, and highly polished mind. I am happy in this opportunity of paying a tribute of esteem and affection to his memory, for I knew him well" Anecdotes of Literature 1 (1807) 240.

Oliver Elton: "In 1787 Henry Headley, who belonged to the group of Warton and Bowles, had published his Select Beauties of English Poetry, compiled by with a learning and critical instinct that promised highly. An admirer of Drayton before Lamb and Southey, a discoverer of many rare and charming seventeenth-century lyrics, and well aware besides of the qualities of eighteenth-century verse, Headley was cut off too young, and must be honourably named. The development of this kind of study in the course of a generation may be measured by comparing his work with that of the Retrospective Review (1820-8)" Survey of English Literature 1780-1830 (1912) 1:419.

Eleanor Maria Sickels: "A landmark in the revival of the older poetry of which critics still speak with respect" Gloomy Egoists (1932) 246.

Henry Headley's biographies were promptly plagiarized in a series of called "Biographical Sketches of English Poets" that ran in the Town and Country Magazine in 1788.




While the accumulated materials of successive ages seem to have been requisite for the completion of other Arts, many of which, indeed, still remain imperfect and progressive, Poesy, with a certain preternatural eccentricity, has distinguished herself by arriving at a degree of comparative perfection, with less gradual and adventitious assistance.

—nec longum tempus et ingens,
Exiit ad coelum ramis felicibus arbos.

Though ages have elapsed since the birth of Homer, we still gaze at him with undiminished curiosity, till our eyes grow dim with admiration: yet this Bard, who has stood the scrutiny of Greece and of Rome, and the trying test of three thousand years, had no pre-existing models of consequence to look up to; the literary prospects of his day were barren, uncultivated, and disheartening. Criticism, as it was a subsequent production to his works, and in great measure originally derived from them, had no share in advancing him to immortality, by forming his taste, correcting his fancy, or improving his judgement. Shakspeare, whose name will suffer little in being mentioned after him, at a time when to read and write was an accomplishment, untutored by learning (for those scanty sparks of it that faintly glimmered on his eye through the medium of translation, are hardly to be considered as such), destitute of the advantages of birth, without rules, and without examples, carried Dramatic Poetry to a height that has hitherto baffled imitation and seems likely to descend to future times without a rival. The original rectitude of some men's minds, of the

—Pauci, quos aequus amavit
Jupiter—.

is such, as to serve them in place both of rules and examples; and though Genius, thus unassisted, seldom in any department of Science produces a perfect model, yet it is always its pride, and not unfrequently its lot, to rise in proportion to the deficiency of its resources, and bear up without them in such a manner as to give an appearance of their being unnecessary. If we seriously and impartially examine the cluster of poetical names that shone, and were concentered in the space of ninety-one years, from the accession of Elizabeth inclusively, to the restoration of Charles the second, and compare them with those who have respectively flourished from that time to this, a period of an hundred and thirty-eight years, we shall find the phalanx of older classics but little affected by a comparison with the more modern muster-roll. The following scale will tend at one view to illustrate how large and valuable a portion of literature is comprehended in a very narrow period. Many names are omitted of no particular import, individually or collectively considered.

ELIZABETH began to reign in 1558.

EPIC POETS.
Spenser
Milton
Davenant.

PHILOSOPHICAL AND METAPHYSICAL.
Sir J. Davies,
Phin. Fletcher,
Giles Fletcher,
H. More.

DRAMATIC.
G. Gascoigne,
Shakspeare,
Massinger
Jonson,
Beaumont and Fletcher,
Shirley.

HISTORICAL.
Niccols,
Sackville,
Daniel,
Drayton,
May,
J. Beaumont.

SATYRICAL.
Hall,
Marston,
Rowlands,
Donne.

PASTORAL.
Warner,
Drayton,
Browne,
Fairfax.

AMATORY, AND MISCELLANEOUS.
Raleigh,
Drummond,
Marlowe,
Cowley,
Carew,
Corbet,
King,
Habington,
Cartwright,
Randolph,
Suckling.

TRANSLATORS.
Fairfax,
Sandys,
Crashawe.

In thus bringing forward the most meritorious and prominent luminaries of a past age, a natural question seems to arise; how happens it that the great parts of Poetry, should so soon be filled up, and manifest a degree of excellence, in some respects unequalled, and in others unexceeded, by our later writers? In the following remarks I have endeavoured to assign a true reason. I cannot but think, that there exists a very close analogy, between the intellectual and the bodily powers, and that the strength of the one, in its operations, is in a similar manner affected with that of the other. The secondary endeavours of bodily exertion are seldom proportioned to the ardour of the first; the labours of the Husbandman are generally found to be most efficacious in the morning, the sultry noon induces lassitude and weakness, and "the night cometh on in which no man worketh." If we turn our eyes to the mind's works in individuals, instances are sufficiently numerous where its primary effusions remain unequalled by every succeeding one; like the nature of some soils, whose fertility is exhausted by a single harvest, and whose after-crops do but teem with the rankest weeds or the most sickly flowers. The star of Science no sooner appeared in the British hemisphere, than, struck with the luxury of its beams, the minds of men were suddenly aroused and awakened to the most animated exertions, and the most daring flights; silent were the legendary oracles of the Bard and the Minstrel, the dark and long-impending clouds of barbarism were dispelled, and instantly gave way to a clear and a healthy horizon. Add to this, we constantly find a period in the annals of every country, at which its people begin to be sensible of the shame and the ignominy of ignorance: this no sooner becomes perceived than it is deeply felt: the mind, stimulated by a forcible impulse, catches the alarm, and hastens at once to renounce its slavery; in the struggle and collision that ensues, the Genius of the people frequently takes astonishing strides towards perfection. Not satisfied with a tardy, gradual, and deliberate reform, the cause of learning and improvement is carried far beyond those limits that experience and cooler reason might have fixed for its advances. Peter the Great had no sooner returned from the inspection of foreign courts, and the influence of the transplanted Arts had begun to soften the grossness and severity of the Russian manners; than his court, disgusted at the meanness of their appearance, would not content themselves with a mere reform, nor proceed in the common course, from squalor to decency, and from thence to elegance; but resolved to do something; and not knowing where to stop, they hastily passed over the happy medium, and assumed at once an air of tawdry splendor, of awkward and irregular magnificence, not to be paralleled by any nation on the face of the globe. We may yet further observe, that the military spirit of the day, in Eliza's reign, being put upon the stretch far beyond its usual tone by the perilous and alarming situation of the kingdom, served to excite and to diffuse a general inclination for action, that invigorated attempts of every kind, whether literary or political. The temper of the times was happily and singularly disposed for the reception and cultivation of the classics, which then more immediately began to operate with salutary effects. The manly spirit of expiring Chivalry lent a romantic grace to the prevailing taste, which, associating with the fantastic incongruities of Italian imagery, required nothing but the chastity and good sense of Ancient Learning to add a weight and a value to composition which were hitherto unknown. In order to enter more closely into the nature of that species of Poetry which it is the purpose of these volumes to recommend, it will be necessary to consider it under the following heads: Language, Versification, Style, Sentiment, and Imagery. As to Language, it has been very justly remarked by Johnson, that "from the authors which rose in the time of Elizabeth a speech might be formed adequate to all the purposes of use and elegance." This acknowledgment of the Doctor's is confirmed by Dryden: in his Essay on Dramatic Poesie, speaking of Beaumont and Fletcher, he says, "I am apt to believe the English language in them arrived to its highest perfection; what words have since been taken in, are rather superfluous than ornamental." It would have been a matter of national advantage, had Johnson, after an attentive perusal of the Poets of this age, distinguished in his Dictionary those particular obsolete words which, from their sound and significance, merit use and adoption; the sanction of his authority might have gone far towards restoring them to that rank, both in writing and conversation, which they have too long undeservedly forfeited: but, by the contracted lists of authors his quotations are drawn from, it is evident he neglected dirtying himself in the dust of the Black-Letter, a task which, however uninviting, was indispensably requisite to the completion of his plan, and without which, no man can clearly survey the obscure foundations of our language. It is observed by Sir W. Davenant of Spenser, "that our language did receive from his hand new grafts of old withered words." Every reader's experience must witness the truth of the remark; by a too indiscriminate use of antiquated words, coarse and obsolete idioms, Spenser has no doubt blemished his poem; as a painter may overcharge a Landscape with a profuse introduction of Ruins. Yet, on the whole, Spenser's works are an inexhaustible mine of the richest materials, forming in fact the very bullion of our language; and it is to be lamented they are so rarely explored for present use. Milton was fully conscious of their value; and many of the most admired and popular passages in his works, to every intelligent reader,

—Whisper whence they stole
Those balmy spoils—
Par. Lost.

When Bishop Burnet objected against him, that he "made many new and rough words," he certainly betrayed the narrowness of his reading; what he concluded the production of Milton, was but the sterling and current coin of the preceding century; and, at a time when it had fallen into disrepute, was again circulated by our Divine Bard, in opposition to the fastidiousness and false refinement of the wits and the coxcombs of his age. Pope, Atterbury, and Swift, who headed one party, Addison, Congreve, and Steele, who led the other, in Queen Anne's reign, with their respective minor adherents, in the general tenour of their writings, addressed the judgment rather than the fancy, and, with a Parnassian sneer peculiar to themselves, either neglected or hunted down their poetical predecessors; some of them, who deserved better treatment, were even wantonly pounded in the Dunciad. Let them take their share of praise, and rest contented. Satyre and Morality they carried to perfection; but the higher regions of Poesy received neither extension nor embellishment from their hands. In new modeling the language of verse, they have given it an artificial gloss, a seductive and meretricious lustre, of which its primary purity had no need. Compound epithets, which are the life of a language, and in which our own is far from being deficient, they almost totally discarded. It is rather remarkable, that Pope, who has expressed his relish for them in Homer, should he inattentive to them in his own writings. He justly observes, in his Preface to the Iliad, that, "as a metaphor is a short simile, one of these epithets is a short description." Aristotle has said of Homer, that he was the only one who had discovered "living words," an appellation highly characteristic of the epithets I am mentioning, which are from the recommendation and example of a few men of taste making their way into our poetry a second time, after a long discontinuance. Many valuable hints on this subject are suggested in the correspondence of Mr. Gray with his friend Mr. West. The latter had disapproved of some expressions in Gray's Agrippina, who well replies, that "the language of the age is never the language of poetry;" and what is still more to the purpose, "Shakspeare's language is one of his principal beauties; and he has no less advantages over our Addisons and Rowes in this, than in those other great excellencies you mention; every word in him is a picture." Let us now proceed to versification, on which subject our superiority over our predecessors is, perhaps, too implicitly insisted on, and too generally allowed. He who is not biassed by the cant of what is generally called authority, nor shackled in the trammels of bigotry and system, will often take occasion to observe, that many are the instances where Art is rather a troublesome innovator than a real benefactor, and that, as she introduces improvement, it is not unfrequently attended with frivolity and impertinence. The prevailing opinion of the age is seldom a standard of Taste safe enough to be trusted. The dominion over poetical numbers which Pope possessed, was most astonishing and unexampled, to any one who has cast an attentive eye on the state in which he found them; under his hand they appear to have attained a degree of polish far beyond what they might have been supposed to have been capable of, and indeed beyond every thing that could have been expected or foreseen. Yet did he not stretch his prerogative too far, by reducing them to perfect mechanism? of rhyme has he not made a rattle, and of verse a play-thing? Amid such attention to sound, must not sense have been a loser somewhere or other? " Pars minima est ipsa paella sui." The substance itself is lost in the profusion of appendages. An old Satyrist has well expressed himself on this head:

—Alas, poor idle sound:
Since I first Phoebus knew, I never found
Thy interest in sacred poesie.
Thou to invention add'st but surquedry,
A gaudy ornature: but hast no part
In that soul-pleasing high infused art.
Marston. Scourg. Vill. 2 B. 1599 Edit.

His translation of Homer, timed as it was, operated like an inundation in the English Republic of Letters, and has left to this day indelible marks on more than the surface of our poetry. Co-operating with the popular stream of his other works, it has formed a sort of modern Helicon, on whose banks infant poets are allured to wander and to dream; from whose streams they are content to drink inspiration, without searching for remoter sources. Whether its waters are equally pure, salutary, and deep, with the more "ancient wells of English undefiled," admits of a doubt: so forcibly affected by them, however, have, been the minds of the Public since his day, and so strangely enchanted with the studied and uniform flow of his harmony, that they have not only grown indifferent, but in a great measure insensible, to the mellifluous, yet artless, numbers of Spenser, Shakspeare, and Fletcher, where the pauses are not from their clockwork construction anticipated by the ear, where there is a union of ease and energy, of dignity and of grace; and, to use the words of Dryden, "the rude sweetness of a Scotch tune, which is natural and pleasing, though not perfect." But the consequences that have ensued to the cause of Poetry from the sway of Pope, are not the happiest: in proportion as his works were read, and the dazzle of his diction admired, proselytes, who would not originally have been scribblers of verse, were gained, and the art of tagging smooth couplets, without any reference to the character of a poet, is become an almost indispensable requisite in a fashionable education. Founded upon this prevailing habit, hence has arisen, and been gradually making its way, a spurious taste, which, as it reprobates and sets at defiance our older masters, bears no real relation to the Maker or Inventor. Here, perhaps, it may not be amiss to remark, how soon Poesy began to mimic the movements of a Sister Art, by accommodating sound to sense, and (if I may be allowed the terms)

To dress and troule the tongue, and roll the eye,

to assume affected abruptness of transition, and rapidity of apostrophe. In the neglected, yet highly finished translation of Tasso by Fairfax, some of the tricks of versification, that have been since cultivated to so faulty an excess, began first to appear, as the position in the following cursory instances seems to indicate.

Pope has a most complete piece of mimicry of this sort:

—the string let fly
Twang'd short and sharp, like the shrill swallow's cry.
Odyss. xxi. 449.

"Twanged the string," out flew the quarrel long,
And through the subtil air did singing pass.
7. B. 103 St.

"Vanisht her" garments rich, and vestures strange,
18. B. 35. St.

"Lightned" the heav'n above, the earth below
Roar'd aloud.
18. B. 37. St.

On his right hand at last laid on the ground,
He lean'd his "head weake" like a shaking reed,
"Dazled his eyes," the world on wheels ran round.
B. xix. st. 28.

"Vanisht" the shade, the sun appear'd in sight.
19. B. 68. St.

These are the dawnings of those mechanical beauties, which refinement introduces as auxiliaries, and frequently retains in her service to the neglect of higher excellencies; in the infancy of an Art they seldom appear: the older poets disdained stooping to the character of syllable-mongers; as their conceptions were vigorous, they trusted to the simple provision of nature for their equipment; and though often introduced into the world ragged, they were always healthy. To cull words, vary pauses, adjust accents, diversify cadence, and by, as it were, balancing the line, make the first part of it betray the second; was an employment reserved for the leisure and coolness of after-times, whose poetical establishment was about to consist of a suite of traditional imagery, hereditary similies, readiness of rhyme, and volubility of syllables. — We are now come to Style, Sentiment, and Imagery, including the very soul of composition. From the paucity of models in the beginning of the Art, every writer, as he was unable to indulge his idleness by paraphrasing, and replenish his stores at the expense of another, became compelled to think immediately for himself: to the august therefore and endless volume of Nature he turned his eye, and transcribed more or less, according to his necessities, from her eventful and important page: his descriptions, of course, were the reflected images of what he was a witness to; when the passions were to be exhibited, as they had not yet appeared either sophistically tricked out, or truly delineated through the medium of books, to his own heart only or actual observation he had recourse for intelligence. This produced abstracted instead of general terms, and, in short, energy, character, and truth; and gave the contents of his pages an air of a proof-impression. Succeeding artists, happy to find their labour facilitated, and a mass of materials ready formed to their hands, thought it convenient to adopt much, and add a little; and, as Literature always grows confident like other things, in proportion to its age and advances, their posterity ran still greater hazards in acquiescing with, and taking upon trust, what they found thus regularly handed down to them. Ideas thus circulated must lose much of their primary complexion, as the distance from their original source is more or less; some must be distorted, others frittered away, and many totally new-vampt, in opposition to their former signification; as the volatile spirit of an exquisite essence insensibly evaporates in the course of being transferred from, one phial to another. To a process not very dissimilar to this, I am inclined to attribute the frequent lifelessness of modern poetry, which too often resembles an artificial nosegay, the colours of which, though splendid, are yet tawdry, and heightened far beyond the modesty of nature, without any pretensions to fragrance; while that of a century and an half back, appears as a garland fresh from the gardens of nature, and still moist and glittering with the dews of the morning. We have few better opportunities of forming a comparative estimate of ancient and modern Poetry, than by recurring to those subjects which later writers have undertaken to modernize, as in the Fables of Dryden, and the Nut-brown Maid of Prior; the original of which latter performance I cannot help preferring to Matt's elegant versification-piece, in which decision I cannot think myself misled by a blind predilection for antiquity. It should be remembered, that Simplicity, though frequently naked, is not consequently poor, her nakedness may be that of a Muse, and not of a beggar. Numerous are the instances which must occur on an attentive perusal of both the Poems, where the effect of minute Beauties in the original is lost from expansion in the paraphrase. Prior has filled up the outline too implicitly; he has left the mind of itself, under every change of emotion, nothing to conceive or to supply, every thing is ready expressed and done for the reader, and we may justly alledge, in the language of Cicero, "Ea sunt omnia non a natura sed a Magistro." As an instance in point, the following stanza includes the finest circumstance in the whole, which is imagined with surprising delicacy. The hand of Shakspeare could not possibly have gone higher, or have touched a situation with greater nicety. The Nut-Brown Maid, on resolving to accompany her banished Lover, adheres to her determination with unalterable firmness; in the course of the whole dialogue, no dastardly symptom of irresolution escapes her, no selfish fear of the impending dangers she was to encounter, and no regret at the comforts she had renounced. After acknowledging her intention, she says,

I shall as nowe do more for you
Than longeth to Womanhede;
To short my here, a bowe to bere,
To shoote in tyme of nede.

But on a sudden the consequences that might ensue to probably an aged and affectionate mother, who must deeply feel her absence, and the rashness of her conduct, come across her; it is the exquisite pang of a moment, and will not bear dwelling upon. Hear her exclamation, which is continued from the above quoted lines:

O, my swete Mother, before all other,
For you I have most dreade.

Her courage and resolution return. She goes on:

But now adue! I must ensue,
Where fortune doth me lede.

This is that ardent and artless language of Nature that baffles simulation, and fixes an indelible impression on the heart, and on the memory. Prior has passed over all this in silence.

I will indulge myself still further in quoting all incident from another Ballad, of certainly not inferior merit to the last. A Mother, who is forsaken by the object of her affections, pondering the infelicity of her lot, thus exclaims over her sleeping infant:

—Lye still, my darling, sleep a while,
And when thou wakest sweitly smile;
"But smile nae as thy father did
To cozen maids," nay God forbid!
Lady Bothwell's Lament.
Vol. I. Select Scot. Ball.

He who has a single nook in his heart for sensibility must prefer such passages as this to pages of declamatory sorrow, tricked out in all her most studied formalities: how would these lines bear translating into what is called elegant modern versification; stuffed out with general epithets, and distorted with tragic apostrophe? In the Theatric department, if we turn our attention to the list of performances that for the last year only have been exhibited at the Theatres of our Capital, and compare the later pieces in that list, with the very few ancient plays that still, to the credit of our fastidious taste, keep their ground amongst them, we shall clearly see to what little effect, Criticism, with her regular code of laws, has operated; in spite of the edicts of Aristotle, the boasted improvements of style and of language, and the strictest adherence to the Unities, the tears that fall at modern stories are easily numbered, and scarce to be traced to the heart; that Key, which is most beautifully feigned by the Poet to have been given by Nature to Shakspeare, and which was likewise in the hands of some few of his contemporaries, "that oped the sacred source of sympathetic tears," seems now, and has done for a century past, irrecoverably lost. One of the most material requisites in our older poets is oeconomy, which is to composition precisely what conduct is to life; we are frequently palled by an opulence of description, all exuberance of imagery, and a maze of allegory, without any relief whatever, unless by imbecilities, prolix, uninteresting, and vulgar in the extreme. This inequality of parts pervades antiquity; a judicious regard to the distribution of ornament the art of blending the brilliant with the chaste, of softening strength of colours with mild and corrective shades, together with the niceties of method, connection, and arrangement, are the tardy and perhaps most valuable produce of later times. — Though the poetry of Addison assumed little or no tincture from his taste for our obscurer writers (for a taste on this head he undoubtedly possessed, much superior to any of his contemporaries), he still merits the thanks of every poetical reader, for his elegant efforts to revive the beauties of the Paradise Lost, his critique on Chevy Chase, and various scattered notices of a congenial nature in his periodical papers. A. Johnston, who republished the Earl of Sterling's Works in 1720, has a passage in his preface much in point: he there says, "That he had the honour of transmitting the Author's works to the great Mr. Addison for the perusal of them, and he was pleased to signify his approbation in these candid terms: That he had read them with the greatest satisfaction; and was pleased to give it as his judgment, 'that the Beauties of our ancient English Poets are too slightly passed over by the modern writers, who, out of a peculiar singularity, had rather take pains to find fault than endeavour to excel.'" Of Tickell, the friend and the Editor of Mr. Addison (and who as such may with propriety be mentioned after him), it has been said by Goldsmith, that through all his works there is a strain of ballad-thinking to be found: the remark is just, and to that strain he is indebted for the reception he has met with. Whether he had it from reading or from Nature we have still to learn, as no memoirs of his life, hitherto published, are satisfactory enough to inform us of his particular studies. The well-known lines which Dr. Percy has taken for a motto to his Reliques, speak the opinion of Rowe on such subjects clearly; the intention likewise which he is known to have had of publishing the Plays of Massinger, to whom he owes many obligations, and from whom, indeed, he borrowed the plan of his Fair Penitent, proves his relish for old Literature. Not to mention his edition of Shakspeare. From these sources he gathered a style of dialogue which has been much approved, a style, which, though not so pure as the models that suggested it, yet soft, easy, and captivating, is greatly preferable to, and of a very different texture from the inflated and declamatory vein, which for some time past has taken entire possession of our stage. It has been often alledged against Pope, that he was not averse to pilfering, snug, from obscure poetry: an attentive perusal of his works soon confirms the justice of the charge; yet he appears rather to have satisfied himself with what accident threw in his way, than to have deviated into a systematic or serious examination of such sort of reading. The sketch he has left for "A discourse on the Rise and Progress of English Poetry," imperfect as it is, may fairly be supposed to contain names of more authors that he had heard of than he had read. Young, a Poet of infinite originality both as to style and matter, has no marks of obscure reading whatever; the fertility of his own resources was more than equal to his wants; this might preclude him from all recourse to such assistance. If we may judge of his poetry by internal evidence, he should seem to have composed with great rapidity, and little after-correction. The prose of Young has more imagery than the poetry of Pope. Had Akenside been a worse Scholar, he had been a better poet; to an imagination like his, that understood selection, the Gothic system would have been far more productive than the Heathen Mythology. In Thomson it is difficult to discover any material traces of imitation, or even to conjecture who were his favourites among, the poets of his country. His Seasons differ as widely in their style, which has in it a peculiar swell, as in their contents, from every other Poet. When such inconsiderable advances towards rescuing from oblivion the several writers, from whom the contents of these volumes are drawn, were made by those, who from their situation and abilities were best suited to the task: when brother bards were not only remiss in restoring them to popularity, but by their neglect and silence seemed to insinuate they were undeserving of it; we must not be surprised that their merits remained so long unobserved, and that little solicitude was expressed at their fate by the body of the people. I cannot conclude without noticing the late very incomplete and careless edition of the English Poets, commonly called Johnson's Edition, in which so few of our older classics appear. It is well known, that the Doctor was ever glad to escape the censure which the work had fallen under, by alleging that he had nothing to do with the selection; he had engaged himself only to furnish a set of Lives to such a list as the Booksellers, who were the responsible publishers of the work, should think proper. The excuse is probably true, but surely most unsatisfactory. Johnson was at the time no hungry hireling of a Bookseller; he most deservedly revelled in the praise of the public, and a competency was secured to him for life by a pension. Was it not, therefore, incumbent on him, in a work which bore so close a relation to the honour of his country, which, from its elegance and magnitude, afforded the happiest opportunity of uniting our poets, both Ancient and Modern, in one comprehensive view, and of combining their respective excellencies in one common interest? Ancient Poetry, in thus being exhibited to the public eye, would soon have made good her claims to notice, and of herself recovered the long-lost verdure of her bays; whilst the justice of that latitude which is commonly assigned to later improvements, from a fair opportunity of a comparative examination, might have been more strictly ascertained. Dr. Johnson gave up his Life to the Literature of his country; a portion of it would not have been thrown away, had it been dedicated to the completion of such an undertaking. Not that I consider the turn of his mind as peculiarly qualifying him for a critic of such subjects, which require more imagination than judgment (by no means the Doctor's case); but that what he had to say even on things which he did not properly understand, is always worth hearing, and that the lustre of his great mind seldom beamed on any thing without lighting us to some new truth, latent trait of character, or peculiarity hitherto unobserved; and let his strictures have been ever so injurious, an elegant edition of the text was at all events secured. In the esteem of the Booksellers he stood very high, perhaps higher than any man of his age; and there cannot be a doubt, but that the management of the work, on the least desire intimated by him, would have been vested in his hands with the utmost gratitude and confidence. The imperfections of the work are still further to be regretted, when we recollect, that such works are seldom hazarded above once in fifty years; the public cannot digest a repetition of them. As the matter stands, however, a most unworthy rabble have gained a passport to the Temple of Fame, much after the following ridiculous predicament, so well described on a very different occasion by Mr. Burke, whose words we may literally apply. "He put together a piece of joinery so closely indented, and whimsically dovetailed; a cabinet so variously inlaid; such a piece of diversified mosaic, such a tesselated pavement, without cement, here a bit of black stone, and there a bit of white, * * * * * that it was indeed a very curious shew, but utterly unsafe to touch, and unsure to stand on; the colleagues whom he had assorted at the same board, stared at each other, and were obliged to ask, Sir, your name!" &c. To have shed "their twinkling radiance the miscellanies o'er," was the highest honour many of those, who are here adopted as legitimate and established Poets, could affect; to a more conspicuous and dignified hemisphere they had not the slightest pretensions. The many dogmatical and injurious censures contained in the Lives themselves, for which we have scarce the shadow of a reason assigned, but are generally silenced with the old apophthegm of Homer, [Greek characters], have additionally contributed to the unpopularity of the work; though, as fine pieces of nervous writing, pregnant with valuable detached opinions, happy illustrations, nice discussions, and a variety of curious incidental information, they will ever attract notice: but as judicious and impartial critiques on the merits of the respective writers, as just and discriminative representations of the subjects in question, they will never be considered by the generality of readers. Such, however, is the fate of the work, that we seldom see it entire, but meet with its contents wandering separately and disjointed in every catalogue. Like discordant atoms, which, when driven together by a superior force, meet but for a moment to show their dissimilarity, and, from a natural opposition, refuse to coalesce; but on the cessation of the cause which brought them originally together hastily fly back again to their pristine conditions.


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