1791
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

A Critical Epistle to ***, on his Partiality for French Writers.

Gentleman's Magazine 79 (October 1809) 959.

Dr. Hugh Downman


A verse epistle, "Written in 1791, by the late Dr. Downman, of Exeter," that takes aim at French claims to literature; Spenser is mentioned in a catalogue of writers who owe nothing to France (Downman should have known better). The poet was an Exeter physician and polymath who had published an imitation of the Faerie Queene, The Land of the Muses, in 1768. "Della Crusca" is the English poet Robert Merry; note the introduction of an "irregular" triplet at the end of the catalogue.

The Critical Epistle is addressed to the author's friend and patient Isaac D'Israeli, who later dedicated his Miscellanies (1796) to Downman — it contains an essay "On French and English Poetry, and on Some French Words" a version of which likely inspired Downman's poem.

Isaac D'Israeli: "The poetical world has recently lost a true brother in the late Dr. Downman. His didactic poem on Infancy will always be considered as a work of permanent value, teaching the duties of a young mother. His tragedies have, perhaps, not yet received their full measure of fame; not indeed adapted for the theatre, they interest in the closet; and he aims at restoring the noble genius of the golden age of our dramatic bards, by their higher strains of feeling, combined with that familiar, yet forcible, diction requisite in dramatic composition. Of this estimable poet, and most excellent man, I possess an unpublished critical epistle, written many years ago, when I happened, in the freedom of conversation, to be more prodigal in my panegyrics on the most eloquent French authors, than his taste, and more particularly his patriotism, approved; he was of opinion, that the light and tender vines of the Seine would not form an ornamental appendage to British oaks. This critical epistle I think well deserving of preservation; the verses are not highly polished, but he was careless of the minuter graces of poetry; and revision was the only poetical labour he disliked. There is something novel in the subject; and it is marked by strength of conception, while the didactic flow of the verse does not diminish the truth it impresses" p. 959.

Gentleman's Magazine: "After the death of his friend Dr. Downman, of Exeter, (to whom his Narrative Poems were dedicated in 1803,) he communicated to Mr. Urban A Poetical Epistle addressed to him by that gentleman, written in 1791, on his (Mr. D'Israeli's) partiality for French writers" Obituary for Isaac D'Israeli, NS 30 (July 1848) 98-99.



If, from the Gallic worthies whom you praise,
My verse withholds an equal share of bays,
Attribute it to my untravelled mind,
Which, still within its native isle confin'd,
Views every object there with partial sight,
And asks no fairer region of delight.

With polish'd manners you would join in vain
The smut of RABELAIS, coarseness of MONTAIGNE.
To sage BOILEAU what genuine strains belong?
From Horace and Tassoni flow'd his song:
Pope, from their open fountain likewise drew;
What mighty thanks are to the Frenchman due?

Before RACINE, e'en in our James's time,
Old Beaumont taught the couplet and the rhime;
Denied the stanza's boasted power to please,
And wrote with equal eloquence and ease.

His flowers from MONTESQUIEU I will not tear,
The wreath he merits let him ever wear;
Yet, must he own, beneath our English skies
He saw the brightest and the sweetest rise;
Yes, o'er this land of lawgivers were spread
The fairest blossoms which adorn'd his head;
The laws here triumph'd in their native ground,
The spirit, and the substance, here he found.

VOLTAIRE might aim his irony and wit;
Yet often, while the mark he strove to hit,
The arrow on the shooter's breast recoil'd,
His art was frustrated, his fancy foil'd.
While he has many-mingled simples press'd,
He saw not poison in the juice confessed;
Deep drank his country of the envenomed bowl,
And madness now fires each licentious soul.

ROUSSEAU a Frenchman! He despised the name;
On other sentiments he built his fame:
Not for Parisian converse was he born;
Their music, and their manners, were his scorn.
Fancying the spacious universe he loved,
In his small sphere a misanthrope he roved;
A victim to his discontent and pride,
Without a real friend, he lived and died.

By these instructors was our judgment form'd?
By these, our taste inspired, our fancy warm'd?
Doubtless, from them our flimsy novels rose;
From them, such verse as Della Crusca's flows:
From them our frigid plays with plots so deep,
Which run nine nights, and sink in endless sleep.
But long 'ere they began their fated course,
Our's was wit, genius, elegance, and force.

'Ere they a single sprig of grace had won,
BOCCACIO, DANTE, ARIOSTO, shone:
From Greece and Virgil, TASSO caught his fire,
And strung for high heroic notes the lyre.
Sunk in barbarian ignorance was France,
Taste had not darted there her slightest glance,
When Spain, besprinkled with Castalian dews,
Beheld her Epic, and her Comic Muse;
When wit and humour to CERVANTES gave;
To free from maddening errantry the brave.
When Tagus heard the trump which CAMOENS blew,
As to Heaven's glorious arch aloft he flew;
When SPENSER pour'd his energy of strain,
And all the polish'd virtues join'd his train;
When SURREY, form'd in camps or courts to shine,
Tun'd his melodious notes to Geraldine;
O'er every bard, when MILTON fix'd his rule,
The noblest pupil of the Italian school.

But who to SHAKESPEARE gave that magic skill,
To turn and wind the passions at his will?
What masters form'd his bold and ardent mind?
Greeks, Romans, and Italians, lag behind.
France, and her sons, are wrapt in pale despair,
At what immense an interval — VOLTAIRE!

BACON, untutor'd shot his fulgid ray,
And the dark wilds of science blazed with day.
By whom was LOCKE'S perspicuous plan design'd,
When he unravelled all the powers of the mind?

Who taught our NEWTON Nature's laws to trace,
And bade his hands that ancient veil displace,
Which none e'er raised before from Isis' face?

In France, what genius, what invention flows?
What is her utmost boast but polish'd prose?
Where has she reached the nervous, the sublime!
Her best of poetry, is prose in rhime.

Her pigmy merits let her still possess;
Her art of writing is the art of dress:
Easy, familiar, sprightly, lo, she plays,
And turns a thought a thousand different ways.
With many a lily decks her barren ground,
And many blooming roses scatters round.

But this allowed — I grant her not a name
"Dear as Achaian worth to lettered fame;"
In vain your much-loved nation you advance,
She ever was, and ever will be, France:
Like Greece, or Britain, never can she shine;
Our's are the great originals divine!

[pp. 400-01]