Anna Seward takes issue with Henry Francis Cary's assertion that Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton are the three greats of English literature. Cary, who Seward had taken up as a boy, was in 1792 an undergraduate at Oxford where no doubt Joseph Warton's literary trinity was accepted as a kind of secular dogma. Shakespeare, she says, would outweigh Milton's merit even with Chaucer and Spenser thrown into the balance. Seward also uses the example of Shakespeare to challenge Cary's claim in his letter of 7 May, that "that our greatest English poets, Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton, have been professed admirers of the Italians, and that the sublimer province of poetry, imagination, has been more or less cultivated among us, according to the degree of estimation in which they have been held." She seems to forget how much Shakespeare himself owed to Italian models.
Anti-Jacobin Review: "These Letters, it seems, were bequeathed by the author to Mr. A. Constable, the bookseller, at Edinburgh, for the purpose of publication, periodically; that is, at the rate of two volumes a year. They were accompanied by several others, the whole, as it appears from a letter written by Miss Seward, (and a fac-simile of which, it being deemed an object of great importance, no doubt, by the publisher, is prefixed to the first volume) filling twelve quarto volumes. The bookseller, however, knew his trade better than the author; and, therefore, with a wariness characteristic of his country, has suppressed a number of these letters, and published the remainder at once. It is true, that, by this conduct, he has disobeyed the positive injunctions of the testatrix, but, no matter, he has secured the main point, by making his own interest rise paramount to all other considerations. For a lady, who has laboured to immortalize his name, by informing posterity, in a letter, to be perused only after her death, that 'while she lives she must wish Mr. Constable all manner of good, and that he may enjoy it to a late period of human life,' the said Mr. Constable, we say, could not do less for a lady so kind, so considerate, and so bountiful, than supply a critical preface for her letters, in which their varied merits should be duly set forth, and their writer exhibited as a model of taste, of wisdom, and of genius. And, to say the truth, considering that a shop is not a very convenient place for study, and that there is no necessary connection between a seller of books, and a writer of books, he has performed his task in a very pretty manner; and we have little doubt but that the masters and misses who support our circulating libraries, will give him credit for his accuracy, and pronounce Mr. Archibald Constable to be a very clever sort of a man" 40 (November 1811) 281.
May 29, 1792.
I thank you for your letter, and should be sorry to pass it over in cold silence, though Heaven knows I am at present most unfit to enter the lists of criticism; for my heart is drooping with sorrow, and sickening with apprehension from the dangerous illness of a long-dear friend.
Your assertion, that Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton are the greatest poets of this country, may be controverted. Chaucer had certainly genius; but beneath the rust of his obsolete, coarse, and inharmonious diction, there is no ascertaining its degree. Milton is perhaps the third great poet the world has produced; however, we are not to forget that, to use your own words, "in the sublimer province of poetry, imagination," Shakespeare holds the light so far above even him, that Chaucer and Spenser, thrown into Milton's scale, will hardly make up the difference. Such is the poetic glory of England. The remembrance of Shakespeare entirely does away your assertion, that "true poetic excellence has been more or less cultivated amongst us, according to the degree in which the Italian poets have been admired and studied."
For he was ours unschool'd, and to us brought,
More than all Europe, Greece, and Asia brought.
The late great Warton has proved, that Milton studied, and borrowed as lavishly from his poetic predecessors in this country, as he did from the Greek, the Roman, and Italian bards. Brown, Drayton, and Fletcher were his models in Comus, L'Allegro, and Il Penseroso, greatly as he has improved upon them.
I should by no means have been sorry that you had studied and admired the Italian poets; but it is of your unjust, unpatriotic preference of them to the sublimer bards of your own country, that I am indignant. You plead the estimation in which they are held by Milton, Gray, Mason, Hayley, and Warton. It is said the latter knew Italian very imperfectly; and his works prove, that English poetry, from its first dim dawn to its present meridian splendour, was the chief object of his estimation. I never heard of any such preference, as you have given, maintained by either of the other four, however they might take delight in exploring the poetic efflorescence of Italy. Indeed, I have heard Mr. Hayley assert the superiority of the British bards, collectively, to those of any other country. Religiously do I believe, that the mass of genius, accumulated in this country since Spenser's time, is far greater than any other nation can boast. Under this conviction, I am perfectly content to limit my delights in that charming science within the pale of my own exquisitely rich and harmonious language; the growing Latinity of which has already, indeed has long, rendered it sufficiently vowelled, sufficiently sweet, copious, and sonorous, to do every justice of sound to the sentiments, the allusions, the impersonalizations of genius.
I confess I cannot perceive the high value of the simile you were so good to translate for me from Dante. It is undoubtedly a natural description of the manners and habits of a flock of sheep; but what truth, what sublimity, what beauty you can see in comparing a crowd of spirits, or ghosts, to them, I cannot conceive. If sheep are such silly imitators of their leader, why are we to suppose a troop of ghosts would all put their eyes and noses to the ground because the first might do so, in the same sort of ambition with which the clown tumbles after Harlequin; and so I can discern no apposition in this vaunted simile, without which, a simile is but on a level with his, who said, "even as a wheelbarrow goes rumble, rumble, even so that man lends another sixpence."
The imaginary resemblance of a flying spirit to the meteors of night is poetic enough, but not half so sublime as the comparison in the old ballad, William and Margaret, of the corpse, or apparition of a beautiful young woman, to an April morning, "clad in a wintry cloud."
Adieu! dear Cary. — May you ascend the eminences of literary fame, by whatever paths you may choose to approach them; and never may you know such heart-aches as I now feel to pall and damp your intellectual ardours!