1781
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Epistle to a young Gentleman, on his having addicted himself to the Study of Poetry.

Gentleman's Magazine 51 (September, October 1781) 434-35, 481-82.

William Preston


Spenser appears in a catalogue of ancient and modern poets. After an introductory account of the miseries of imagination, William Preston asks his poetical friend, "to tame thy youthful fire, | Recall to life the martyrs of the lyre." The remainder of the long epistle is given over to an enumeration of suffering poets unusual for the length and biographical detail of the verse characters. Among the ancients are Euripides, Ovid, Juvenal, Sophocles, and Laberius. Among the moderns, Petrarch, Camoens, Spenser, Milton, Dryden, Lee, Otway, Collins, Chatterton, and Savage. Not seen.

It will be noted that Edmund Spenser, who gets the longest character, also holds the central place. Preston is original in linking Spenser's disappointments to his own character of Despair: "Where, Spenser, where was Gloriana's hand? | Art thou an exile from thy native land? | Shall princes thus immortal praise reward? | Does thankless Britain spurn her noblest bard? | For thee, Despair unfolds his hideous cave, | The horrid forms of ghastly famine rave" 1:178.

William Preston, who avoids the forms characteristic of Spenserian poetry, was an Irish poet of some repute in the 1790s. While he was a prolific poet, and a careful student of literature, he followed the advice given in the poem and pursued a more remunerative career as a barrister.

Critical Review: "The Epistle to a young gentleman, dissuading him from poetry, contains a melancholy list of neglected authors" Review of Preston, Poetical Works, NS 13 (February 1795) 177.



And wouldst thou, then, in tasks of verse engage?
Throbs thy young bosom with poetic rage?
Oh trust th' experienc'd, trust me, dearest boy,
The walks of Pindus seldom lead to joy.
In those green paths, while yet 'tis morning, play;
Cull the wild flow'rs that rise along the way;
In chasing butterflies consume thy prime,
Adorn thy temples with the shoots of rhyme.
Awhile thou may'st, if thus thy fancy leads;
But range not long, in those enchanted meads.
To grave pursuits, and serious tasks retire,
Ere manhood rises to meridian fire;
Lest thou shouldst see, the noon in trifling past,
Thy sun descend, in poverty at last.
Yet wisdom's voice, thy soul did wisdom sway,
Would instant turn thy self-deluding way.
Not one short moment giv'n to youthful heat,
One pause of dalliance, in the muses's seat;
Within their bow'rs a thousand demons bide,
A thousand snakes within their flow'rets hide.

A plastic god informs the poet's mind,
He makes the beauteous which he does not find,
Displays th' ideal paradise around,
And smiles the barren heath to fairy ground,
His Midas' hands ennobled objects hold,
And feel and touch the meanest dross to gold.
Ah, fatal gift, what comfort canst thou bring?—
Less to the bard, than to the lydian king.
Attendant Fancy, from the wilds of air,
Convokes the smiling families of Fair,
The beauteous elves that o'er creation rove,
Delightful children of almighty love;
Prompt, at her call, the bright ideas throng,
And rush, profusely, thro' the bloomy song.
At Fancy's side, the young-ey'd Passions stand,
Sweet blushing boys, in form, a cherub band;
The soul expands, to lodge the smiling train.
Ah, little fearful of the future pain,
Beneath his wings, each veils a barbed dart,
'Till deep it quivers in the bleeding heart,
Then marks, with cruel pride, his guilty skill,
And flutters round, in wantonness of ill.

Ev'n while abroad th' excursive spirit flies,
Pervades the ocean, or ascends the skies,
And culls whate'er of harmony and grace,
External bounty show'rs on nature's face;
While not an object is too high, too low,
The stars that tremble, or the flow'rs that blow,
The troubled workings of th' impassion'd mind,
Or humbler instincts of the feather'd kind;
The harrow'd spirit shows the naked veins,
All quick and trembling, to the touch of pains,
The lightest feather fortune's airs dispense,
Like venom'd ponyards, wounds the morbid sense.
Should fate some wretch to keener organs doom,
In vain, for him, might lavish nature bloom;
The secret texture would the sense invade,
Its useful vanish, and its beauteous fade,
And ev'n the fairest flow'ret give to view
But certain atoms, rang'd in order due.
Self-destin'd poet, this thy dread employ;
To look to sorrow, thro' th' apparent joy,
To lose the pleasure too much understood,
And feel away from things the surface good.

Such seeds of woe the bard within him bears;
Nor will the world, believe me, dry his tears.
A secret curse pursues the luckless name;
Oppressive taxes load poetic fame;
The dull impose them on the tuneful band,
The world collects them, with remorseless hand.
Mark the close phalanx of the selfish schools,
Array'd to guard the dignity of fools;
Not with more scorn, the pharisee of old,
On the poor publican, his glances roll'd,
Than they, on poets, and in zealous fit,
Thank heav'n, they never dealt with wicked wit.
See fortune's sons, with pond'rous might, combine,
To drive the muses from her gothic shrine.
Say, wouldst thou thrive? — correct the feeling heart!
And hold the world but as a mighty mart,
Where each man's talent is expos'd for gold,
And minds are valued, as they may be sold;
There, his that glows with verve poetic fraught,
By many cheapen'd, shall by few be bought;
Like a thin tissue, fit for summer wear,
Held, by the grave, too flimsy, and too dear.

Still thou wouldst write: — to tame thy youthful fire,
Recall to life the martyrs of the lyre.
Lo, ev'ry face the lines of sorrow bears,
And ev'ry wreath is wet with drooping tears;
Such deadly damps the verdant meed bedew,
It seems funereal, as the stygian yew.
Ask of the train, and they, perhaps, may tell,
Around the bard, what rising comforts dwell;
What isles of bliss he finds, in sorrow's deep,
What golden visions chear his fatal sleep.

Hear'st thou the strain that tells of Pherae's youth
How death recoiling own'd a matron's truth;
Eternal monument of female fame,
The hallow'd scroll that bears Alcestis' name.
See how her children weep around the fair,
Her arms, alternate, fold the little pair;
The mother yielding to the wife alone,
She bursts from being with a smile and groan,
From rocky glens, and brakes, and caves retir'd,
Floats the sad strain by grief herself inspir'd.

What was his doom, whose hand unrival'd bears
The sacred key, that opes the fount of tears,
Of holy Socrates the chosen friend?—
A life of suffering and a direful end;
Pain, want, and obloquy gloom'd o'er his days
And envy ev'n withheld the boon of praise.
Oh turn thee to that spectacle of woe,
If thou hast feeling, let thy sorrows flow;
The dogs of hell the feeble bard surround,
He shrieks — his mangled limbs bestrew the ground!

There, Ovid mourns, along the pontic plain,
The luckless passion, and th' unguarded strain;
How frail and brief imperial friendships prove,
What giddy perils wait imperial love.
Once, the proud thing that met a Julia's fires,
Once, the gay tutor of the young desires;
Now faint and womanish, to tears resign'd,
The feeble numbers speak th' enervate mind.
His Julia's portrait at random cast,
His art of love is torn, and scatter'd o'er the waste.

There honest Juvenal, whose manly page
Scourg'd the rank vices of a shameless age.
Swoln with the surfeit of luxurious wealth,
Proud Rome imbib'd the bitter draughts of health;
And what his portion? — read th' indignant strain,—
"The lot of virtue is applause and pain.
Ah vain applause, the pain thou canst not cure;
Th' applause is transient, but the pains endure."

And he who fitted to the deep-ton'd lyre
Polluted Thebes, th' incestuous son and sire,
The father's curse, the brother's deathless hate,
Th' eternal fiends that Cadmus' line await.—
Must the proud muse, in regal crimson dy'd,
Crouch at a manager's insulting pride?—
When Paris' nod proscrib'd the lofty song,
Vain were the sceptered pall and vain the buskin'd throng.
Oh splendid impotence of barren praise!
No golden apples crown the starving bays.

And hark, Laberius, from the guilty stage,
Mourns the sad remnant of dishonour'd age.
When Caesar's cruelty, with base controul,
Would rend the feelings of a gen'rous soul;
Imperial spite devis'd the wounding task,
The knight degraded in the jester's mask;
But shame, recoiling, mock'd th' infernal aim,
Flew from the bard, and smote the tyrant's name.

Ambition bade young Petrarch's eyes explore
The deep recesses of the legal store;
Religion woo'd him to the hallow'd toil
Of sacred volumes by the midnight oil;
From lurid cells, he drew, with pious hand,
The precious reliques of the classic band.
Beneath an heap of gothic rubbish hurl'd,
And mingled fragments of a wasted world,
When, like an earthquake, the barbarian's hate
Broke the colossus of the roman state,
For ages sunk, the muse of Tiber lay;
But Petrarch's hand reveal'd her to the day.
Unworthy passion came, with base controul,
And shrunk the sinews of the mighty soul;
It curst his life, it dwindled all his fame,
It sunk the scholar's in the lover's name.

What art shall sooth, what counsel shall controul,
Th' eternal storm of Tasso's madding soul?
He shone, unrivall'd for the sword and pen,
And curst he shone, beyond the lot of men.
Love, fear, resentment, jealousy, disdain,
In wild succession, goad the tortur'd brain.
Might heav'nly harpings sooth th' infernal band,
Nor borrow'd lyre he needs, nor David's hand.—
Such strains are thine — perturbed noble mind,
Where shalt thou rest? — or where an harbour find?
Thy days in exile or in prison past,
In madness must thou seek repose at last?

See the bold muse exulting Tagus bore,
A wretched exile on a distant short.
Hark, the swart cast unwonted strains shall boast,
And chords angelic sooth the burning coast.
From pain to pain thy wand'ring steps were led,
And shames and sorrows crowded on thy head,
Wounds, want, and chains thy soul, by turns, essay,
And, worst and last, a petty tyrant's sway:
Such was thy lot, Camoens, and fortune's hate
Had mark'd thy numbers for a silent fate,
But thy strong hand her envious rage defy'd,
And snatch'd the glory from th' oblivious tide;—
High, o'er his head, th' immortal tome he bore,
And stem'd the saucy main, and proudly gain'd the shore.—
Illustrious poet, what returns of praise,
What beams of comfort, clear thy closing days?
An hospital receives th' indignant bard,
And beggars' alms the sacred song reward!
Alas, how little can the vulgar eyes
Revere the poet, thro' the means disguise
Of abject want, and own th' etherial flame,
And hail the nursling of eternal fame.
Thus, as some masque, unhonour'd and unknown,
A prince is shrouded in the palmer's gown.

And thou that mourn'd the pang, to ride, to run,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undone;
Sweet child of fancy, prince of british song,
Dear to the learn'd, the brave, and beauteous throng;
To Sidney dear, by Raleigh lov'd in vain,
Eliza vainly prais'd thy peerless strain.
Lo, half thy fame is swallow'd by the deep,—
What floods of brine thy thorny pillow steep!
Not soft they fall, by Mulla's pleasant shore,
Under the foot of Mole, that mountain hoar.
Ah me, no more at pity's call they flow,
No more embalm the lover's gentle woe;
For keen distress they flow, domestic harms,
For muses silent midst the rage of arms;
Mourn the wide ravages of civil strife,
And quench the smould'ring lamp of weary life.
Where, Spenser, where was Gloriana's hand?
Art thou an exile from thy native land?
Shall princes thus immortal praise reward?
Does thankless Britain spurn her noblest bard?
For thee, Despair unfolds his hideous cave,
The horrid forms of ghastly famine rave;
That eye to pity, and that heart to feel!
What kindred softness shall thine anguish heal?
Eblana mourn, th' illustrious outcast dies!
Ye nymphs of Liffey, join his parting sighs.

And thou, with age oppress'd, beset with wrongs,
And fall'n on evil days, and evil tongues,
In darkness and with dangers compass'd round;
What stars of joy thy night of anguish crown'd?
What breath of vernal airs, or sound of rill,
Or haunt by Siloa's brook, or Sion's hill,
Or light of cherubim, th' empyreal throne,
Th' effulgent car and inexpressive ONE?
Alas, not thine the foretaste of thy praise;
A dull oblivion wrapt thy mighty lays.
Awhile thy glory sunk, in dread repose,
Then, with fresh vigour, like a giant rose,
And strode sublime, and pass'd, with gen'rous rage,
The feeble minions of a puny age.

Yet happier thus, in high-born worth of song,
Than Dryden, meanest of the tuneful throng;
No task so base his humble wants refuse,
And parties, patrons, printers ride his muse;
She crowns the bigot, profligate, and vain,
On monkish quibbles wastes the noble strain,
In naked license treads th' unworthy stage,
Or caters vile applause, with fustian rage.
But peace, my muse, the greenest foliage spread,
And shade the foibles of the mighty dead.

From Lee's abode the dreary curtains draw,
And show the darkling cell, the couch of straw,
The whip, the bonds, the haughty keeper's frown,—
Oh what a noble mind is there o'erthrown!
Behold those eyes in wildest frenzy roll,
That speak the movements of a tuneful soul.
Ev'n now, the mind like some fair Eden lies,
Now, sudden blackness stains the leaden skies,
The whirlwind burst — commix'd, confus'd, and torn,
The fairest flow'rs, and goodliest plants are born.

The stings of want when famish'd Otway bore,
Oh think, what pangs the gentle spirit tore!
Awake to mourn, and exquisite to feel,
How sorrow rives him with her heart of steel!
Thou brightest fancy, softest, kindest, soul,
There sway'd the tragic muse with high controul,
And Venus kiss'd thy lips, and bath'd thy strain,
In purest nectar; but she bath'd in vain.
Child of the graces, nursling of the loves,
In houseless beggary, poor Otway roves.
Lo, some kind hand the tardy boon supplies,
A sickly lustre fills his hollow eyes,
With trembling haste, he grasps the precious meal,
The damps of death his weary eyelids seal.

In mean dependence Butler's sun descends;
See gentle Gay, — the hare with many friends!
Say wouldst thou take their fortune, with their fame,
A menial bondage, with a poet's name?
No, rather wish the doom of Collins thine,
In second childhood tortur'd thoughts resign.
Sense, mem'ry, care, in bland oblivion lost,
No more the soul with warring passion tost;
Long dead to pleasure, now redeem'd from woe,
The streams of Lethe o'er his spirit flow,
The deep'ning furrows of affliction lave,
And smooth the harrow'd soul, with all-benumbing wave.

Behold yon shade; — he bears an antique roll,
With many a scutcheon clad, and many a scroll;
'Tis he, the wond'rous youth of Bristowe's plain,
That pour'd in Rowley's garb his solemn strain.
A stripling scarcely, and yet more than, man;
His race was ended, ere it well began.
Th' indignant spirit tow'r'd o'er little men,
He look'd thro' nature, with an angel's ken,
And scorn'd, with conscious pride, this petty stage,
The tardy homage of a thankless age.
The furies wrung his agonizing soul,
And desperation mix'd the stygian bowl.

He too, that glory'd in a bastard's name,
The patient pupil of reproach and shame.—
No father's smile, nor mother's tender tears,
Chear'd the sad cradle of his infant years.
Lo, time for him prepares the scorns and whips,
And steeps in poverty beyond the lips—
Oh, Savage, doubly born of noble kind,
And tenfold noble in th' exalted mind,
Want, fear, and calumny with dire controul,
And blood oppressive cling around thy soul!
Oft to themselves their pangs the wretched owe,
But, Savage, thine from crimes of others flow:
What demons steel a shameless woman's breast!
Maternal fury, wilt thou never rest?
With vilest falshoods, ev'ry fiend-like art,
The human harpy rends his bleeding heart.
Unweary'd hate the curse of being gave,
Pursued thro' life, and sunk him to the grave.
Oh Savage, curst with elegant desires,
Th' ennobled nature, the poetic fires;
Thy roving wishes spread th' unweary'd wing,
Their sad returns of misery to bring;
No peaceful olive proves their wand'rings past,
But noxious herbs, and fruits of bitterest taste.
In dreary prospect, dire existence lies,
Where crowding sorrows, woes on woes, arise;
The murder'd hopes, departed faith of friends,
And mildest death, the long perspective ends.
Alas, what joy thy parting moment smooth'd,
By Pope embitter'd, by a jailor sooth'd;
Strange comforter! He chear'd thy prison's gloom,
He gave thy reliques to the decent tomb.

For me, — regardless of poetic fame,
To shun the sorrows, I renounce the name.
If, free from thorns, I snatch some oblivious flow'r,
The careless songster of an idle hour,
Yet well I know that songsters must be fed,
That Pindus' stones shall never turn to bread;
That bards must learn on airy sounds to live,
Or change the muses, for the means to thrive.
Allur'd by breathing spring, and balmy gales,
Awhile the linnet charms the sounding vales,
The, mindful of his food, for fruit and grain,
He roves the garden, or he wings the plain.

Thus would I warn thee, from the tuneful throng,
And, idle preacher, I would warn in song;—
In vain the warning; charm'd with specious ill,
Thy doom is cast; thou art a poet still.
I hear the cry, "One darling boast remains,
The free-born bard a sordid wish disdains;
Dear are the pangs his discontents impart,
And dear his feelings, tho' they rend the heart.
Would pensive Gray have chang'd his sombrous hue,
For all the sports that youthful lightness knew?
The poet feels no envious gloom arise,
When fortune robes her child, in many dyes;
Within his breast; no baneful wishes low'r,
While the gay stripling vaunts his dream of pow'r.
Blest in the treasures that the muse bestows,
Her gentle frenzy, and voluptuous woes,
He leaves the world, to souls of baser kind,
And shrinks retir'd within his creative mind."

[Poetical Works (1793) 1:168-84]