1795
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Life of Lorenzo de' Medici.

The Life of Lorenzo de' Medici, called the Magnificent. By William Roscoe.

William Roscoe


Discussing Lorenzo's poetry, William Roscoe of Liverpool comments that moderns excel the ancients in allegory, criticizes the use of stanzas in long poems, and holds up Allan Ramsay and Robert Burns, in contrast to Spenser and Gay, as masters of simplicity in pastoral. Roscoe made his reputation with this imposing work of scholarship; he was a patron of Henry Fuseli and an influential literary figure in liberal critical circles.

John Aikin to William Roscoe: "I have heard but one opinion of it, that it is the most elegant and interesting publication of the literary kind that has appeared in our language for many years; and sincerely am I rejoiced, that a merit which has been so long conspicuous in the circle of your friends, is now fairly displayed and made manifest to the world at large" 1796; in Life of William Roscoe (1833) 1:123-34.

"Cassius": "Mr. Roscoe, in his Life of Lorenzo de' Medici, has justly observed, at page 394 of the first volume, that few attempts have been made in England to adopt the provincial idiom of the inhabitants to the language of poetry. Neither the Shepherd's Tale of Spenser (he adds) nor the Pastorals of Gay, possess that native simplicity and close adherence to the manners and language of country life, which ought to form the basis of this kind of composition. And Mr. Roscoe thinks that the reason of this is the inaptitude of our language for genuine pastoral poetry. Perhaps, however, another and more probable cause may be assigned. May it not be, that neither Spenser nor Gay were bred in the country, nor passed their life in those low and homely scenes which constitute the characteristics of this species of poetry? They wrote, as it were, in a foreign language, and they imagined that words would convey the feelings of the heart, the inwrought habitudes of nature. They attempted to describe what was to them strange, and partly unknown, perhaps, except from books; it did not circulate with the flow of their sensations, and consequently it has a frigid and often a ludicrous appearance. It is the same as if an Englishman were to attempt to write Chinese pastorals, by grouping together all that he has heard respecting their rural affairs and manners: the materials, indeed, might be there, but they would be wrought up without judgment, skill, or feeling" Universal Magazine NS 8 (August 1807) 126.

Thomas Frognall Dibdin: "The style is pure and elegant; the facts are interesting and instructive; and the moral or application is (if I may so speak) of an incomparable tendency. These facts were new to the greater part of English readers: fresh fountain heads of pleasing intelligence were explored; and a stream of knowledge flowed forth, at once bright, pure, and nourishing. I hardly know a work, of its kind, which evinces throughout a more delicate taste, exercised upon a more felicitous subject. Roscoe is almost the regenerator, among Englishmen, of a love of Italia literature" The Library Companion (1824; 1825) 2:539-40.

W. Davenport Adams: "William Roscoe, historian (b. 1753, d. 1831), wrote The Life of Lorenzo di Medici, called the Magnificent (1795); The Life and Pontificate of Leo the Tenth (1805); and several smaller works, including one On the Origin and Vicissitudes of Literature" Dictionary of English Literature (1878) 538.




The province of the poet is not however confined to the representation, or to the combination of material and external objects. The fields of intellect are equally subject to his control. The affections and passions of the human mind, the abstract ideas of unsubstantial existence, serve in their turn to exercise his powers. In arranging themselves under his dominion, it becomes necessary that they should take a visible and substantial form, distinguished by their attributes, their insignia, and their effects. With this form the imagination of the poet invests them, and they then become as subservient to his purpose as if they were objects of external sense. In process of time, some of these children of imagination acquire a kind of prescriptive identity, and the symbolic forms of pleasure, or of wisdom, present themselves to our minds in nearly as definite a manner as the natural ones of Ajax, or Achilles. Thus embodied they become important actors in the drama, and are scarcely distinguishable from human character. But the offspring of fancy is infinite, and however the regions of poetry may seem to be peopled with these fantastic beings, genius will still proceed to invent, to vary, and to combine.

If the moderns excel the ancients in any department of poetry, it is in that now under consideration. It must not indeed by supposed, that the ancients were insensible of the effects produced by this powerful charm, which more peculiarly than any other may be said

—To give to airy nothing,
A local habitation and a name.

But it may safely be asserted, that they have availed themselves of this creative faculty, much more sparingly, and with much less success, than their modern competitors. The attribution of sense to inert objects is indeed common to both, but that still bolder exertion which embodies abstract existence, and renders it susceptible of ocular representation, is almost exclusively the boast of the moderns. If, however, we advert to the few authors who preceded Lorenzo de' Medici, we shall not trace in their writings many striking instances of those embodied pictures of ideal existence, which are so conspicuous in the works of Ariosto, Spenser, Milton, and subsequent writers of the higher class, who are either natives of Italy or have formed their taste upon the poets of that nation....

The Selve d' amore of Lorenzo de' Medici is a composition in ottava rima, and though it extend to a considerable length, deserves to be held at least in equal esteem with his sonnets and lyric productions. The stanza in which it is written, is the most favorite mode of versification amongst the Italians, and has been introduced with great success into the English language. It was first reduced to its regular form by Boccaccio, who employed it in his heroic romances the Theseide, and the Filostrato; but the poems of Ariosto and of Torquato Tasso, have established it as the vehicle of epic composition. . . .

Notwithstanding these illustrious authorities, it may perhaps be allowable to doubt, whether a series of stanzas be the most eligible mode of narrating an epic, or indeed any other extensive kind of poem. That it is not natural, must be admitted; for naturally we do not apportion the expression of our sentiments into equal divisions; and that which is not natural, cannot in general be long pleasing. Hence the works of Ariosto, of Tasso, and of Spenser, labour under a disadvantage which it required all the vigor of genius to surmount; and this is the more to be regretted, as both the Italian and the English languages admit of compositions in blank verse, productive of every variety of harmony....

Few attempts have been made in England to adapt the provincial idiom of the inhabitants to the language of poetry. Neither the Shepherd's Calendar of Spenser, nor the Pastorals of Gay, possess that native simplicity, and close adherence to the manners and language of country life, which ought to form the basis of this kind of composition. Whether the dialect of Scotland be more favourable to attempts of this nature, or whether we are to seek for the fact in the character of the people, or the peculiar talents of the writers, certain it is, that the idiom of that country has been much more successfully employed in poetical composition, than that of any other part of these kingdoms, and that this practice may there be traced to a very early period. In later times the beautiful dramatic poem of The Gentle Shepherd has exhibited rusticity without vulgarity, and elegant sentiment without affectation. Like the heroes of Homer, the characters of this piece can engage in the humblest occupations without degradation. If to this production, we add the beautiful and interesting poems of the Ayrshire Ploughman, we may venture to assert, that neither in Italy nor in any other country, has this species of poetry been cultivated with greater success. The Cotter's Saturday Night, is perhaps unrivalled in its kind in any language.


[1:266-67, 278-29 and note, 296n]