1797
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Note to The Alley.

The Works of Alexander Pope, Esq. in Nine Volumes, Complete. With Notes and Illustrations by Joseph Warton, D.D. and others.

Rev. Joseph Warton


Joseph Warton's note to the "The Alley" criticizes Alexander Pope for failing to imitate Spenser's characteristic pathos, and for falling short in his descriptive powers. William Roscoe later defended the poem in his later edition of Pope's Works (1824). Warton retained his critical views to the last: "We live in a reasoning and prosaic age. The forests of Fairy-land have been rooted up and destroyed; the castles and the palaces of Fancy are in ruins; the magic wand of Prospero is broken and buried many fathoms in the earth" Life of Pope in Works (1797) 1:lxx.

John Aikin: "It is certainly an improvement on that of Warburton; negatively so, in correcting or omitting his frequent perversions of the author's sense; — positively so, in the addition of a great many valuable facts and observations, either immediately connected with the text, or bearing a general reference to it. At the same time, we must take the liberty of expressing a degree of disappointment as to the care and attention bestowed on the work. There is too much of mere transcription in it from the editor's former labours; which, though respectable, were yet for the most part not always in harmony with later opinions: — the transcription has even been so careless, that facts long past are sometimes mentioned as having just occurred; and the same circumstances are frequently repeated. We might have expected, from an editor of such various reading, something more in the tracing of imitations, and in the comparison of similar passages in other poets" Monthly Review NS 23 (August 1797) 370-71.

Joseph Warton to John Nichols: "I have a little inclination to know, and perhaps you may be able to inform me, who is the writer of a peevish, feeble, and therefore contemptible criticism, on the edition of Pope, published in the last ******* Review. The good man seems to be principally angry at my inserting the observations formerly made in my Essay on Pope, and which it would have been absurd, and improper, and impossible, and contrary to the very design of undertaking the Edition, not to have done; and if they had been omitted, then I should have been called on for such an unexpected omission. I am too callous a veteran to regard such sort of objections" 13 September 1797; in Nichols, Literary Anecdotes (1812-15) 6:174n.

Thomas Green: "The peculiarities I have observed in these notes, tending to develope Warton's character and sentiments, are, his repeated and warm expressions of admiration at Milton's Lycidas, and Gray's Poems in general; his high praise of Aristotle; his quotations, with applause, from Harris and Beatie; his compliment to Lord Monboddo; his exaltation of Dionysius, and depretation of Longinus; and his frequent censure of Johnson's critical decrees" 26 January 1798; Extracts from the Diary of a Lover of Literature (1810) 60.

George Taylor: "If Warburton wrote much to show his ingenuity, Warton has written a great deal to display his reading; which in the principal classics, in Italian, French, and English poetry, and in the lighter kinds of literature, was very extensive; but of which the irrelevant introduction is often so laughable, that it reminds us of our black-letter acquaintance, Thomas Spight, who, in telling us that Chaucer's supposed father was a 'vintener of London,' cannot restrain his etymological learning from overflowing in a marginal note, 'vintener quasi winetunner.' Warton's information, however, is often amusing or interesting, if not to the point in question, at least to literature in general; and the reader always has the satisfaction (which is no slight one) to find that he is perusing the book of 'a full man.'... The spirit in which Warton annotates is not a kindly one. We do not think that this was prompted by any ill-will towards the man, or any jealousy of his fame; but he had formed to himself a theory in poetical criticism, in support of which it was necessary for him to prove, that Pope ought not to stand so high among poets as the public had placed him. He was interested therefore in detecting or imagining faults, in his writings; and as he warmed with his subject, there appears to have grown upon him a willingness to listen to and report whatever tended to depreciate his character" "Pope's Works and Character" Quarterly Review 32 (October 1825) 275-76.

Samuel Rogers: "I knew Joseph Warton well. When Mathias attacked him in The Pursuits of Literature for reprinting some loose things in his edition of Pope, Joseph wrote a letter to me, in which he called Matthias "his 'pious' critic," — rather an odd expression to come from a clergyman. — He certainly ought not to have given that letter of Lord Cobham" Table Talk (1856) 133.




He that was unacquainted with Spenser, and was to form his ideas of the turn and manner of his genius from this piece, would undoubtedly suppose that he abounded in filthy images, and excelled in the lower scenes of life. But the characteristics of this sweet and allegorical poet are not only strong and circumstantial imagery, but tender and pathetic feeling, a most melodious flow of versification, and a certain pleasing melancholy in his sentiments, the constant companion of an elegant taste, that casts a delicacy over all his compositions. To imitate Spenser on a subject that does not partake of the pathos, is not giving a true representation of him; for he seems to be more awake and alive to all the softnesses of nature than almost any writer I can recollect. There is an assemblage of disgusting and disagreeable sounds in the following stanzas of Pope, which one is almost tempted to think, if it were possible, had been contrived as a contrast, or rather as a burlesque, of a most exquisite stanza in the Fairy Queen:

The snappish cur (the passengers annoy)
Close at my heel with yelping treble flies;
The whimp'ring girl, and hoarser-screaming boy,
Join to the yelping treble shrilling cries;
The scolding Quean to louder notes doth rise,
And her full pipes those shrilling cries confound;
To her full pipes the grunting hog replies;
The grumbling hogs alarm the neighbours round,
And curs, girls, boys, in the deep base are drown'd.

The very turn of these numbers bears the closest resemblance with the following, which are of themselves a complete concert of the most delicious music:

The joyous birds shrouded in cheerful shade,
Their notes unto the voice attempred sweet;
Th' angelical, soft trembling voices made
To th' instruments divine respondance meet;
The silver-sounding instruments did meet
With the base murmure of the water's fall;
The waters fall with difference discreet,
Now soft, now loud unto the wind did call,
The gentle warbling wind low answered to all.
Book ii. cant. 12. f. 71.

These images, one would have thought, were peculiarly calculated to have struck the fancy of our young imitator with so much admiration, as not to have suffered him to make a kind of travesty of them.

The next stanza of Pope represents some allegorical figures, of which his original was so fond:

Hard by a sty, beneath a roof of thatch,
Dwelt Obloquy, who in her early days
Baskets of fish at Billingsgate did watch,
Cod, whiting, oyster, mackrel, sprat, or plaice;
There learn'd the speech from tongues that never cease.
Slander beside her, like a Magpie, chatters,
With Envy, (spitting Cat) dread foe to peace;
Like a curs'd Cur, Malice before her clatters
And vexing ev'ry wight, tears cloaths and all to tatters.

But these personages of Obloquy, Slander, Envy, and Malice, are not marked with any distinct attributes; they are not those living figures, whose attitudes and behaviour Spencer has minutely drawn with so much clearness and truth, that we behold them with our eyes as plainly as we do on the ceiling of the banquetting house. For, in truth, the pencil of Spenser is as powerful as that of Rubens, his brother allegorist; which two artists resembled each other in many respects; but Spenser had more grace, and was as warm a colourist.


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