1800 ca.
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Biographical Notice of William Browne, an old English Poet.

The Life of Thomas Dermody, interspersed with Pieces of original Poetry... and containing a Series of Correspondence with several eminent Characters. 2 Vols. [James Grant Raymond, ed.]

Thomas Dermody


Thomas Dermody's appreciation of William Browne of Tavistock is that unusual thing, an essay by a later Spenserian that actually acknowledges the tradition per se, making references to Phineas Fletcher, John Milton, William Thompson, and William Collins. It was posthumously published by Dermody's biographer, James Grant Raymond, who does not say whether or not it had appeared in print.

The essay can come as something of a shock after reading Dermody's own rather slap-dash poetry. But as Raymond's biography makes clear, the poet did have a first-rate education, however much he declined to make use of it — his knowledge of books seems to have impressed everyone he met. Among Dermody's teachers were two notable Irish Spenserians: Samuel Whyte and Henry Boyd.

Francis William Blagdon: "He was often patronised by the great; but all their good intentions were frustrated by his sullenness and dissipation, and he died at an early age in the most poignant desires. Mr. Raymond's account of him is written in a pompous and affected style, but contains matter of considerable interest" Flowers of Literature for 1806 (1807) 505.




Having in a small collection of my poems, lately printed, quoted two passages from this very ingenious but much unknown writer; it may not perhaps be unpleasing or unprofitable to take a short survey of his life, which has been left so long buried in obscurity; accompanied by a few remarks on his eminent powers of fanciful description, and the simple but energetic delicacy of his pastoral compositions. As the unmerited oblivion which attends this great genius precludes any minute disquisition, so his entire history may be comprised in a very small space; and it will be scarcely believed that we can find no trace of an edition of his works (except one) since the usurpation of Cromwell, though he had been highly commended by the learned Selden, and was an adopted favourite of the proud but judicious Ben Jonson.

It is stated on good authority that WILLIAM BROWNE was born at Tavistock in Devonshire, in the year 1590; his father, according to Prince in his Worthies of Devon, being probably of the knightly family of Browne, of Browne's-Islash in the parish of Langtree near Great Torrington. After he had passed through the grammar-school, we find him at Exeter-college in the university of Oxford, about the beginning of the reign of James the First; where he became celebrated for classical erudition, and for his knowledge in the belles-lettres nearly unequalled: thence however, before he had taken any academical degree, he removed to the Inner-temple, where he more assiduously devoted himself to the muse.

In the beginning of the year 1624 he returned to college; and was appointed tutor to Robert Dormer, afterwards earl of Caernarvon, who lost his life at the battle of Newbury on the 20th of September 1643. On the 25th of March 1624, our author received permission to be created a master of arts; though the degree was not conferred upon him till the November following. In the public register of the university he is styled, "vir omni humana literatura, et bonarum artium cognitione, instructus." After he had left college with his pupil, he was gladly received into the family of the munificent earl of Pembroke, who entertained a great regard for him; and in that situation he made his fortune so well, that he had it in his power to purchase a comfortable independence. The precise period of his death cannot be ascertained, but, according to Wood, it may be fixed with most certainty in the year 1645.

Such is the account transmitted to us of this excellent poet. His Shepherd's Pipe consists of seven eclogues; among which is an admirable monody entitled Philarete, written upon the death of his friend Mr. Thomas Manwood. This was certainly the model from which Milton did not disdain to borrow the idea of his Lycidas. There is another production of Browne, entitled the Inner-temple Masque, to which I imagine the world is equally indebted for Comus. These distinctions alone ought to have placed Browne in a more favourable light, for assuredly the divine author of Paradise Lost would not have condescended to copy an indifferent original at any time.

But I mean to confine myself more particularly to the notice of this author's chief performance, entitled Britannia's Pastorals. I shall make no observations upon his miscellaneous pieces, but only recommend them indiscriminately to the attention of the reader.

The design of these Pastorals is perfectly original. They profess no imitation of any ancient or foreign writer: and are meant solely as a compliment to our own country; which is placed in happy competition with that famous haunt of demi-gods, Arcadia itself. The style is harmonious and flowing, diversified with a pleasing assemblage of new and captivating imagery; and even the measure is sometimes changed not for the worse, as it administers a kind of metrical relaxation that relieves the fancy by variety without violence.

To exemplify this assertion I must transcribe a few passages which, considering the time when they were composed, will be found not destitute of elegant thought and polished versification. The following address to a river-deity contains both these qualities, in my humble opinion:

May first (Quoth Marine) swaines give lambs to thee:
And may thy floud have seignorie
Of all flouds else; and to thy fame
Meete greater springs, yet keep thy name!
May never euet, nor the toade,
Within thy bankes make their abode!
Taking thy journey from the sea,
Maist thou ne'er happen in thy way
On niter or on brimstone myne,
To spoil thy taste! This spring of thine,
Let it of nothing taste but earth,
And salt conceived in their birth.
Be ever fresh! Let no man dare
To spoil thy fish, make locke or ware:
But on thy margent still let dwell
Those flowres which have the sweetest smell:
And let the dust upon thy strand
Become like Tagus' golden sand.
Let as much good betide to thee,
As thou hast favour shew'd to me.
BOOKE I. Song 2.

Nor do I think the following short extract inferior to any of our old poets in point of conception:

Neare to this wood there lay a pleasant meade,
Where fairies often did their measures treade:
Which in the meadow made such circles greene,
As if with garlands it had crowned beene;
Or like the circle where the signs we tracke,
And learned shepheards call't the zodiacke.
Within one of these rounds was to be seene
A hillocke rise, where oft the fairey queene
At twilight sate, and did command her elves
To pinch those maides that had not swept their shelves.
And further, if by maiden's oversight
Within doores water were not brought at night;
Or if they spread no table, set no bread;
They should have nips from toe unto the head:
And for the maid that had perform'd each thing,
She in the water-pale bade leave a ring.
IBID.

The sublimity of this exclamation will, I hope, be a sufficient excuse for its insertion:

What muse, what Powre, or what thrice-sacred herse
That lives immortall in a wel-tun'd verse,
Can lend me such a sight that I might see
A guilty conscience' true anatomie?
That wel-kept register wherein is writ
All ils men doe, all goodness they omit:
His pallid- feares, his sorrowes, his affrightings;
His late wisht had-I-wists, remorceful bitings;
His many tortures, his heart-renting paine;
How, were his griefs composed in one chaine,
And he by it let downe into the seas,
Or through the centre to the antipodes,
He might change climates, or be barr'd heav'n's face,
Yet find no salve, nor ever change his case.
IBID.

The preceding extracts are quoted to convey some idea of the general tenor of the work. I shall next introduce a few unconnected sketches of more than ordinary beauty, and then presume on no further intrusion than a cursory critique in the most concise manner.

A musical concert of birds is thus most fancifully though quaintly depicted:

Two nights thus past, the lilly-handed morne
Saw Phoebus stealing dewe from Ceres' corne.
The mounting lark (daie's herauld) got on wing,
Bidding each bird chuse out his bough and sing.
The lofty treble sung the little wren;
Robin the meane, that best of all loves men;
The nightingale the tenour; and the thrush
The counter-tenour sweetly in a bush;
And that the music might be full in parts,
Birds from the groves flew with right willing hearts.
But, as it seem'd, they thought (as do the swaines
Which tune their pipes on sack'd Hibernia's plaines)
There should some droning part be: therefore will'd
Some bird to fly into a neighbouring field
In embassie unto the king of bees,
To aide his partners on the flowres and trees;
Who, condescending, gladly flew along
To bear the basse to this well-tuned song.
The crow was willing they should be beholding
To his deep voice: but being hoarse with skolding,
He thus lends aide; — upon an oak doth climbe,
And nodding with his heade, so keepeth time.
BOOKE I. Song 3.

Every mind susceptible of the charms of natural description, will coincide with my sentiments on the excellence of the subsequent two very opposite, but equally well delineated, landscapes.

These pitchy curtaines drew 'twixt earth and heaven:
And as Night's chariot through the air was driven,
Clamour grew dumb, unheard was shepherd's song,
And silence girt the woods; no warbling tongue
Talk'd to the echo; Satyres broke their dance,
And all the upper world lay in a trance.
Onely the curled streams soft chidings kept;
And little gales that from the greene leafe swept
Dry summer's dust, in fearfull whisp'rings stir'd,
As loath to waken any singing bird.
BOOKE II. Song 1.

The muse's friend (grey-eyde Aurora) yet
Held all the meadows in a cooling sweat;
The milk-white gossamores not upwards snow'd,
Nor was the sharpe and useful steering goad
Laid on the stronge-neckt oxe; no gentle bud
The sun had dryde; the cattle chew'd the cud
Low-level'd on the grasse; no flye's quicke sting
Inforc'd the stone-horse in a furious ring
To tear the passive earth, nor lash his taile
About his buttockes broad; the slimy snayle
Alight on the wainscot (by his many mazes,
Winding meanders, and self-knitting traces)
Be follow'd, where he stucke his glitt'ring slime
Not yet wip'd off. It was so early time,
The carefull smith had in his sooty forge
Kindled no coale; nor did his hammers urge
His neighbour's patience: owles abroad did flye,
And Day as then might plead his infancy.
IBID. Song 2.

These are only the disjecta membra poetae; for indeed, to do any diffuse performance proper justice, it should never be taken by piecemeal, or exposed to public inspection by lines and sentences: yet if there is no other method at first of rescuing its merit from obscurity, even this mode of selecting a few specimens may be not unworthy of approbation.

The good taste of the present day has been highly favourable to pieces executed in the simple style of pastoral, as the liberal reception that the Farmer's Boy has deservedly received very amply testifies: which contains a profusion of exquisite images, enriched with the highest colouring; though perfectly chaste, and never distorted by a gaudy extravagance. Though I may be suspected by many of having a singular turn of thinking, I declare that I have imagined various instances of corresponding genius between William Browne and Robert Bloomfield; not forgetting this natural difference and advantage, that the former was a profound, and accomplished scholar. But what I remark as a coincidence in them is, an unaffected felicity of calling forth new objects from the level scene of life, with a harmony of style and expression peculiarly fortunate.

The poets of Elizabeth's reign piqued themselves on a pompous display of learned acquisition, nearly approaching to pedantry. It was an established custom to introduce the heathen mythology on every occasion; and even so late as Waller and Lansdowne we can trace the progress of this absurd fashion, which in the infancy of English poetry was more pardonable. Now, in our enlightened era, a person who should crowd his pages with a motley contexture of Grecian demigods and heroes, would merit the derision of the judicious: and even the frequent invocation of the muse, a being whom we acknowledge merely ideal, having lost its primary attraction, though not yet entirely discarded, is unnatural and unhappy; unnatural from the improbability which it casts on any grave subject, and unhappy from the obsolete insipidity of the fictions.

Browne's pastorals are not very faulty in this respect: the ancient fables which he does, at times, allude to, are not the most hackneyed; and his main story is at any rate, as I mentioned before, entirely his own. His allegories are not so intricate as those of his contemporaries: they are picturesque without perplexity, and savour more of the school of Tasso than of that of Spenser. Yet there are two of his personifications which would not perhaps disgrace the sublime pencil which dashed out the wild horrors of the cave of Despair: I mean Riot, in, Book 1. Song 4.; and Limos (or Famine), in Book II. Song 1. We there descry all the bold and poetical conceit of Ovid in the favourite parts of his Metamorphoses, without those minute and laborious touches which seldom come from the hand of a great master. Salvator Rosa might have here satisfied the luxuriance of his imagination, without restraining his enthusiasm.

It is certain that our most inspired children of Fancy did not dwell, in patient apathy, on the niceties of composition. What can be more fervid and engaging than the irregular graces of Collins? who was a professed admirer of our old bards; who made them his chief study, and even forfeited the estimation of all but the congenial few through a desire of indulging in these rapturous excursions. There are some (and those by far the most delicious) of his odes, which to a common plodding reader would appear verging closely on the confines of absolute insanity; but I am much deceived if they appear so to the man whose eye,

in a fine frenzy rolling,
Glances from heav'n to earth, from earth to heav'n.

I may likewise assert, that one of the most exquisite little poems we can boast, entitled a Hymn to May, was written by a man (William Thompson) whose fancy was fed with the pure honey of Browne, and who revised the only modern edition of his works. This hymn, so much deserving the notice of every elegant reader for the voluptuous tenderness of its language, though composed after the ancient model, is to be found in the Poetical Calendar published periodically some time ago by Fawkes and Woty; in which some other pieces of considerable value are included.

I know of no two productions more worthy of revival by some man of influence and fortune, than this which I have attempted to draw into a fainter degree of notice from its long unmerited oblivious recess, and the piscatory eclogues of Phineas Fletcher; whose Purple Island, though inferior, has been favourably regarded by some late commentators of literary eminence.

I am conscious that this slight effusion of the applause secretly nourished since my earliest days, is both desultory and incorrect; yet I wished to make known a mine to which I have been indebted for much intellectual treasure. I now quit my task, far from being finished, with particular regret; transferring it to the care and abilities of some abler hand: and shall conclude with another quotation.

Looke, as a lover, with a ling'ring kisse,
About to part with the best half that's his,
Faine would lie stay but that he feares to do it,
And curseth time for so fast hastening to it;
Now takes his leave, and yet begins anew
To make lesse vowes than are esteemed true;
Then sayes he must be gone, and then doth finde
Something he should have spoke that's out of minde;
And whilst he stands to look for't in her eyes,
Their sad-sweet glance so tye his faculties
To thinke from what lie parts, that he is now
As fane from leaving her, or knowing how,
As when he came: begins his former straine,
To kisse, to vow, and take his leave againe;
Then turns, comes back, sighes, parts, and yet doth goe,
Apt to retire, and loathe to leave her so.

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