Number XXVIII of the Literary Hours, a paragone, defends the claims of the moderns against claims made for the Elizabethans in Henry Headley's Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry (1787): "Even our three great poets, Spenser, Shakspeare, and Milton, are clogged with materials that press heavy on the patience of the critical reader, and certainly abound in quaintnesses, puerilities and conceits which would blast the reputation of any poet of the present day."
Ancients and Moderns are separately treated in two essays, the critic going out of his way to emphasize the faults of the ancients and the virtues of the moderns.
The future author of the monumental Shakespeare and his Times (1817), Nathan Drake was a popular writer whose views are generally representative of contemporary taste.
Nathan Drake: "Of this collection of essays, critical, narrative, and poetical, I consider myself as precluded from saying more than that the first edition was published in royal octavo in 1800; and the third, in three volumes octavo in 1804. With the encouragement which a liberal public has afforded the work, the author has every reason to be satisfied" Essays Illustrative of the Rambler (1809-10) 2:3461.
Ill-fated Poesy! as human worth,
Prais'd, yet unaided, often sinks to earth;
So sink thy powers; not doom's alone to know
Scorn, or neglect, from an unfeeling Foe,
But destin'd more oppressive wrong to feel
From the misguided Friend's perplexing zeal.
Such Friends are those, who in their proud display
Of thy young beauty, and thy early sway,
Pretend thou 'rt robb'd of all thy worth sublime,
By the benumbing touch of modern Time.
Many critics more querulous than just, have lately employed themselves in depreciating the efforts of the modern muses, and several of our literary and periodical publications have teemed with reflections on the sterility, and want of genius apparent in the present cultivators of this enchanting art. They insist with rapture on the beauties of our ancient poets, and are willing to believe that the invention and imagery of their contemporaries are puerile and absurd. Should a single poem make its appearance whose style is tumid and glittering with meretricious ornament, not satisfied with reprobating the individual attempt, they launch forth into extravagant encomia on the simplicity of a former age, and pass undiscriminate and unqualified censure on what they term the prevailing taste. Even some men of acknowledged genius from an undue bias to antiquity, have inadvertently given into this sweeping mode of criticism, than which nothing can be more futile and absurd. These laudatores temporis acti, who dwell so much upon the general and superior merit of our poetry in the ages of Elizabeth and the Charles's, would do well to reflect that in those periods the language was extremely incorrect; that beauty of arrangement, propriety of selection, and delicacy of sentiment were, for the most part, unknown, and it may, without any hazard of contradiction, be asserted, that from these boasted eras no one production can be drawn possessing an uniform chastity of style and thought. Even our three great poets, Spenser, Shakspeare, and Milton, are clogged with materials that press heavy on the patience of the critical reader, and certainly abound in quaintnesses, puerilities and conceits which would blast the reputation of any poet of the present day. Not to mention many cantos of Spenser which, I am afraid, must be pronounced both tedious and disgusting, the Paradise Lost would be greatly diminished were its metaphysic and abstruse theology, surely no proper ornaments of an epic poem, entirely expunged. The third book, its exquisite invocation, and a few other passages excepted, is more worthy the genius of Thomas Aquinas than of Milton, and of Shakspeare it may justly be affirmed that many of his plays are barely tolerated out of deference to the excellencies of his happier productions. The beauties of these writers are, however, above all praise, and I am accustomed to approach their works with an admiration almost bordering upon idolatry. But let not their faults, the faults, in a great measure, of the age in which they existed, be thrown into the shade for the purpose of entrancing the lustre of their genius when placed in competition with that of their disciples. They want no such injudicious aid, nor does the negative praise of avoiding their blemishes constitute the sole merit of our present race of poets; it will be found perhaps ere the subject be concluded, that an emulation of their inventive powers, as well as a solicitude to escape their errors, is the proper foundation of their fame. As to the various poets who were coexistent with our three immortal bards, though they occasionally exhibit very brilliant passages, yet are they mingled with such a mass of obscurity, vulgarity, obscenity and colloquial barbarism, that he must be a very hardy critic indeed, who can venture to station them on a level with the modern votaries of the muse.
Simplicity of language in a rude age, or in one approximating towards civilization, is merely casual, for as Dr. Aikin [in Letters from a Father, p. 21] has justly observed, "a simple age is never sensible of the merit of its own simplicity, but on the contrary, is fond of laying on with profusion all the ornament it possesses." That exquisite selection of style and thought, which stamps such attraction on many of the first-rate productions of our own period, is the result of systematic refinement, and of the progress of language toward perfection. It would be no difficult task to prove, that in the art of composition, with regard to purity of diction and felicitous structure of sentence, the present reign is greatly superior to any former era, and as to poetry, I believe we can produce no truly correct poet before the lyric Gray, for even Pope has illegitimate rhymes, and gross grammatical inaccuracies. Nor will it be an arduous attempt to convince the unprejudiced, that in vigour of conception, in warmth and boldness of imagery, our chief poets for the last forty or fifty years have little reason to shrink from competition with their predecessors.
In the very ingenious introduction by Mr. Headley, to the Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry, and which contains many very elegant and acute remarks, I have ever been astonished at the following unqualified assertion. "That Key," says the author, "which is most beautifully feigned by the poet [Gray] to have been given by Nature to Shakspeare, and which was likewise in the hands of some few of his contemporaries, 'that oped the sacred source of sympathetic tears,' seems now, and has done for a century past irrecoverably lost." The chief scope indeed of the Essay from whence this is taken, is to inculcate a decided preference for the poetry of the age of Elizabeth and Charles, yet it is scarcely to be imagined that any person, especially one so well versed in our literature as Mr. Headley indisputably was, could have failed to recollect that some of our most pathetic poets have flourished since these reigns. Not Shakspeare himself can vie with Otway in eliciting the tear of pity, and had Mr. Headley forgotten the Isabella of Southern, and the Fatal Curiosity of Lillo; had he forgotten the Eloisa of Pope, the pathetic pieces of Collins and the Night Thoughts of the melancholy Young, and above all had he forgotten the poems ascribed to Rowley and to Ossian, the latter the most pathetic of all bards, for I must consider both these collections as modern? nay even whilst quoting Mr. Gray he seems totally to have thrown into oblivion his inimitable elegy.
In another part of the same Introduction he gives us a list of poets from the accession of Elizabeth inclusively to the restoration of Charles the second, a period of ninety-one years, and considers these as forming a constellation in poetic lustre far superior to any that can be exhibited from that time to this, a space amounting to nearly a century and a half.
Now, without any recurrence to poets of a date anterior to 1755, I hope to be able to shew that so far from our poetical genius having degenerated, a cluster of names may be formed during the lapse of less than half a century, which perhaps, with the exception of a single individual, the unrivalled Shakspeare, will rise superior, not only to the phalanx Mr. Headley has arranged, but to the entire previous body of our poetry should it be mustered in opposition to the product of the period we have assigned. Before entering however into any disquisition relative to our modern luminaries, it will be necessary to place before the reader the table of Mr. Headley, and a few strictures on its contents.
[Epic Poets: Spenser, Milton, Davenant; Philosophical and Metaphysical: Sir J. Davies, Phin. Fletcher, Giles Fletcher, Henry More; Dramatic: G. Gascoyne, Shakspeare, Massinger, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Shirley; Historical: Niccols, Sackville, Daniel, Drayton, May, I. Beaumont; Saytirical: Hall, Marston, Rowlands, Donne; Pastoral: Warner, Drayton, Browne, Fairfax; Amatory and Miscellaneous: Raleigh, Drummond, Marlowe, Cowley, Carew, Corbet, King, Habington, Cartwright, Randolph, Suckling; Translators: Fairfax, Sandys, Crashawe]
Such is the list which the elegant Collector of the Ancient Beauties of English Poetry esteems unrivalled. That a very splendid and valuable poetic mass is here accumulated within less than a century cannot be denied, but if we withdraw the names of Shakspeare and Milton, the rest will be totally unable, I conceive, to support the contest even with the poets of the last forty or fifty years. Let us now however briefly notice the principal members in the order of their arrangement, and in the first place, with regard to Spenser it may be asserted that though possessing a splendid imagination and much accurate descriptive painting, abounding in strong personification, and displaying great tenderness of heart, yet is his Fairy Queene, from its allegorical form, its want of unity and compression, nearly devoid of interest, and to many of his readers, I apprehend, proves not unfrequently very tedious. He who has once read Spenser through, will not probably be induced to repeat the entire perusal, but marking the more brilliant passages will again and again, and with undiminished pleasure, have recourse to his selection. His style too, is affectedly obsolete, but there is occasionally a naivete in his diction and manner that is peculiarly fascinating, and though some of his cantos might be lost without a sigh, yet will his work be ever valued as a store-house of bold and circumstantial imagery.
If Milton in sublimity has never been exceeded, though it will be found hereafter that some authors of the present day have made a near approach to his excellencies in this department, yet in the pathetic and the beautiful he will frequently be obliged to yield the palm. His chief deficiencies are in the third and twelfth books, and his fable involves no close or national interest. Nothing can well be more erroneous than the opinion of Addison when, speaking of the interest of the Iliad and Aeneid as arising from national subjects, he observes [Spectator No. 273], "Milton's poem is admirable in this respect, since it is impossible for any of its readers, whatever nation, country, or people he may belong to, not to be related to the persons who are the principal actors in it." "One should hardly have supposed" remarks our Poet Laureat [Henry James Pye, Commentary on Aristotle], "that Addison could have been ignorant of the obvious truth, that every affection is exactly weakened in proportion to its becoming general. There is no distinction so great in civil life as that between a man and any other animal, and yet I never knew a person proud of this last distinction, though there is no elevation of rank so inconsiderable as not to have awakened pride in some bosoms. The same thing happens to the other passions. We are strongly affected by a tale of private distress, even if not extending to danger or death; but we read without any emotion, of
In one great day, on Hockstet's fatal plain,
French and Bavarians, twenty thousand slain,
Push'd through the Danube to the shores of Styx;
Squadrons eighteen, battalions twenty-six.
Of the fragment of Davenant it will be sufficient to observe, that his mode of versification, and his total rejection of machinery were of themselves adequate to produce neglect. It has however its beauties, though not of the first order, and these have met with elucidation in the elegant critique of Dr. Aikin.
Under the next class we find the names of Sir I. Davies and the two Fletchers, authors of the Nosce Teipsum, The Purple Island and Christ's Victory, poems from which may be detached a few morsels of exquisite simplicity and descriptive beauty, but when taken in the mass, criticism, if impartial, must pronounce them insufferably tedious and quaint. The anatomy of the human body is a subject little calculated for poetry, and would weigh down the first abilities; nor is the theology of Giles Fletcher in the least better adapted to the decorations of the Muse. The production of Davies has more terseness and perspicuity, but in poetical genius he is inferior to the two brothers.
In the dramatic department occurs the mighty name of Shakspeare; but as with him all competition is hopeless, I shall only remark, that his Macbeth, Lear and Tempest, will perhaps to the remotest period of time, continue unrivalled. It is possible, however, to conceive that the genius of Shakspeare may be combined with the chastity and correctness of Sophocles, but the birth of such a prodigy is scarcely to be expected.
There was a period when the productions of Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher were preferred to those of Shakspeare. We are now astonished at the miserable taste of our ancestors, for of Jonson, the celebrated but pedantic Jonson, if we except two or three of his comedies, there is little commendatory to be said. His tragedies are tame and servile copies from the ancients, and though in his comedies of the Fox, the Silent Woman and the Alchemist the characters are strongly cast, and have both wit and humour, they are of a kind by no means generally relished or understood, nor would they now, nor probably will they hereafter, have any popularity on the stage.
Massinger, Beaumont and Fletcher have certainly many beauties, but I question whether they possess a single piece which a correct taste could endure without very great alteration, and they are loaded with such a mass of obscenity and vulgar buffoonery, that compared with them Shakspeare is chaste and decorous in the extreme. It may justly be said, I think, that their tragedies fall far, very far short indeed, of the energy and all commanding interest of Shakspeare's, and their comedies, I suspect, are even greatly inferior to Jonson's both in plot and humour. They are certainly however superior in genius to Jonson: they have more simplicity and pathos, and their blank verse has very frequently a peculiar felicity of construction. The madness of the Jailor's Daughter in the Two Noble Kinsmen of Beaumont and Fletcher approximates very closely to the manner and style of Shakspeare, and their Philaster can boast of many tender and beautifully expressed scenes. The Bloody Brother too of these authors is conducted with much art and dramatic effect. Fletcher indeed, seems to have possessed an exquisite sensibility, and had he not sacrificed so much to the degrading propensities of his age, might, as the British Euripides, have attained a most honourable station in the Temple of Pity.
Historical poetry is little susceptible of the highest beauties of the art, being too rigidly confined to allow room for the imagination to expand; it has therefore, save when it has assumed the dramatic form, seldom been popular. The Mirror for Magistrates is now almost, and perhaps deservedly, forgotten, for if we except the Induction of Sackville, which is undoubtedly an exquisite piece of allegory, and a few passages by Niccols, it is a compilation more remarkable for dulness than for any other quality. Daniel can lay claim to good sense, to perspicuity of style, and smoothness of diction, but these alone will not constitute a poet, and the author of the Civil Warres must be content with the character of mediocrity. Of Drayton the best parts are pastoral, and these are indeed truly excellent; his Legends, however, his Heroical Epistles and his Barons Warres contain many pathetic passages, but his most elaborate work the Poly-Olbion exhibits much more of the Antiquary than of the Poet. Drayton is frequently a pleasing but never a great poet. Of May and Beaumont it is not necessary to say much, the former is occasionally nervous and energic, and their national subjects might enhance their reputation; their poems however are little superior to gazettes in rhyme.
In the column allotted to Satire are four names, and of these Hall, in my opinion, is alone entitled to celebrity. His satires are in truth, for the period in which he wrote, wonderful productions, and evince great knowledge of character and great spirit and harmony in versification. As to Donne, if it be true, that the purport of poetry should be to please, no author has written with such utter neglect of the rule. It is scarce possible for a human ear to endure the dissonance and discord of his couplets, and even when his thoughts are clothed in the melody of Pope, they appear to me hardly worth the decoration.
I have already in a paper on pastoral poetry given my opinion at some length on that delightful species of composition, and have mentioned Warner as entitled to no small share of fame. His simplicity of style and thought is often exquisitely appropriate, but his Albion's England is a bulky work, and were his pastoral beauties detached, which unfortunately form but a small portion of the whole, the rest must be given up as a compound of dulness and prolixity. The entire poem, however, as I have before observed, should be republished, as a single couplet in this author is sometimes peculiarly pleasing. Drayton too will be preserved from oblivion solely by his pastoral genius; though not equal perhaps to Warner he teas numerous sweet passages which highly merit preservation. Had Browne paid due attention to simplicity and selection, he had been a favourite poet as long as the language he had written in should endure. He has accumulated a vast store of rural imagery, but his style and manner are so fantastic, so very quaint and puerile, that he is deservedly hastening to oblivion.
In noticing the catalogue of poets ranged under the title of Amatory and Miscellaneous it impossible not to be struck with the mutability of popular applause. Cowley and Cartwright were the favourites of their times, were considered as the first of poets, celebrated by their literary contemporaries in loud and repeated panygerics, and their names familiar in every class of society. What is now their fate? To be utterly neglected, and, except to those who justly think it necessary to be intimate with every stage of our literature, nearly unknown. Have they deserved this? Let the patient reader wade through their numerous works, and he will probably answer, yes. The selection from Cowley by Dr. Hurd has in some measure respited the unhappy poet, but even in these small volumes the judicious critic will prefer the prose to the poetry. Indeed in the whole of this list it appears to me that there is but one author, and that Drummond, whose poetry merits much praise. His sonnets are delicious and deserve the encomium that has been bestowed upon them. To say of Carew that he is superior to Waller is saying nothing, for if every line of Waller were lost, I know not that poetry would have any thing to lament. The works of both however should be preserved, and I hope ever will be, as necessary to mark the progress of our language toward refinement. It may be added that Corbet had wit, and that Raleigh had he made poetry a serious study might have attained to excellence. To expatiate on the merits of the remaining poets of this column would be as frivolous as to commence a discussion on the beauties of Spratt or Stepney, Duke or Yalden; we will therefore proceed to the Translators of this period, and of these Fairfax is entitled to great applause. I question whether any late attempt to naturalize the beautiful epic of Tasso can be considered as superior either in energy or fidelity to this old but admirable version. In many places the diction of Fairfax is peculiarly pleasing, and he greatly excels in transfusing the rural imagery of his author, and which sometimes receives even improvement from his colouring. Had Mr. Brooke, however, lived to finish his translation of the Gerusalemme Liberata, of which unfortunately we have but three books, he would certainly have surpassed both Fairfax and Hoole. What he has given us is executed with so much taste and spirit, that it unavoidably excites acute regret that the worthy author was not permitted to complete an undertaking so happily commenced. From the specimen however with which Miss Watts has lately favoured the public, we have reason to expect a version that will probably leave little to wish for. Crashawe possessed the requisites of a genuine poet, enthusiasm and sublimity, but he never undertook any grand or original work. His choice of Marino, a poet abounding in concetti, was injudicious, and though his translation has several passages which challenge admiration, yet as a whole it is far from being pleasing. Many of his images are disgusting and absurdly gigantic, and tend rather to call up ludicrous than terrible ideas. Of Sandys it will suffice to observe, that though his Ovid cannot now be read with any satisfaction, it had at the time of its publication, considerable merit; few poets, unless their powers be very great, who either write or translate before their language has received a due polish, and a regular construction, can hope to merit the attention of posterity.