1802
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[To Henry John Todd, 11 June, 1802.]

Letters of Anna Seward: written between the years 1784 and 1807. In Six Volumes.

Anna Seward


Anna Seward, at best a tepid admirer of Spenser, condemns the Faerie Queene for its un-fairylike fairies, and the Amoretti for being un-Miltonic sonnets. She offers assistance to the Rev. Henry John Todd, at work on his landmark edition of Spenser, by getting him access to the library of Lincoln's Inn, and concludes the letter with some harsh remarks about the reviews, and Robert Southey's praise of Walter Savage Landor's Gebir. Sir Walter Scott's note informs us that Todd was at work on an edition of Dryden, which he would shortly over to begin his study of Spenser.

La Belle Assemblee: "Capel Lofft has written learnedly on the subject; but no one has been better acquainted with the difficult, and delicate, and eminently beautiful structure of the sonnet than Miss Seward; nor has any writer more accurately exemplified the theory by practice. In proof of this, we refer to her poems, and to numerous passages in her letters. If Miss Seward were too much extolled in her own day, she has been too much neglected since: her works contain many excellent canons of criticism, and it is to be regretted that justice has never yet been rendered to her literary character" S3 1 (February 1825) 68.

Anne Katherine Elwood: "Her letters contain many excellent observations, both moral and literary, though they certainly must be considered productions of the head, rather than the heart. Her style is studied almost to affectation, and is frequently disfigured by inversions and compound epithets. But it must be remembered that many of her letters are addressed to literary characters, exclusively upon subjects of taste and criticism, and consequently, cannot be expected to have the easy elegance of more familiar letters. They had also the advantage, or disadvantage, of having been revised and corrected by herself for the press, so that we do not seem them in their original form" Memoirs of Literary Ladies of England (1843) 1:253.




The difficulties which have met you on the Drydenic range may well be conceived, nor do I wonder that they have slackened the nerves of your industry. Certainly the genius of that unprincipled man, and most unequal poet, was vigorous and fertile. — "An early, rich, and inexhausted vein." Yet it is surely the fashion to hold him much too high; and from your own word, "inimitable," as applied to even his best writings, I do somewhat recoil. Detached passages of Dryden's may perhaps equal almost any poetry extant; but when we reflect that he has been excelled in every separate order of verse, justice may scruple at the imputed transcendence. In epic translation, and regular satire, by Pope; in elegy by Gray, and by Mason; in witty and humorous composition by Prior; and in the dramatic line, O how immeasurably transcended by Shakespeare?

Shall you be able, in your present undertaking, to account to us for the strange irrelevent title Spencer gave to his principal poem? Who would not expect from that title much poetic sport with the Gothic mythology, demonized by the elder bards of Caledonia, sylphized by Shakespeare, and the British poets; who, as Mr. Scott, in his late volumes of ancient Scotch poetry, entitled The Minstrelsy of the Border, observes, first civilized, polished, and rendered benevolent the fairy tribe. But the little gentlefolk have no place in Spencer, except on his title-page.

You, who are so deeply impressed by the manly energies of Milton's sonnets, will not, I think, claim the meed of excellence for Spencer's, so full of poetic foppery, and unimpassioned love, labouring and toiling beneath amorous pretences.

If Cowley loses, as he is said to have lost, the true poetic spirit in the mazes of metaphysic wit, what can be claimed, as fine poetry, for the sonnets of Spencer? However, in his Fairy-Queen you will find ample room for that discriminating eulogy which is so much your talent, the result of sensibility, benevolence, learning, and taste.

I enclose a letter from my friend, Mr. Christopher Smyth, Barrister of Lincoln's Inn; since it respects yourself, — offering to procure you access to ancient books, which may be useful to your present undertaking. He desires, and he deserves, the honour of Mr. Todd's acquaintance, for he is ingenious, lettered, energetic, and amiable.

From what you say of the paragraph in the Critical Review of your Milton, and which mentions Mr. White and myself, I conclude it mentions us with contumely. That Review has been long unfavourable to my compositions. I have been lately informed, with certainty, that Southey is its editor. It is seldom that a man of so much genius sacrifices his time to a nameless periodical species of authorism. Probably he has not forgiven my published phillipic on the unpatriotic spirit of his Joan of Arc, ardent as was its testimony to the poetic excellence of that work.

I see no reviews, except by accident, sick, as I have long been, of their partiality to much worse, and their prejudices against much better verses than mine. I have not, and I shall not make an experiment upon my stoicism, by exploring the malice in the Critical Review to which you allude; though I think I could stand it unwounded, beneath the reflection that I have seen that tract lavishing encomium on the most unintelligible fustian that ever bore the name of an epic poem. It called itself Gebir. Southey told a friend of mine lately, that it was the finest poetic work which had appeared these fifty years. So Johnson stilted up Blackmore.

I remain, Sir, &c.


[6:26-29]