On the Ambiguities arising from Proper Names.

The Reflector 2 (1811) 484-85.

Charles Lamb

In one of his earlier essays Charles Lamb describes how Edmund Spenser is mistaken for the poet William Robert Spencer (1769-1834). The point of the anonymously-published anecdote is to underscore the neglect of old writers by followers of literary fashion.

Lamb tells a more pointed version of the story in a letter to Wordsworth, 1 February 1806. The poetaster is identified as one of Lamb's colleagues at the East India House: "I was discoursing on poetry (as one's apt to deceive one's self, and when a person is willing to talk of what one likes, to believe that he also likes the same, as lovers do) with a young gentleman of my office, who is deep read in Anacreon Moore, Lord Strangford, and the principal modern poets, and I happened to mention Epithalamiums, and that I could show him a very fine one of Spenser's. At the mention of this, my gentleman, who is a very fine gentleman, pricked up his ears and expressed great pleasure, and begged that I would give him leave to copy it: he did not care how long it was (for I objected the length,) he should be very happy to see "any thing by him." Then pausing, and looking sad, he ejaculated "POOR SPENCER!" I begged to know the reason of this ejaculation, thinking that time had by this time softened down any calamities which the bard might have endured. "Why, poor fellow!" said he, "he has lost his wife!" "Lost his wife!" said I, "who are you talking of?" "Why, Spencer!" said he, "I've read the 'Monody' he wrote on the occasion, and a very pretty thing it is." This led to an explanation (it could be delayed no longer,) that the sound Spenser, which, when poetry is talked off, generally excites an image of an old bard in a ruff, and sometimes with it dim notions of Sir. P. Sidney, and perhaps Lord Burleigh, had raised in my gentleman a quite contrary image of The Honourable William Spencer, who has translated some things from the German very prettily, which are published with Lady Di. Beauclerck's designs. Nothing like defining of terms when we talk. What blunders might I have fallen into of quite inapplicable criticism, but for this timely explanation" in Letters, ed. Thomas Noon Talfourd (1837) 1:280-81.

William Hazlitt: "His sentences are cast in the mould of old authors; his expressions are borrowed from them; but his feelings and observations are genuine and original, taken from actual life, or from his own breast; and he may be said (if any one can) 'to have coined his heart for jests,' and to have split his brain for fine distinctions!" Spirit of the Age (1825) 418-19.


How oddly it happens that the same sound shall suggest to the minds of two persons hearing it ideas the most opposite! I was conversing a few years since with a young friend upon the subject of poetry, and particularly that species of it which is known by the name of the Epithalamium. I ventured to assert, that the most perfect specimen of it in our language was the Epithalamium of Spenser upon his own marriage.

My young gentleman, who has a smattering of taste, and would not willingly be thought ignorant of any thing remotely connected with the belles lettres, expressed a degree of surprise, mixed with mortification, that he should never have heard of this poem, Spenser being an author with whose writings he thought himself peculiarly conversant.

I offered to show him the poem in the fine folio copy of the poet's works, which I have at home. He seemed pleased with the offer, though the mention of the folio seemed again to puzzle him. But presently after, assuming a grave look, he compassionately muttered to himself "poor Spencer."

There was something in the tone with which he spoke these words that struck me not a little. It was more like the accent with which a man bemoans some recent calamity that has happened to a friend, than that tone of sober grief with which we lament the sorrows of a person, however excellent, and however grievous his afflictions may have been, who has been dead more than two centuries. I had the curiosity to enquire into the reasons of so uncommon an ejaculation. My young gentleman, with a more solemn tone of pathos than before, repeated "poor Spencer," and added, "he has lost his wife."

My astonishment at this assertion rose to such a height, that I began to think the brain of my young friend must be cracked, or some unaccountable reverie had gotten possession of it. But upon further explanation it appeared that the word "Spenser," — which to you or me, Reader, in a conversation upon poetry too, would naturally have called up the idea of an old poet in a ruff, one Edmund Spenser, that flourished in the days of Queen Elizabeth, and wrote a poem called the Fairy Queen, with the Shepherd's Calender, and many more verses besides, — did in the mind of my young friend excite a very different and quite modern idea, namely, that of the Honourable William Spencer, one of the living ornaments, if I am not misinformed, of this present poetical era, A.D. 1811.

X.Y. Z.

[pp. 484-85]