1814
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[The Reviving Spirit of Romance.]

Restituta; or, Titles, Extracts, and Characters of old Books in English Literature, revived. By Sir Egerton Brydges, Bart. K.J. M.P. 1 (1814) 515-20.

Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges


After reprinting some excerpts from Bartholomew Young's translation of Montemayor's Diana (1598), Sir Egerton Brydges reflects on the taste for romance his age shared with the Elizabethans. The essay is a very early instance of a critic describing British romanticism as a response to the French Revolution. Indeed, Brydges' tastes in poetry were not always so very different from William Hazlitt's, whose Spirit of the Age (1825) expresses similar sentiments.

William Wordsworth to Robert Pearse Gillies: "The fault of the Essay in question is not that the opinions are in general erroneous, but they are brought forward in a loose, straggling manner. There is no necessary succession in the thoughts, no development from a general principle. — Sir Egerton is quite correct in stating that 'no poetry can be good without animation'; but when he adds, 'the position will almost exclude whatever is very highly and artificially laboured' he thinks laxly, and uses words inconsiderately. Substitute for the word 'artificially' the word 'artfully,' and you will at once see that nothing can be more erroneous than the assertion" 15 April 1816; in Gillies, Memoirs of a Literary Veteran (1851) 2:164.

Robert Shelton Mackenzie: "Sir Egerton Brydges, who unsuccessfully claimed the peerage of Lord Chandos, of Sudeley, and was a well-known English writer for nearly half a century, actually edited Collins's Peerage. He was a great friend of R. P. Gillies, the German scholar, (and the Kempferhausen of Blackwood,) and affected to think him the best poet of the day" Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 2:89n.




The manner in which Poetry and Fiction follow the character of the age which produces them teas been illustrated in a late Number of the Edinburgh Review, in a criticism upon the poems of Lord Byron, with a more than usual share of those original and extraordinary powers, which always shine so conspicuously in the articles of that department of a work distinguished by never-failing ability.

For this reason the romantic turn of those compositions, which were written to amuse and captivate the taste of Queen Elizabeth's reign, appeared to the last age, and up to the time of the French Revolution, unnatural, absurd, and revolting. No one, unless some great and wild genius, read Spenser's Fairy Queen, but as a task, which he knew not how to believe could ever have been sincerely admired. Pope had set the example of polished diction, mellifluent verses, and epigrammatic point. Keen irony or wit, expressed with felicitous elegance and terseness, and levelled at the artificial and vapid follies of fashionable life, in an age of corrupt and heartless refinement, was the mark of perfection at which the author aimed, and which the reader was taught only to admire.

Men of loftier taste and bolder fancy early remonstrated against this chilling confinement of the noblest the most aspiring, and most expansive of all the Arts. The two Wartons, through a long life, devoted all their critical powers and elegant and diversified learning, to encourage a wilder, more adventurous, and more imaginative tone of composition.

But it was not till the commotions of Europe broke the chains of indolence and insipid effeminacy, that the stronger passions of readers required again to be stimulated, and exercised, and soothed; and that the minor charms of correctness were sacrificed to the ardent efforts of uncontrouled and unfearing genius.

Then authors of this class began again to look back for their materials to an age of hazardous freedom, and copious and untutored eloquence: an age in which the world of words and free and native ideas was not contracted and blighted by technical critics, and cold and fastidious scholars.

Hence that, which has been called the Black Letter Mania has been prompted and cherished. And hence the phraseology and stile of composition of our ancestors have again become so familiar, that their richness of imagery and energy of sentiment no logger appear to be covered by a repulsive dress.

But still we must not, in the zeal of our admiration, in a heated and indiscriminate love of antiquity, forget to distinguish the productions of real and great genius from those of minor ingenuity; from pretenders who have caught the form, without the soul of Poetry!

If, after we have dwelt a little on some of the lately recovered works of Elizabethan authors, till we are warmed into a conviction of their merits, we turn back to our old familiar Spenser, we shall perceive that the degree in which his reputation has survived that of his cotemporaries, is far from being beyond his real superiority to them. Compared to him, all (except Sackville) are flat, prosaic, and unanimated. The energy of his thoughts, the richness and picturesque attributes of his imagery, the vigour of his language, and the flow of his versification, — how far do they leave all competitors behind him!

When we scrupulously examine the pretensions of all those numerous candidates of a whole nation, who have aspired to poetical fame, in three hundred years, we must be convinced, how very, very, rarely the genuine and strict powers of this sublime art are bestowed!

Perhaps the distinctions and qualities of this high gift have never been developed with so much happy critical acumen, as of late. It is the principle of association in our ideas on which its success seems mainly to turn. There is some leading idea, some prominent mark or trait in every image, round which a thousand others cling. Touch but the right, and up spring all the rest in proportion to the richness of the mind on which you operate. Here then is the spell; the art; and when known, where is the difficulty of success?

Perhaps it is in the strength and vividness, with which the mental eye of the Poet sees; and in the ability which that gives him to select his leading feature with certainty! It is not the mind, which wanders into bye-paths and abstruse conceptions, that makes the poet of mankind, the author who pleases every age and nation: It is the mind which is more brilliantly stored than those of others with natural sentiments and natural trains of ideas!

He who can warmly sympathize in the pictures or affections described by genius, would not therefore be able himself to describe them. Genius is active; Taste is passive. The same difference exists between Recollection and Recognition.

"If this theory be true, will it account for the failure of so many attempts at poetical composition? Will it not rather increase the wonder, when the means appear to be so simple?" — Simple they may be: but they are the simplicity of nature; a simplicity, which no art can reach, nor acquirements produce!

Hence we see the semblance of all the materials of poetry; imagery, sentiment, language, versification where the secret charm is wanting; the power which gives animation and soul: as if a painter were to throw into a picture all the ingredients of a beautiful landscape; rocks, trees, streams, light, and shade, and yet not group them properly, or throw the tints in an happy proportion on their most attractive features

Scholarship is apt to mislead the ambition of many in these endeavours. Their ingenuity and labour produce something which gets the praise of technical critics; and capricious fashion sometimes lifts them into the current of popular favour for a little while: when too heavy to be long supported by it, they fall to rise no more.

There are authors, who, richly stored with this artificial faculty, have occasionally risen to a fainter degree of the true spirit. Such appears to have been the case of that voluminous versifier, Michael Drayton.

Such perhaps may, in a few instances, have been the case of BARTHOLOMEW YONG, if it be ever proper to admit a mere translator into these claims.

The human mind has a natural tendency to deal in visions of imaginary grandeur, or imaginary purity and virtue. The form and shape of these day-dreams bear in every country some reference to their ancient manners, and ancient superstitions. Those therefore of every European country are tinctured with feudal heroism, and chivalrous gallantry. It is vain to hope that fictions, which are not built upon these early impressions, will gain a lasting interest over the popular taste of any country. On the contrary, how strikingly has this truth been exemplified by the fame and universal reception of Walter Scott's writings! The superior interest to Madoc and the Curse of Kehama, which on this account they have excited, seems to be justly explained by the writer of the article in the Edinburgh Review, already mentioned.

A Pastoral Romance, founded on manners, which perhaps bear no even distant approximation to any natural manners which ever existed, is perhaps of more capricious and transient popularity. The Arcadia of Sydney therefore has long ceased to be read; And YONG'S Diana of Montemayor may never have been in much favour in England. But there are some of the constituents of these Romances, which are among the favourites of our general nature. Ideas of rural beauty, rural love, and rural content and quiet, are so implanted in our bosoms, that the poetry of every age and country has always seized them to captivate its hearers. It must hare been prolixity, affectation, and the intermixture of a peculiar set of manners and customs, and peculiar phraseology, which gradually overcame their power to amuse, and carried them into oblivion.

An investigator, however, into Elizabethan literature may find some pleasure and some instruction in this work of Yong. The verses in which it abounds seem never to have found their way into any modern collection.

Aug. 16, 1814.


[pp. 515-520]