1820
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Poetical Decameron.

The Poetical Decameron, or Ten Conversations on English Poetry, particularly of the Reigns of Elizabeth and James I. By J. Payne Collier, of the Middle Temple. 2 Vols.

John Payne Collier


John Payne Collier brings Dryden's Essay on Dramatic Poesy up to date in a series of dialogues weighing the artistic and historical merits of Elizabethan poetry — the Elizabethans, of course, are now cast as the Ancients. The introduction evokes something of the social dimension of book collecting in the early decades of the nineteenth century, when it had truly become the sport of gentlemen.

Spenser is mentioned several times in the dialogues, though as the proem makes clear, Collier's interest is in the literary and historical status of minor poetry. On this subject his knowledge was already phenomenal, the more considering how difficult it was to get access to the many rare items not yet in public collections. While he is remembered today as a Shakespeare scholar (and forger of Shakespearean documents) Collier edited the works of Spenser in an edition still useful for its commentary on the early criticisms and imitations of Spenser. He had begun an ambitious Spenserian allegory in 1810, part of which he published with the proceeds from the Poetical Decameron.

Literary Gazette: "Mr. Collier, whose debut upon the lettered stage is, we believe, made on the present occasion, has pitched upon a period of research and elucidation, which has unrivalled charms for the lovers of English literature. In this he has evinced not only a sound judgment but a highly laudable ambition; and it gives us pleasure to add, that considerable stores of bibliographical information are the result of his inquiries. Having read much on the subject to which he has devoted his pen, Mr. C. has thrown the results into the form of dialogue, in which the interlocutors, Elliot, and Morton, maintain the conversation in a pleasant manner. Of course the Decameron is divided into ten sittings. In these, the author's object, while canvassing the productions of our early writers, seems to have been to shun as much as possible the common places of poetry, and to adduce at least as much novelty as his purpose could bear. Nor is it to be supposed that preceding labourers in the same rich field have left him gleanings only: so far from it, we look to see rich harvests gathered in for many seasons yet to come, even after that of Mr. Collier's reaping. It is true, however, that the course which he has adopted, has led him more into the examination of rarities, than into the developement of unknown beauties. He is more of the antiquarian than of the poetical critic" (13 May 1820) 307.

Gentleman's Magazine: "The Author states, that his great object was to treat an antiquarian subject in a popular way; but we cannot help thinking that in his desire not 'to avail himself of other men's labours,' he has wandered a little too much out of the beaten track, and that he might, without offence to the learned, have touched a little more freely upon the more notorious poets of the illustrious period to which he has chiefly limited his inquiries" 90 (July 1820) 55.

Monthly Review: "To the literary antiquary, and especially to the poetical bibliographer, these volumes are intended to furnish an elegant intellectual repast: but, though the author displays a very ample knowledge of his subject, we fear that his work will be considered as heavy and useless by the learned in his way, while it will have few charms for the general reader. It is manifest that a book in which the names of Breton and Brathwayte, and Constable and Churchyard, bear prominent parts, and which tells us much of Fitzgeffrey and Fleming, and Gascoyne and Goddard, 'And all such reading as was never read,' speaks only to the initiated; and that the mere 'mysta' is not qualified to became an 'Epota' of the bibliographical Eleusis. He must go through some preliminary purifications; which (we conclude) are to be found among the rules of the Roxburghe club" NS 94 (January 1821) 90-91.

W. Davenport Adams: "John Payne Collier, bibliographer and commentator (b. 1789), has published among other works The Poetical Decameron (1820); The Poet's Pilgrimage, an allegorical Poem (1822); an edition of Dodsley's Old Plays (1825); a History of Dramatic Poetry (1831); New Facts regarding the Life of Shakespeare (1835); editions of Shakespeare's Works (1842 and 1853); Memoirs of Actors in the Plays of Shakespeare (1846); an edition of the Works of Spenser (1862); and a Bibliographical Account of Rare Books (1865). Mr. Collier is well-known for his reproductions of some of our curious old classic works, begun in 1866" Dictionary of English Literature (1878) 143.

Frederic Ives Carpenter: "Various interesting comments" Reference Guide to Edmund Spenser (1923) 257.

Dewey Ganzel: "Constable published books as well as periodicals, and Payne, with his Critical Review essays in mind, proposed a book on the subject of poetry and drama of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. Constable was initially unenthusiastic. He doubted that such a work would be 'suited to a widely extended class of readers.' But Collier, promising to treat his antiquarian subject in a 'popular way,' persuaded Constable, and The Poetical Decameron, or Ten Conversations on English Poets and Poetry was published in two volumes in 1820. The book was only a modest success.... It recouped its costs and Collier was paid 200, but it was not widely noticed — it was ignored by the Edinburgh Review itself! When Payne sent a copy to Charles Lamb, the letter of thanks suggested only guarded praise: 'I have not such a gentleman's-book in my collection,' Lamb wrote. '. . . I take less pleasure in books than heretofore, but I like books about books.' The comment describes a fault. It was a 'gentleman's book,' not a scholar's, a 'book about books' for a dilettante audience" Fortune and Men's Eyes (1982) 26, 28.




The manner in which these conversations originated was the following:

Bourne, Elliot, and Morton were very intimate friends; they had been "fellow collegers," and since the marriage of Bourne they had been in the habit of meeting frequently: within the last year or two, however, Elliot had been much abroad, and Morton chiefly with his relations in the neighbourhood of Dorchester; yet when in London, the latter had not failed often to participate in Bourne's pursuits, directed to obtain a knowledge of the lives and productions of the earlier writers of our country. Of course, regarding such men as Spenser, Shakespeare, and Jonson, every body knows a little, and any body may know a great deal; but Bourne thought that there must be something about their friends, acquaintances, and literary contemporaries, worth learning, and he thought rightly. Morton could only enter into the subject at intervals, but such lights as he could procure from our bibliographical miscellanies and other ordinary sources, he did not omit to avail himself of in the country; giving them their chief use and application when in company with his friend, who only went before him in knowledge, not in ardour.

From these inquiries the absence of Elliot from England had excluded him, but before he went abroad he was tolerably well versed in the more popular writers of the period to which we have referred: of course all gentlemen now-a-days would justly consider it a scandal not to have Shakespeare at their fingers' ends, but Elliot, though a man of the world, had read Spenser through, and of Ben Jonson, Massinger, and our re-published dramatists, he knew more than many. The difference, therefore, between him and Bourne was exactly this: he was acquainted with what every other person may acquire without difficulty, and Bourne by his perseverance had gained a knowledge of not a few facts of importance and books of value, that had escaped the researches of some of the most indefatigable antiquaries. Yet it could not be said that the latter was more than very slightly infected with what has been termed the black-letter mania, for he always endeavoured to form an estimate of a literary curiosity, independent of the extrinsic circumstances of its price and rarity: indeed, of the two, who had devoted time to these inquiries, Morton was much the most likely, from his sanguine disposition, to be afflicted with this harmless species of insanity.

Our modern poets found an admirer in Elliot, and undoubtedly since the era of the writers which Bourne had particularly studied, there never had been a time when the laurel has flourished in this kingdom with greater beauty or vigour. Of late years it has made many new and hardy shoots, and every day fresh burgeons are forcing themselves through the rind, giving fair promise of successful progress.

About a fortnight after the return of Elliot from Germany, and during one of Morton's longest visits to London, the three friends had appointed a place of rendezvous, for it was agreed that they should spend ten days or a fortnight together at Bourne's house at Mortlake: they took a boat at Wesminster-bridge and embarked for their destination, on one of the serenest evenings of August. The sky was perfectly clear, and the majestic river, swollen to the edge of its banks by what is termed a spring tide, was almost its exact counterpart: both were equally bright and transparent. . . .


[1:xii]